Imax CEO Richard Gelfond on Big-Screen Challenges, Window Watching

Every February for the past several years, New York-based Imax CEO Richard Gelfond has come to Los Angeles for a month-long visit to work out of the company’s $45 million Playa Vista offices, next door to Google, YouTube, Facebook and Microsoft, in the heart of Silicon Beach.

“The Academy Awards are coming, lots of people are in town, so it’s a great time to get external meetings,” Gelfond says. Besides, he adds with a wink, “February is as good a month to leave New York and be in L.A. as any.”

Gelfond is sitting at his desk in his second-floor office, beneath a poster for this year’s big Oscar contender, “Dunkirk,” 75% of which was shot on Imax film cameras. But, at the moment, his mind is on the imminent opening of “Black Panther,” an hour of which was shot using the 1.43:1 Imax motion picture film format aspect ratio for showings on Imax’s bigger, taller screens. The previous week, the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, hosted a screening in one of the building’s two Imax theaters that attracted Beyonce and Jay Z, with rapper Snoop Dogg attending a private screening for members of the Los Angeles-area Boys & Girls Club the following weekend.

For Gelfond, these aren’t mere celebrity schmoozing opportunities, but a symbol of how far Imax has come since he and investment partner (and current Imax chairman) Brad Wechsler purchased the company nearly a quarter century ago.

What made you want to buy Imax back in 1994?

We thought it was the best movie experience on the planet and we thought it was underutilized in the niche it was in: museums and science centers and documentary films. We thought it had the potential to be a lot bigger than it was. And, with all due respect to the people running it at the time, they were filmmakers. They weren’t businessmen. We thought that with relationships, monetary resources and a more professional management team, we could really make a difference.

You say one of the reasons you come out to L.A. is to help the employees get a better understanding of the company culture, as well as the business.

I try to give them perspective. If it’s a bad couple weeks or couple of months, you tend to get down, and when it’s a good couple of weeks or couple of months, you think it’s going to be good forever. I’ve been here 23 years, and it’s not a straight line in either direction. One of my favorite sayings is, “It’s never as good as it looks, or as bad as it seems.” As you know, the film industry has been in a little bit of a funk, so I sort of try to say to them “get a grip.” We face tons of challenges, but I try to talk about the way we’ve gotten out of our challenges in the past, which is to focus and innovate.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the last five years?

There are two. The weaker box office right now. There’s less legs on movies; they’re not playing as long or as well. And the second thing is the box office has been flat in China after a lot of growth. So I’ve put together a [10-person] task force that I’m leading and I’m taking to China and we’re going to go to theaters and talk to local people and studios.

And what are the challenges you see going forward five years?

How to compete with the changing technology. What’s going to happen with the [release] windows, what’s going to be the balance between streaming and theatrical? Are blockbuster movies still going to be made for theatrical releases? The world is changing so rapidly. How do you keep innovating and stay ahead of the curve?

“We face tons of challenges, but I try to talk about the way we’ve gotten out of our challenges in the past, which is to focus and innovate.”
Richard Gelfond

Brain Trust: Imax’s executive suite

Richard Gelfond
CEO, Imax Corp.
New York-based Gelfond had a varied career as an attorney and investor before teaming with current Imax chairman Brad Wechsler to buy Imax in 1994. In the years since, he has transformed Imax from a niche exhibitor into a global powerhouse.

Greg Foster
CEO, Imax Entertainment
An industry vet who spent 15 years at MGM/UA before coming to Imax in 2001, Foster played a key role in establishing Imax as a Hollywood player. Based in Playa Vista, Calif., he overseas Imax’s global entertainment activities, including creative, production, distribution and marketing.

David Keighley
Chief quality guru, Imax Corp.
Keighley began his association with Imax in 1972, and today works closely with filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird to make sure their technical and creative needs are met. He works in Playa Vista, in an office next door to his wife, Patricia’soffice. She is an Imax senior VP. The building’s David Keighley Theatre is named after him.

Brian Bonnick
Chief technology officer, Imax Corp.
An 18-year Imax veteran, Bonnick has spearheaded efforts to develop the company’s DMR digital remastering technology and its MPX theater system, which made converting multiplexes to Imax easier and cheaper. Based in Toronto, he leads manufacturing and client support efforts for Imax production, projection and sound systems.

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