'Avengers' momentum leads to compromise on Imax screens

Summer box office always tests the ties between studios and exhibitors, when the year’s biggest pics jockey for screens. But there’s nothing ordinary about this past weekend’s $207 million opening for “The Avengers” — and the challenges it poses for Warner Bros.’ on-deck hitter “Dark Shadows.”

The latest Tim Burton-Johnny Depp collaboration was supposed to bounce “Avengers” from 200 of the nation’s 275 digital Imax locations this weekend. But after a record-shattering bow for “Avengers,” exhibs kick-started a new plan that keeps the Disney-Marvel juggernaut rolling while broadening the Imax footprint for Warner Bros.’ “Dark Shadows.”

Under a pre-existing pact between Imax and Warners, “Avengers” was slated to shrink to 75 digital Imax screens — keeping many top-grossing locations — while “Shadows” would move into 200 digital venues and 25 print-only locations (“Avengers,” a digital-only release, can’t play at those). The sharing agreement puts “Avengers” and “Shadows” in all 275 digital Imax locations together, dividing showtimes evenly, while “Shadows” keeps the print venues to itself.

By giving up theater-by-theater exclusivity, Warners gains those additional 75 Imax locations for “Shadows,” while Disney keeps “Avengers” on all 275 jumbo digital screens where last weekend it grossed an Imax record $15.3 million.

And though Marvel-Disney’s box office invasion will surely take a bite out of “Shadows” — opening at 3,700 locations — it won’t be from lack of theater capacity.

“We think we have plenty of screens to devote to both films to make them successful,” insisted Regal CEO Amy Miles.

But what about placement?

Though exhibs may feel tempted to shift “Dark Shadows” to smaller auditoriums, they’re not about to jeopardize relationships with studios by openly playing favorites.

Theater owners are more likely to divide their screens evenly between the pics, and digital gives exhibitors more flexibility to instantly add screens if showings of either sell out.

Exhibs can even shuffle showtimes, though studio execs aren’t always keen on that.

“It’s the constant dance that theater owners have to do all summer long,” said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Assn. of Theater Owners. “Nobody wants to turn away customers.”

Screen capacity likely won’t be an issue for larger multiplexes with more than one 300-plus seat theater; others may have to choose between the pics in how to allocate their largest auditoriums.

Tracking for “Dark Shadows” has been on the soft side, though that was before “Avengers” opened. Now that the dust has settled, bizzers are hinting at a decent debut for “Shadows” — high $30 million to low $40 millions for the eighth Burton/Depp team-up — though nowhere near the last Burton-Depp pic, 2010′s “Alice in Wonderland,” which opened to $116 million.

“Avengers,” meanwhile, could approach the largest second-week domestic take if it only drops 60%, which would put it in the $80 million range. Previous record belongs to “Avatar,” which grossed $75,617,133 in its soph sesh (“The Dark Knight” was a close second at $75,166,466).

Whammo “Avengers” returns also helped boost theater chains’ stock prices on Monday, when several reported quarterly earnings: Imax shares rose 3.3% Monday to close at $27.70 in an otherwise glum market, while shares of exhib Carmike surged 4.33% to $14.70 and Cinemark jumped 2.56% to $23.68. Share prices at Regal, the nation’s largest chain, were up 1.42% to $14.24.

“The only way we could have done better would have been to have more seats,” said Imax CEO Rich Gelfond.

Regal said it earned an “unprecedented” $42 million in gross admissions revenue from “Avengers,” and chief operating officer Gregg Dunn called the weekend “a tremendous start to an impressive slate of summer movies.”

(Jill Goldsmith contributed to this report.)

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