For five decades, Imax has given audiences an unmatched cinematic spectacle, with ultra-pristine, high-definition images projected on screens nearly six stories high. The experiences have wowed and inspired viewers, many of whom have become passionate proponents of Imax’s patented technologies.
Imax has thousand fans in the industry, including big-name directors such as Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”), J.J. Abrams (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) and James Cameron (“Avatar”). But the company can count its fans in the millions when you consider all the passionate moviegoers who flock to its spectacular venues.
That’s the wow factor.
“When people see a movie on Imax, it’s something they talk about,” says Jon Landau, producer of “Avatar” and Fox’s upcoming “Alita: Battle Angel.” “It has an impact on word-of-mouth.”
It certainly had an effect on Imax’s chief quality guru David Keighley, who still remembers the date of his first Imax experience, May 21, 1971, when he saw “North of Superior,” the second Imax film, at Ontario Place in Toronto.
“I turned to my wife, Patricia, and said, ‘I have to figure out how to get involved,’” says Keighley, who subsequently landed a job as an assistant director on the third Imax film, 1973’s “Catch the Sun,” and has worked with the company ever since.
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Imax was launched in 1967 as Multiscreen by a trio of Canadian documentary filmmakers — Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroitor and Robert Kerr — who enlisted engineer Bill Shaw to help them create a large-format film system. It used a single powerful projector, instead of the multiple projectors used by older systems such as Cinerama. Their solution was to turn 65mm film stock on its side, giving it an image area 15 perforations wide, 10 times larger than the 35mm film frame used by the vast majority of studio releases.
Today, Imax has 1,302 screens in 75 countries that bring in a billion dollars at the box office in a typical year. That’s a far cry from the 65 screens it had in 1994, when Imax CEO Richard Gelfond and his investment partner and Imax chairman Brad Wechsler bought the company.
Gelfond and Wechsler wanted the doc-focused brand to branch out into mainstream films, but they faced a chicken-and-egg problem: the company didn’t have enough theaters to make made-for-Imax Hollywood features financially viable, and there weren’t enough Imax movies to give exhibitors incentive to build theaters.
“We had to figure out a way to get into Hollywood’s business rather than a way for Hollywood to get into ours,” says Gelfond. “We had to become plug-and-play.”
First, Imax found a way to bring down the cost of its projection/sound systems from $2 million to $1.2 million, and then it figured out how to retrofit existing multiplexes instead of building Imax auditoriums.
But the real key was finding a way to up-convert 35mm films to the format.
“We did all kinds of experiments,” recalls Gelfond. “When we blew it up, it looked like it had boiling oil all over it, because when you blow up the image, you blow up the grain.”
Eventually, the Imax up-conversion process, dubbed DMR, was deemed ready for market, but the company still needed to sell it to creatives and studio heads. So, in 2001, the company hired industry vet Greg Foster as CEO of Imax Entertainment. The new exec found himself facing a major rebranding challenge.
“When I joined Imax, we were primarily in museums, science centers and aquariums, and we made movies about whales, bears, seals and space,” says Foster, who previously served as exec VP of production at MGM/UA.
“When people see a movie on Imax, it’s something they talk about. It has an impact.”
One of the first things Foster did was hash out a strategy with Richard Lovett, president of CAA, Imax’s longtime agency. “The idea was to focus on filmmakers, knowing that if a filmmaker had a great experience in expressing their vision by using the tools that Imax provides that other filmmakers would love that, too,” says Lovett.
In 2002, Imax persuaded director Ron Howard and Universal to up-convert their 1995 space drama “Apollo 13” for Imax screens. While the large-format re-release was not big hit at the box office, it did serve as an important proof of concept for the up-conversion process, which was subsequently used on the Warner Bros. “Matrix” sequels and the “Harry Potter” franchise.
But the development that really put the company on the map with both Hollywood and the general public came when director Christopher Nolan shot four major sequences for Warner Bros.’ 2008 hit “The Dark Knight” using Imax cameras.
The following year, Fox’s “Avatar” in 3D took in $243 million at Imax theaters worldwide, making it the top-grossing Imax release, a record that stands to this day.
Today, with the seemingly infinite in-home content options available via streaming and cable, Hollywood studios need Imax’s brand of spectacle more than ever.
“We are in the tentpole movie business,” says Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn. “Our releases are predominantly big-budget, often star-driven, visual effects-driven films that flourish and are best showcased in the kind of environment that Imax provides.”