Large-screen focus

Expo: Imax future tied to mainstream product

AMSTERDAM — The recent bow of Hollywood tentpole “The Matrix Reloaded” in Imax venues offers fresh evidence that the future of large-screen exhibition is tied to mainstream product, an Imax exec said Monday.

“Reloaded” was well into its worldwide bow when Warner Bros. unspooled the action sequel in several dozen Imax theaters in the U.S. and abroad, bolstering its playability dramatically, Imax senior VP Larry O’Reilly said.

Speaking at a Cinema Expo 2003 sesh on large-format exhibition, O’Reilly said that over its first weekend in the Imax format, the large-screen version of “Reloaded” rang up per-screen grosses eight times those of conventional screens. The large-screen “Reloaded” slipped a modest 12% in total grosses over its second weekend and then actually climbed a bit when more Imax venues were added for a third sesh earlier this month.

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Operators of neighboring multiplexes playing “Reloaded” on conventional screens have been watching for signs that such large-screen success is cannibalizing their grosses. But Warners execs say there’s been little evidence of that, and O’Reilly noted one survey showed a whopping 84% of Imax-version “Reloaded” patrons had previously attended a showing of the pic in a conventional venue.

Conversion process

Imax recently introduced a new process for converting conventional movies into Imax format, with re-releases of “Star Wars: Episode II –Attack of the Clones” and “Apollo 13” preceding “Reloaded” into large-screen venues. Imax also recently introduced a cheaper, only slightly smaller version of its theater systems designed to ease the conversion of multiplex auditoriums to its format.

The moves are in line with Imax’s recent shifting of attention from a historical base in museum and institutional venues to commercial multiplexes. That has resulted in a push for more mainstream product than the traditional 45-minute nature and space pics that Imax has offered in the past.

Joining O’Reilly in the trade show’s large-format sesh were exhibs from Moscow and Eastern Europe, who said Hollywood product will help their new Imax venues succeed.

Event pix help

“Getting Hollywood event movies was the best news an Imax operator anywhere could hear,” IT Intl. chief Mooky Greidinger enthused.

Well, not quite. Education-minded operators of institutional Imax theaters complain that the Hollywood product does them little good. And even commercial large-screen operators acknowledge it can be challenging to switch showtime rhythms from shorter running times when a pic like “Reloaded” comes along.

But Imax’s O’Reilly said the real appeal of an Imax-version blockbuster will come Nov. 5, when Warners bows second “Matrix” sequel “The Matrix Revolutions” in many large-screen venues simultaneously with other theaters.

“The holy grail now is day-and-date releasing,” he said.

It also appears to be a big attraction for Warner Bros. Intl. Theaters prexy Millard Ochs. WBIT has no Imax venues currently, but the availability of mainstream product has Ochs in talks for installing large-screen venues in two markets.

Coming markets

One of those markets is China. And it’s no coincidence the fledgling exhibition territory is among those most challenged by video piracy, he said.

“How can you pirate the Imax experience?” Ochs asked rhetorically.

In addition to providing a unique theatrical experience, large-screen versions of Hollywood films allow a deeper appreciation of films like “Reloaded,” he added.

“It can deliver the image so well (that) there are things in that film you did not see in the original 35mm film,” Ochs said.

Cinema Expo 2003 continues through Thursday at the RAI convention center here.