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‘Game of Thrones’ Imax Debut Shows Promise, But Needs Fine Tuning

Game of Thrones” catapulted from premium cable to the big screen this weekend, and though the fantasy series’ Imax debut didn’t set any box office records, it will likely be the first of many similar experiments.

Its $1.5 million gross is impressive given that the episodes that Imax screened had aired six months ago. The only major incentive “Game of Thrones” aficionados had to hit up the multiplexes besides the allure of a communal experience with ticket buyers able to rattle off the Seven Kingdoms at the drop of a hat was a preview of the show’s fifth season.

“It’s a very healthy result,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “I think you’re going to see shows like ‘House of Cards’ or other popular programs looking into this now. If you put a season premiere or series finale there, I think there’s a lot of potential, especially if there’s some exclusive element.”

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Contrino and other analysts think the numbers would have been bigger with fresher content. Audiences, for example, could turn out in force if Imax or movie theaters showed episodes from their favorite shows in conjunction with or in advance of their air date.

For its part, Imax is positioning this as a test case, while reserving the right to alter the formula going forward.

“This was a successful response for this first experiment and ‘Game of Thrones’ is a show that lends itself to the kind of canvas that Imax provides,” said Greg Foster, chairman and president of Imax Entertainment. “We will continue to experiment and comb over the data and figure out how to provide exhibitors with content 52 weeks out of the year.”

There are some valuable lessons to be gleaned by how the show performed in its premium showings. Big cities provided the bulk of the revenue, so going forward Imax will likely limit its screen count to roughly 150 locations as opposed to the more than 200 it debuted “Game of Thrones” on, with an emphasis on shedding some of the smaller towns and suburbs.

It also demonstrated that timing is important. Super Bowl weekend is traditionally sluggish for movie theaters, making them more willing to try to find fresh sources of revenue.

Of course, not every kind of program works. “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family” may be ratings juggernauts, but they don’t necessarily lend themselves to the kind of theatrical experience Imax provides.

“‘Game of Thrones’ is an epic show that just becomes incredibly grand on Imax,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “This was a gift to the true fans.”

What’s appealing for Imax is that unlike its plans to release a sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” simultaneously with its debut on Netflix, this experiment is unlikely to enrage theater owners. That announcement resulted in a boycott from top exhibitors and an ocean of bad blood, but the “Game of Thrones” debut doesn’t play around with release windows. Many theater owners are loath to show a film that doesn’t adhere to a three-month break between its theatrical and home entertainment debut.

There is one element that Imax didn’t count on — the unexpected success of “American Sniper.” The war film earned $31.8 million in its third weekend of release, setting a Super Bowl record. Showing “Game of Thrones” forced Imax to surrender venues it could have used to show “American Sniper.” Those screens that stuck with “American Sniper” averaged $8,805, more than the roughly $7,300 that each “Game of Thrones” location brought in on average.

It may have been worth it, however, because Imax is likely to find other cable networks and television players eager to partner on special events tied to their hottest programs.

“This is a lab and we’re continuing to fine tune and find the right way to release content,” said Foster.

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