Even as its earnings sank, Imax Corporation got a lift from China, Japan and other Asian markets during the most recent financial quarter. Films like “The Eight Hundred,” the Chinese blockbuster that was shot with Imax cameras, offset the near-collapse of the domestic box office.
The company, which charges premium prices for audiences looking to see superhero movies and fantasy films unspool on the largest screens in the world, has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. The public health crisis has left studios skittish about releasing big-budget movies when audiences are hesitant to hit up cinemas — the situation was exacerbated after Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” opened last September to lackluster ticket sales.
Imax CEO Rich Gelfond spoke with Variety about how the company was weathering COVID-19 and why he’s confident that moviegoing will return in a big way once cases fall or a vaccine is developed.
Asian markets bolstered your earnings. Why was the situation so much different there?
Imax is maybe the only exhibition company that has a truly global platform, and that allows us to see what’s going on in the world and not just in North America. In Asia, people feel safe and are safe going to the movies. Consequently, they’re returning to the movies in big numbers. In China, our box office is the same level it was pre-COVID. In Japan, it’s better in certain instances. A lot of people are asking: Will people go back to the movies post-pandemic? Well, we’ve seen the answer in Asia and the answer is yes.
Why didn’t “Tenet” perform better? Were you disappointed in its box office results?
I don’t think so. When a movie does $350 million in a pandemic with so many markets closed, I don’t think that’s disappointing. It did well given the circumstances. It didn’t perform to the extent that I would have hoped, but I think it ultimately represented a real vote of confidence by Warner Bros. in the theatrical experience.
There weren’t enough theaters opened in the U.S. when “Tenet” opened. There wasn’t really enough of a chance for the public to get acclimated to the idea of returning to cinemas. Then a lot of studios opted to move their movies out of 2020 into next year or pushed them to PVOD or streaming. That robbed the box office of the kind of consistency of new releases it needed. Then there was the fact that New York and California were closed. New York is where a lot of media personalities and influencers live, and that meant that the film couldn’t get the kind of momentum and attention it needed.
Do you wish Warner Bros. had waited to release “Tenet” until theaters were open in New York City and Los Angeles?
I wish other studios hadn’t pulled their releases subsequent to “Tenet.” I think they misread the “Tenet” results as people’s opinion on the viability of the theatrical experience during coronavirus. Had other movies come out soon afterwards, I think the industry would have been able to build back some momentum.
Will Warner Bros. release “Wonder Woman 1984” at Christmas or will the studio move the film into next year?
I think Warner hasn’t decided yet. It’s complicated. You not only have to deal with New York and California still not being completely open, you have to deal with the rising number of cases on a global basis, particularly in Europe. Warner has to weigh all of that. I don’t have a strong sense of where they’ll land.
What happens if AMC, Cineworld or some of the other heavily leveraged theater chains fold? You have Imax screens with those companies and they’re carrying a lot of debt.
No matter what happens, the good screens will survive. I can’t comment on what those chains’ plans are. But when you look at the number of screens in the U.S. or North America, I’d say 85% of our venues are in the top 20% percent of multiplexes in terms of box office. However those companies opt to deal with their financial issues, those screens will still be valuable.
AMC and Universal recently reached a deal that will allow the studio to release movies on VOD within weeks of their big-screen debuts. Will the theatrical windows collapse?
Any changes in the windows will have little effect on us. Imax’s business is the blockbuster business. Most of those movies only play on our screens for a couple of weeks. It won’t hurt us.
Will moviegoing rebound next year or will it take until 2022 or beyond?
Moviegoing is going to rebound in a big way, just as it has in parts of the world where the virus is under control. But I don’t know when that rebound will start because it has to follow the trajectory of the virus.