Growing theater network powers strong numbers

Largescreen maker Imax posted its second highest quarter ever as global expansion, a deal with Kodak and what it hopes will be a precedent-setting pact with the new “Mission: Impossible” pic position it for growth.

The Toronto-based company reported its numbers from China, where the board is on a two-week “educational” tour and Imax is opening an average of three new theaters a week, CEO Richard Gelfond told Variety in an interview from Shanghai on Thursday.

Profit rose to $8.4 million from $6.7 million for the September quarter. Revenue jumped 32% to $67.5 million.

Imax shares jumped nearly 12%, among the market’s top performers, closing at $19.49.

Gelfond predicts 100 Imax screens in mainland China next year, up from 58 this year and 14 two years ago.

Imax’s total film revenue rose to $26.6 million from $21.0 million. Gelfond said that was the biggest box office since the first quarter of 2010 (which included “Avatar”), driven by “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and the last “Harry Potter” installment.

The coming lineup includes “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol: The Imax Experience,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” which is currently lensing with Imax cameras.

Imax is releasing “Ghost Protocol” on Dec. 16, five days before broad theatrical release, in 300 theaters across North America and some overseas territories. Pic features 30 minutes of sequences shot with Imax cameras, including Tom Cruise’s character scaling the world’s tallest building in Dubai. If it works, Gelfond hopes other studios and filmmakers will look to “eventize” their pics with Imax as a partner.

A landmark deal with Kodak to license laser projection tech and an array of other patents will provide at least $200 million in incremental revenue over the next few years, he said, focusing first on existing theaters that have screens over 80 feet tall or domed screens.

He said he doesn’t envision the Imax brand entering the digital single-projector market, which it could do now thanks to the deal with Kodak. But he said a third party “could license it from us to enter the single-projector market, which would be a royalty opportunity.”

Also in the quarter, the company installed 14 new theaters under joint revenue-sharing arrangements from 18 in the year-ago period. As of Sept. 30, there were 218 Imax theaters operating under joint revenue-sharing arrangements from 144 the year before.

Imax expects to have 490-500 commercial multiplex theaters in operation by year-end, implying commercial network growth of more than 30% in 2011. It said it has a record backlog of orders for 295 theater systems at the end of the quarter. Some 80% of the backlog is international. Aside from China, Imax is also focused on Brazil, India and Russia. Its international theaters generate twice the box office of domestic theaters.

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