Imax's Greg Foster on 'Gravity's' Appeal, China and 'Hunger Games: Catching Fire' (Q&A)

11:00 AM PST 11/06/2013 by Pamela McClintock
Annie Tritt
Greg Foster

The large-format czar talks about the next international push and why Warner Bros. is the St. Louis Cardinals of entertainment.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

At a time when moviegoing in the U.S. is down year- over-year, Imax Corp. is on fire. The large-format exhibitor, once relegated to museums, is responsible for more than 15 percent of Gravity's gross, with moviegoers shelling out $20 or more a head in big cities. The Toronto-based, 550-employee company has seen its revenue balloon from $102.7 million in 2008 to $284.3 million in 2012 thanks in large part to Hollywood tentpoles, while its stock has rocketed from $3.35 a share in early November 2008 to around $30 today. Imax's global creative czar is Greg Foster, 51, whom Imax Corp. CEO Rich Gelfond promoted earlier this year to CEO of Imax Entertainment in recognition of Foster's leadership in building the company's commercial slate and establishing relationships with studios. Foster, who spent 15 years at MGM before joining Imax in 2001, also oversees the documentaries financed and produced by Imax. The distributor will release a total of 40 films this year. Tentpoles can see an enormous boost from their Imax runs; it's not uncommon to add $70 million or more to their bottom line.

Typically, Foster can be found meeting with filmmakers in his Santa Monica office or crisscrossing the globe, tending to 650 commercial Imax theaters in 56 countries, including 350 sites in North America (not including 125 museum and other institutional locations). The married father of three grown sons remains a fierce family man and won't receive email via his smartphone. He recently sat down with THR to discuss what Hollywood can do better and why Imax is on such a roll.

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Fanboys traditionally have been a big market for Imax, but Gravity is luring an older crowd. Why?

Gravity is a seminal movie for us. There's a whole crop of moviegoers -- I call them the "get-around-to people" -- who never see a movie in a theater but who are coming to Gravity. There's definitely a connection because of all the Imax space documentaries we grew up seeing in museums. Also, Gravity is a single-themed narrative, but it talks about some deep ideas that people are responding to. It gives me faith that people are interested in exploring what life is all about versus just wanting to see things blow up.

What can Hollywood learn from Gravity?

When there's so much blowing up, people become numb. When I'm at an investor conference and there's six or seven meetings a day, I always find myself thinking after the third or fourth meeting, "Did I just say the same thing?" That happens with movies sometimes, where you'll be in the middle of a film and you ask yourself, "Didn't I just see that?" They start to all feel the same. Gravity is not more of the same.

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Warner Bros. has been your biggest supporter, starting with The Matrix. Are you worried about the new regime and film chief Jeff Robinov's exit?

I'm not. I think Jeff's great, and I can't wait for him to land somewhere. I'll call him the minute he does. But Warners is part of the Imax family, and Imax is part of the Warners family. I'm a baseball guy, and Warners is sort of like the St. Louis Cardinals; it is an incredible organization. It's been nice to get to know Kevin Tsujihara [CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment] and Dan Fellman [president of domestic distribution] has always been in our corner.

What is the secret to Imax's success?

Filmmakers are at the core of what differentiates Imax from everyone else, and we work with them for months. We don't finance their films and we don't approve the scripts, but we are a partner in the process. We do every James Cameron movie, every Chris Nolan movie, every Zack Snyder movie and Peter Jackson's Hobbit films. Chris uses Imax cameras for most of his films, including [his next film] Interstellar. He was designing Interstellar with Imax in mind before one frame was shot. If Chris wants to shoot a line of taxicabs, we will sign up in advance.

With every studio releasing some movies in Imax, how do you prevent films from cannibalizing one another?

It's putting our long-term relationships first. There are going to be times when a studio [wants] something extended into theaters beyond what was agreed to, and there are times when the same studio will have a movie open, and the movie doesn't turn out to be what everyone hoped it would be.

Isn't that about to happen in China? Gravity and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire are opening within a week of each other.

China is a whole different story. Theaters will play both. Internationally, companies are willing to share screens. In the U.S., studios don't want to share.

What are your expectations for Catching Fire?

We're feeling very positive. Obviously, anyone who has access to tracking knows how strong it will be. It feels like a

true franchise. I think the first one was more a fangirl movie. This feels like a four-quadrant hit, and I believe Catching Fire will play broader, age-wise and gender-wise. Our feeling is that it will be much bigger internationally, where we have a bigger footprint this time. The first one set the table perfectly.

How much does Imax's future growth depend on international?

About 60 percent of our business comes from overseas, including 20 percent from China. Of the 300 theaters we operate overseas, 125 are in China. We just made a deal to build 125 theaters with Chinese exhibitor Wanda. Rich Gelfond had a strong vision about China and is responsible for our business there. In China this year so far, Imax carried four of the five top-grossing movies: Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim and two Chinese movies, Young Detective Dee and Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons.

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What's next after China?

Southeast Asia is booming, and we want to be a part of that boom. We recently struck a deal to build more than 20 new theaters in Indonesia, further boosting our presence there. Our South Korean presence is also growing, and Gravity recently scored the highest opening average theater gross of any movie in Imax's history, or $107,900. That's insane.

Do you release local-language films in other countries?

We program about 25 Hollywood titles globally and carry another five or seven Hollywood titles internationally that we can't play domestically because of scheduling conflicts. We have another five or seven titles that are local-language movies, such as Stalingrad, Imax's first 3D co-production in Russia. The movie [which opened in mid-October] has already earned more than $40 million in Russia, smashing records.

Imax once operated only museum and institutional theaters. Where does that business stand today?

It's fantastic. We finance and produce the documentaries for roughly 125 theaters in museums, science centers and aquariums. These films are turtles, not rabbits. If you look at the box-office chart, you'll see that [2002's] Space Station 3D is still in the top 60. It's grossed more than $123 million. These films are hip. Tom Cruise narrated Space Station, Leonardo DiCaprio narrated Hubble. Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet narrated Deep Sea 3D. Cate Blanchett narrates our upcoming Journey to the South Pacific.

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Imax is retrofitting iconic locations such as the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Why?

It's a strategy that sends the message, "This is the mecca of moviegoing in this market." When the Chinese Theatre reopened in September, we celebrated by converting The Wizard of Oz into 3D.

Does Imax own its theaters?

We used to sell our theaters with specific restrictions on branding and programming. We'd take a smaller piece of the box office. In 2008, the business model shifted to a joint venture in many situations, such as with AMC. We provide the theaters and take a bigger piece of the box office. We also get a piece from the studio for converting the film. We spend a tremendous amount of time, energy and money on every movie.

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