Hollywood pix put jumbo format in the black and on the block

The way we all grew up on Imax, we’d go to the New York Natural History Museum and see ‘Beavers,’ and it was great,” says Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks’ producing partner on both “The Polar Express” and the upcoming Imax 3-D toon “The Ant Bully.” “Now this computer-generated animation in the Imax (3-D) format is just killer. It’s totally immersive.”

Immersive — that’s a word you’ll hear a lot when you talk to Imax converts. From the beginning, the format was designed to “transport audiences to places they’ve always dreamed of going,” says Imax president Greg Foster, “whether it’s the bottom of the ocean or behind the wheel of a NASCAR racer.”

But in recent years, Imax has been taking auds somewhere the company’s founders never imagined — Hollywood — and investors are taking note.

The format’s big success story, a 3-D run for “The Polar Express,” brought in box office of more than $60 million over two seasons. The exhibitors are hot for more Hollywood product, ordering up a record 34 Imax installs in 2005.

With annual revenue up 6.5% for 2005 to $144.9 million, and earnings up 63% to $16.6 million, Imax announced last week that its board is considering unsolicited offers that could result in a sale or merger, a move that could give Imax more muscle to expand its 266-screen network and produce original features, depending on the partner.

This isn’t the first time Imax has put itself on the block. In 2000, Sony courted the possibility, but a deal never materialized.

But Imax seems to have more draw in Hollywood these days. Warner Bros. has been the format’s most enthusiastic supporter, distributing seven of Imax’s nine releases in 2006.

“We’ve grossed $170 million with Imax since we’ve gone into business with them,” says Dan Fellman, Warner distribution prexy. “We’ve done tests, and we feel that Imax does not cannibalize your conventional box office; it adds to it.”

“It seems like the secret to success is 3-D,” says Fox distribution prexy Bruce Snyder. Fox’s “Robots” opened in 2-D four months after “Polar” and grossed a softer $9.7 million on Imax worldwide.

Like most of the technological advances in Imax’s past, 3-D was introduced for the benefit of museums and science centers (which account for 115 of the company’s 266 screens) and unveiled at a technology expo in 1990.

“This wasn’t a spear coming out from the middle of the screen,” says Imax co-CEO Brad Wechsler, who bought the company with co-chair Rich Gelfond in 1994. “It was broader, more realistic, more immersive.”

There’s that word again — immersive.

For starters, the screens are enormous, towering as high as eight stories. And given the added resolution of Imax’s 15/70 format — that’s 70 mm film turned on its side, so a single frame carries 10 times the visual information of its 35 mm counterpart — the auditorium seats can be positioned close enough to the screen that the picture completely fills viewers’ peripheral vision.

With the MPX system, exhibs can retrofit a megaplex auditorium at a cost of approximately $1.6 million. Digital 3-D projectors may be cheaper, but they currently can’t compete with either the content or the big-screen experience of Imax (see sidebar, page 1).

National Amusements prexy Shari Redstone wants to transform her theaters into “entertainment destinations” by hosting broadcasts of sports, live music and comedy shows. “Three-D is a big draw,” she says. “We see Imax as part of that long-term strategy to bring people back to moviegoing.”

The only drawback? “There’s not enough product right now for the Imax,” she explains.

Steve Tarbet, president of Larry Miller Theaters in Salt Lake City, agrees. He’d like to see Imax offer even more Hollywood fare, but adds that Imax’s inventory is a vast improvement over the meager offerings available in the competing 8/70 large format.

“We will have played ‘Harry Potter’ for 16 weeks, and we could probably keep it on for another six weeks and still do well with it,” says Cal Gunderson, who manages the Larry Miller-owned megaplex.

As studios commit to delivering major releases in the Imax format, exhibitors who were once limited to underwater and outer-space docus can offer a disaster movie about a capsized ocean liner (“Poseidon”) and the story of a boy from the planet Krypton (“Superman Returns”).

Initially, some Imax-equipped venues unspooled 35 mm prints of “Jurassic Park” and other pics for auds eager to see them on the largest screen possible.

Wechsler remembers the first time he saw a Hollywood film projected in Imax. “Somebody told me that ‘Gladiator’ was playing at the Sony Imax theater, and I said, ‘That’s impossible,’ so I went and saw the 35 mm version in the Imax theater. The image was dark and a little fuzzy, but the audience was really enjoying it.”

Not only was the 35 mm print unsuited for Imax’s oversized, contoured silver screens, but by booking non-Imax fare, the exhibitors were cutting the company out of the earnings equation.

Wechsler thought, “We’d better accelerate our ability to show a film like ‘Gladiator’ in genuine Imax, because there’s going to be brand confusion.”

To remedy the situation, Imax introduced a proprietary digital remastering process (DMR) to optimize 35 mm Hollywood product for its screens. The first DMR title, “Apollo 13,” opened in 2002. “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” followed six weeks later. To offset the conversion costs (roughly $1.5 million-$2 million per pic), Imax struck revenue-sharing deals with the studios (typically between 10% and 15%). Disney, Sony, Universal, Fox and Warners all have tried DMR releases.

“I think Warner Bros. is the best contender to possibly acquire Imax,” says Eric Wold, an analyst with Equity Research. “Over the next couple years, that revenue share is going to start becoming a pretty substantial amount of money. One, you can lock in the format so only your movies get placed in Imax; two, you can save that dollar that’s going out the door. “

Under the current partnership, Imax benefits not only from the Warner-supplied content, but also by mentions in the studio’s ad campaigns. Fellman says a day-and-date Imax release helps “eventize” blockbusters for WB. “We have a program here of developing tentpole films,” he adds, “and this is just one more way of adding to the frenzy that we’re trying to create.”

In terms of possible mergers and acquisitions, interest in Imax isn’t limited to studios. The company could attract tech or exhibition companies. Imax is currently developing a system that converts 2-D films for 3-D projection similar to the model George Lucas is using on the “Star Wars” series, and the company’s DMR process could have applications beyond Imax exhibition.

In any event, Imax is poised to have a record year, analysts say. In its three-decade history, the company has gone from nature documentaries to sitting in on pre-production talks on the “Batman Begins” sequel. If anybody’s immersed these days, it’s Imax.

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