Mid-2008 set for Imax digital launch

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TORONTO -- Giant screen exhibitor Imax Corp. on Wednesday set mid-2008 as the launch window for its digital projection technology in its super-sized theaters.

Toronto-based Imax said it planned to install the first three digital projection prototypes in theaters in the second quarter of 2008.

Another three prototypes will be installed in theaters "shortly thereafter," the exhibitor said.

Imax previously pointed to late 2008 and early 2009 as the likely rollout dates for its digital projection technology.

After the first six digital projection systems meet unspecified "performance specifications," Imax said it planned to proceed with a full rollout in the last half of 2008.

The Imax digital projection system, now in development and trials, will enable theaters to receive movies on a hard drive for digital projection. That eliminates the need for costly and heavy Imax film prints that require loading via forklifts on clunky projection systems.

"Several key exhibitors, studios and consumer research groups have already experienced the digital prototype we've been running for the past several months, and we are very encouraged by the unanimously positive reaction to the next iteration of the Imax Experience," Imax co-CEO Bradley Wechsler said Wednesday.

He added that the switch to digital projection should boost profitability for studios, exhibitors and his company by cutting out costs for film prints and increasing the number of movies passing through Imax theaters.

Typically, an Imax 2D film print costs about $25,000, and a 3-D movie runs to about $45,000 a print.

Imax is betting that eliminating film print cost for studios will sharply increase gross margins for an Imax release of a traditional 35mm movie, as the only remaining major cost to studios will be P&A.

Wechsler argued that lower costs from digital projection should enable as many as a dozen studio films to feature in Imax theaters annually -- up from seven or eight currently -- which in turn should boost profitability for exhibitors.

The new digital projection system is tailored for Imax's MPX-branded theaters in multiplexes, and will be able to show digitally remastered Hollywood movies in 2-D and 3-D, and original Imax documentaries.

Wechsler was tight-lipped about where the first digital projection prototypes will be installed. Imax in recent weeks has unveiled a number of new theater deals with Regal Cinemas, Goodrich Quality Theaters and China's Wanda Line Cinema Corp.

Those deals included some planned purchases of the digital projection systems once they come on stream.

The recent theater deals also allow exhibitors to upgrade new multiplex-based theaters to digital from standard projection.

Imax plans to similarly offer and sell upgrades to the new digital projection system to commercial operators who have existing MPX theater systems.
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