In an era of fast-multiplying home-entertainment options such as streaming video and video games, Imax continually strives to provide unique experiences that will draw people out of their dwellings, from giant screens to location-based virtual reality. So it’s apropos that the American Cinematheque is honoring the company with its Sid Grauman Award, named after the showman, who in 1927 came up with the idea of having celebrities put their hand and footprints in cement in the forecourt of his newly opened Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It’s an attraction that lures tourists from around the world to this day.
“It wasn’t just a place to see a movie, it was a destination, an event,” says Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment and senior exec VP of Imax Corp., of the Chinese Theatre. “And not only for people who were seeing a movie, but often for people who just wanted to feel and touch the magic of the movie industry. That’s why Imax getting this award is such an honor, because what Sid Grauman represents is everything we strive to be.”
For most of Imax’s 50-year existence, its large-format movies, shot with 15-perforation 65mm stock on its Academy Award-winning camera system, primarily explored the wonders of nature and were shown at science centers and aquariums. But after Foster left his post as exec VP of production at MGM/UA to join the company in 2001, Imax shifted its focus to partnering with filmmakers and studios on giant screen presentations of tentpole films at multiplexes, including the “Matrix” sequels and the “Harry Potter” franchise.
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The company has collaborated on numerous films with director Christopher Nolan, from 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” which featured 28 minutes of Imax footage, to 2017’s “Dunkirk,” approximately 75% of which was shot in Imax. But perhaps the most significant Imax presentation has been its giant screen 3D showings of James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster “Avatar,” which grossed $243 million worldwide.
“In China at the time, we had only had 15 screens, but it did $24 million,” says Imax Corp. CEO Richard Gelfond of “Avatar.” “There were six-hour waits, tickets were being scalped for $100. The combination of that movie and Imax proved to be a major catalyst for cinema growth in China.”
Today, Imax has approximately 1,300 screens in 75 countries, including 400 in China, and 600 more scheduled to open around the globe in the next few years. The company also manufactures 3D and digital cameras and laser projection systems, and this year it opened a quartet of pilot Imax VR Centers in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Shanghai, where customers can try out immersive gaming experiences.
According to Foster, Imax could branch out further, producing branded sound systems or otherwise applying its giant screen expertise to the home entertainment experience, but its focus will remain on theatrical exhibition.
“We do movies where movies go first, because the filmmakers we work with aren’t closing their eyes and dreaming of how that movie’s going to look on an iPhone,” he says.