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Imax to Release Local-Language Trio for Chinese New Year (EXCLUSIVE)

"Monster Hunt"
Courtesy of Edko Films

Premium large format film company Imax is positioning itself for its biggest ever week at the box office in China. For the first time, it will simultaneously release three Chinese-language pictures this weekend in time for Chinese New Year.

Edko’s “Monster Hunt 2,” Bona Film Group’s “Operation Red Sea” and Wanda Film’s “Detective Chinatown 2” will play on the country’s 500 Imax screens. All three open on Feb. 16, and “Monster Hunt 2” plays at the Berlin Film Festival over the weekend as a special screening.

The multi-title opening is the result of a change of strategy in China, which is now the second-largest theatrical market in the world, and is likely soon to be Imax’s biggest market. It also reflects the evolution of the Chinese audiences, which have varying patterns of behavior and diverging tastes in different cities and regions.

That strategy means that Imax no longer gives automatic precedence to Hollywood titles in China, as strong local titles can do bigger business. And rather than dictating terms on a nationwide basis, the changed emphasis also provides flexibility to exhibitors to split runs and play different titles to different segments.

“We used to give Hollywood titles precedence and date releases around them. Now we see local films have the greater upside. Similarly, we used to try to pick one movie at a time and roll the dice,” an IMAX source told Variety. “What we are doing now shows that China is not anyone’s 51st state, and instead is truly its own market.”

The changed emphasis began last year and was announced by CEO Rich Gelfond. “Given the difficult nature of predicting box office for local language titles, we’re now DMRing [converting to the Imax format] multiple Chinese films during bigger weekends and holidays. So rather than sending our exhibitor partners one film during big weekends, we’ll often send them two or three and let them program our screens based on presales and overall traction and give them the flexibility to pivot based on box office results,” Gelfond said in October, speaking on an earnings call with financial analysts.

“During the recent October holiday, we chose to DMR two local language titles: ‘The Foreigner’ and ‘Never Say Die.’ We began by splitting the screens evenly; however, as buzz for ‘Never Say Die’ picked up, that became the stronger title, and thus we pivoted and programmed with more showings of that film,” he added.

The Canada-based company has a separate Hong Kong-listed Imax China subsidiary. It operates a mixture of screens that are client-owned and others that are revenue-sharing joint ventures. In the last financial year, when Chinese box office wobbled, Imax saw some films underperform. But Gelfond says China remains one of the company’s biggest growth prospects. In October 2017 it had a backlog of 350 screens still to be installed in the Middle Kingdom.