In the late ’90s, Imax saw a big opportunity in China. The country had a huge population vastly underserved by a movie exhibition infrastructure that had gone to seed during the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s and never fully recovered. At the time, Imax was still focused on documentaries, which, unlike Hollywood fare, were unlikely to inspire the ire of China’s censors.
“I spent first the first two years meeting with government officials to ask what was the best way to get into China, so instead of being outsiders coming into the country, we had positioned ourselves as something more organic,” says Imax CEO Richard Gelfond.
By the time China opened its doors to Western films, Imax was well-positioned to take advantage. The company opened its first theater in China at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum in December 2001. Today, it has 499 screens in the country, with deals in place for 350 more, operating under its Imax in China division, headquartered in Shanghai.
China is not the only foreign territory Imax has conquered. In fact, nearly two-thirds of its 1,300-plus screens are located outside North America — accounting for roughly the same percentage of Imax’s revenue — and hundreds more are scheduled to open for business in the coming years through a growing number of partnerships with local exhibitors.
In the case of China and, more recently, countries in Africa, Imax hasn’t just created premium moviegoing experiences, it’s brought modern cinemas to many areas for the first time.
“I once got a note from a senior government official, thanking Imax for helping make cinemagoing a mainstream experience in China,” says Gelfond.
Imax’s global expansion was helped along by director James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi epic “Avatar,” which was the company’s biggest international release up to that time, opening on 261 Imax screens worldwide, taking in $243 million.
“On a global basis it was an incredible success for us,” says Gelfond. “In China at the time, we had only had 15 screens, but it did $26 million.”
Imax international locations aren’t just showing Hollywood movies, they’re also helping filmmakers shoot local-language content with Imax cameras or converting their films to the format.
“What used to be a niche biz has turned into something else, which we’re proud of, but it also carries with it an incredible responsibility,” says Imax Entertainment CEO Greg Foster.