A puzzling quiet blankets Imax’s sprawling Santa Monica complex on a recent October afternoon. Trailers for “Dracula Untold” and “Jupiter Ascending,” screaming, “See it in Imax!” play in a loop, but most of the company’s employees are absent. Stacks of film canisters for Christopher Nolan’s upcoming “Interstellar” line the hallway, outnumbering the executives and technicians on hand.
There’s a reason for this veritable ghost town. The Imax crew is overseeing a Universal CityWalk screening, for theater owners, of Nolan’s space adventure. In their absence, Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment, and the company’s ambassador to Hollywood, is jittery. He’s desperate to know how the pic played.
Imax didn’t finance “Interstellar.” It didn’t market it. It won’t distribute it. Yet, Foster takes a parental pride in the picture, shot partly with Imax cameras, and debuting nationwide Nov. 5.
“I feel an emotional connection,” he says. “There are certain movies every year that we’ve been a part of for a long time, and there are some filmmakers that you have a history with that we just put everything out there for.”
The launch of “Interstellar” is also eagerly anticipated by Imax because it allows the company to refocus the industry conversation after it became embroiled in a nasty standoff with the country’s four biggest exhibition chains — AMC, the largest Imax theater operator in the world; Regal; Carmike; and Cinemark. The root of the dispute was Imax’s partnership with Netflix and the Weinstein Co. on a sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The martial arts follow-up is slated to be released concurrently on Netflix and on Imax screens, but exhibitors are crying foul. They accuse Imax of endangering their business model by mashing together a theatrical release with a home entertainment debut. The decision of these exhibitors, along with Canada’s top circuit, Cineplex, and Europe’s second largest chain, Cineworld, to boycott the film has clearly rattled Imax.
“We thought we were doing something good for the industry,” says Imax Corp. CEO Richard Gelfond. “Netflix is an early disrupter in the field. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. They’re not going to pay attention to the windows. We thought we were making something available for our exhibition partners that otherwise wouldn’t be.” (Imax itself controls only three screens worldwide).
The company has tried to make amends with its exhibitor partners, but nothing will heal wounds like the successful launch of “Interstellar.”
Imax is spending millions on the release, hiring and training 143 projectionists for the movie, providing $30,000 film prints and taking projectors out of mothballs. The recent digital conversion of multiplexes means that film projection effectively has been jettisoned, but through force of will, Imax and Nolan, a film devotee, will make sure that prints of “Interstellar” are shown in roughly 50 of its theaters.
“When you see this movie in Imax on 70mm film, you’re looking at a format that is not reproducible in somebody’s living room,” Nolan says. “ ‘Interstellar’ deals with the biggest subject there is — the universe — and we wanted to use the biggest and highest-quality format around. If you want to experience the journey of ‘Interstellar,’ you’ve got to go to one of these theaters.”
Becoming the gold standard for filmmakers like Nolan caps a remarkable turnaround for a company that in 2001 was on the precipice of financial ruin, and threatened with being de-listed by the Toronto Stock Exchange. In those days, Foster used to travel from studio to production office, armed with a PowerPoint presentation detailing how Imax hoped to revolutionize the theatrical experience.
Today, Imax has a $1.9 billion market cap, more than 800 theaters around the world and annual revenue of nearly $300 million. It turns down approximately five movies for every one it shows. Unlike high-end sound systems or 3D projectors, its brand is instantly recognizable to average consumers, and its name carries with it the promise of blockbuster entertainment on a huge scale.
Imax’s success was fueled by Hollywood’s dependence on showy movies such as “The Avengers” and “Transformers,” which offer special effects and pyrotechnics that demand to be seen on the widest of screens. At a time when the business was threatened by the rise of digital diversions, Imax was a panacea.
“Our success is to some extent interdependent with what was happening in the home,” Gelfond says. “There were bigger screens. There was gaming happening, and mobile devices. If audiences were going to leave the couch, they wanted something really special.”
“Interstellar” perfectly fits the Imax playbook. Visually charged, the picture takes audiences on a journey that can be experienced only on the silver screen, and the bigger, the better. It’s easy to see why the exhibitor has invested so much in its rollout.
There’s also a business motivation behind Imax’s relationships with the Christopher Nolans of the world.
In return for the tender loving care that Imax applies to all of Nolan’s projects, the director has become the format’s most vociferous advocate. He’s also popularized the use of Imax cameras in commercial films, showing that they can capture the Gotham City of “The Dark Knight” or the dreamscapes of “Inception” as ably as they once chronicled volcanic eruptions or the Serengeti’s wildlife. More than an hour of “Interstellar” was filmed with Imax cameras.
Nolan has helped convince other top directors, such as J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay, to embrace the company, giving the megascreen format an injection of cool. Shooting in Imax gives their films a stamp of quality with the fanboys who can make or break a comicbook epic or space opera.
But there are drawbacks. The cameras, particularly those for film, are large and loud. They’re great for action sequences and epic battles, but problematic for intimate scenes. Nolan was able to shoot “Interstellar” in Imax only because the actors’ space helmets insulated their microphones.
“The benefits outweigh the headache of shooting on Imax cameras,” says Abrams, who used them for a single sequence in “Star Wars.” “The opportunity to have an action sequence for this movie done in Imax’s natural format was too delicious an idea to pass up. As a filmgoer, it’s something I want to see.”
The digital cameras are more lightweight, but are also working out some kinks, says Bay, who shot parts of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” in Imax. As for Abrams, the benefits outweighed the drawbacks.
“I make movies for movie theaters,” Bay says. “My movies are big-scale experiences, and that’s exactly what Imax presents.”
Steve Frankel, an analyst with Dougherty & Co., says that Imax’s relationship with such directors is part of the company’s “secret sauce,” adding, “It’s a key point of differentiation from any competition.”
The bulk of that competition comes from so-called premium large-format screens. Chains such as Regal and Cinemark have begun to invest heavily in these Imax alternatives, because using them means they don’t have to split their profits with Imax, which employs a revenue-sharing model.
Imax insists it’s not sweating the challengers, partly because the movies it shows undergo a patented conversion process that’s more exhaustive than the one deployed by the theater chains. Moreover, the Imax process closely involves the filmmakers and production teams.
“It’s a different consumer,” Gelfond says. “The consumer that goes to those theaters is maybe more focused on seats or concessions or time of showing. The Imax viewer tends to be more of a film aficionado.”
It’s not just the visual enhancements that have filmmakers demanding that their movies be shown in Imax. It’s also the company’s quality control. The Toronto-based all-seeing eye operates all day, every day, monitoring locations in 60 countries to make sure volume levels are set correctly, projector bulbs aren’t in danger of burning out and images remain pristine.
“I can’t tell you how much of a whackjob I am when it comes to screening my films,” says director James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”). “To have consistency and quality control is a great comfort, because people will have a better chance of seeing a movie the way it was meant to be seen.”
Filmmakers who have only screened their films in Imax, rather than shooting them with the proprietary cameras, still seem impressed. Gunn and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” directors Joe and Anthony Russo say they’re looking for ways to integrate Imax more fully into the upcoming sequels to the Marvel movies.
Imax may be nearly unrecognizable from the company it was 20 years ago — a giantscreen platform for nature documentaries more likely to be found in science centers than multiplexes. Yet its current DNA still contains traces of its origins. Most of the filmmakers who form the company’s band of loyalists credit their early experiences watching Imax films in museums.
Nolan was hooked at 15, seeing the aerial-history documentary “To Fly” at Chicago’s Omnimax Theater, and watching as audience members moved their heads in synch with the hot air balloons and space shuttles shooting across the screen. He vowed then and there to make a film using that equipment.
“Imax has been an excellent collaborator,” Nolan says. “They’ve allowed me to find ways to do something I’ve been dreaming about doing since I was a teenager.”