CinemaCon: Imax CEO Talks Replacing Film and Rolling Out Laser Projection

Richard Gelfond - H 2015
AP Images

Richard Gelfond - H 2015

There’s been plenty of talk at this week’s CinemaCon about the potential of bright laser projection, and for Imax, it's part of a dazzling new Imax theatrical system aimed at eventually replacing its 15/70mm film footprint.

“Even Christopher Nolan’s (fairly recent) releases (such as The Dark Knight Rises) were on about 100 Imax film screens and Interstellar was about 50," said Imax CEO Richard Gelfond during a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter. "Film will still be around for a while, but with laser, digital isn’t [lower quality]. The good news is that in some cases it responds better than film. [While they’re different mediums] we’re trying to replace film to the extent that that’s possible.”

Imax's laser-based projector debuted with The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, last December at Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto, where Imax is headquartered. The TCL Chinese in Hollywood — which opened earlier this month with Furious 7 — is the first U.S. installation, and Imax reported that 71 systems have already been sold.

Gelfond expects to see about 15 laser installations by the end of this year, including key destinations such as Empire Leicester Square in London, AMC Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles, AMC Loews Lincoln Square in New York, AMC Metreon in San Francisco and Pacific Science Center in Seattle.

Representing a $60 million development effort and initially aimed at Imax’s largest auditoriums, the Imax-developed system incorporates two laser projectors, as well as intellectual property that the company exclusively licensed from Eastman Kodak, and additional technology made by Barco.

Its tech leaders are particularly proud of a new design aimed at preventing color shifts — keeping blacks black and whites white. Said Gelfond: “I think it may entice directors to shoot things differently because the blacks and whites won’t bleed together.”

Imax laser installations will also offer an upgraded sound system with 12 channels of audio (the existing system has six channels), bringing four new channels to the theater ceiling and an additional channel to each side wall, in addition to a new tuning system.

“We created [the laser-based] system to really replace the 75 or more screens above 80 ft. and for new builds,” Gelfond said. “A couple years after that, there will be a version for smaller screens.

“Virtually everything we have will be released for laser; We are going to master our films [separately for] laser," he added. That includes upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron and Tomorrowland.

In additional to studio releases, Imax plans to use the added creative palette of its laser-based system for additional titles, including a space-related film that it’s working on with Disney for a 2016 release.