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How ‘Everest’ and ‘The Walk’ Early Imax Runs Could Shake Up the Movie Business

Even good movies can fail.

From video games to HBO shows, there’s so much competition for people’s attention these days that glowing reviews and a compelling story aren’t enough to guarantee a movie will do well. That’s even harder when fall movie season kicks off and a slew of awards contenders all crowd into movie theaters hoping to woo adult audiences while competing for Oscar gold.

But instead of living and dying on a film’s opening weekend, two challenging films, “The Walk” and “Everest,” are building word-of-mouth by launching on limited Imax and premium format runs. This weekend, the first of these high profile bets paid off, after “Everest” debuted to a strong $7.6 million across 545 locations, earning an A CinemaScore in the process.

“At this moment it’s pretty much an unqualified success,” said Nick Carpou, domestic distribution chief at Universal, the studio behind the film.

The real test will be next Friday, when “Everest” opens wide amid tough competition from “Hotel Transylvania 2” and “The Intern,” as well as holdovers like “Black Mass” and “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.” Carpou said the studio had hoped to generate enthusiasm for the true story of a mountain expedition that ends in tragedy by taking advantage of Imax’s ability to capture the on-screen spectacle.

“For those of us who are fans of larger formats, it’s extraordinarily immersive and it just heightens the experience and draws people in,” said Carpou.

It also helps differentiate a film that arrives without a major star, a superhero or a pre-existing franchise. The strategy it employed will be mimicked by “The Walk,” the story of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers. That film will have a similar Imax and premium format run on Sept. 30 before debuting in most major theaters.

It’s surprising that this strategy hasn’t been more widely embraced. In 2011, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” helped break out from the crowded Christmas marketplace by debuting in Imax theaters for a limited run, earning $13.6 million in the process. However, it’s an approach that carries risks. After all, the film has to rely on quality, not just hype, to succeed. That’s problematic in an age where social media allows audiences to share their reactions in real time, hobbling marginal films like “Fantastic Four” and lifting up good ones like “Jurassic World” with the power of 140 characters.

Despite those hazards, analysts don’t expect that it will take another four years until another film follows in “Everest’s” footsteps.

“When you look at the overall box office, you’re seeing attendance going down year after year, but the one bright spot is these premium theaters and the willingness of people to pay more to maximize their experience,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “This is a trend that’s in its infancy, but I expect more of this.”

Imax would certainly like to see the pattern continue. “Everest” represents its best-ever domestic opening for September. The company accounted for $6 million of the film’s run, with $1.7 million of the gross coming from 177 premium large format screens.

It also helps expand a brand that’s most commonly associated with big summer tentpole releases such as “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Jurassic World” beyond traditional fanboy fare. That’s something Imax has been trying to do, particularly in the winter and fall, when the types of movies being offered move away from the genres that built its reputation. In some cases, the answer may rest with alternative content. Last January, for instance, the company screened two episodes of “Game of Thrones” and it has promised similar experiments going forward.

“We are committed to offering 52 weeks of compelling content and this is a step in that process,” said Greg Foster, Imax Entertainment CEO. “We’ve spent an enormous amount of time working to become extremely nimble in our programming strategy.”

Being nimble is important when balancing between skyscrapers or summiting a mountain, and it’s become critical in a movie business where it’s harder and harder to stand out from the pack.

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