Audiences enjoying Imax the world over


From humble beginnings with one theater at Toronto's Ontario Place Cinesphere, Imax has become one of Canada's biggest exports. The jumbo-scale exhibition format is now in 60 countries with more than 290 affiliated theaters, about 40% of them outside North America.

China and India are major growth areas. In China, the Imax screen count is expected to nearly triple to 26 by the end of 2010. In fact, Imax Corp. executive vp theater development Larry O'Reilly claims that the company has "the largest foreign exhibition footprint in China," where he says "there is a big mandate from the central government about growing education in science and technology."

In China, Imax is a major component in a growth spurt of new museums and science centers designed "to encourage learning," O'Reilly says.

And while 60% of Imax-affiliated theaters worldwide are located outside of institutional and science venues, it remains a stable base while attracting new customers.

Prestigious Imax science installations include the Smithsonian in Washington, the Kennedy Space Center outside Orlando, the British Film Institute in London, La Geode in Paris and the Shanghai Science and Technology Center, the latter described by O'Reilly as "probably the most spectacular (science center) in the world." When international cultures are building these landmarks, they are "including Imax as a communications vehicle to tell their stories in a more compelling way," he notes.

Most of the company's international growth, however, has been driven by the commercial marketplace, with leading exhibitors including Imax screens as part of their multiplexes.

O'Reilly sees a winning formula in a combination of new construction and retrofitting existing theaters using Imax MPX technology. That, coupled with the increased availability of digitally remastered Hollywood films as a result of studios taking advantage of Imax's DMR digital remastering process, is fueling a healthy expansion.

"Because we are truly in the blockbuster business, the trend for those big tentpole films is to go day-and-date worldwide. For us that creates a real opportunity to deliver a huge distribution channel internationally," says O'Reilly, who estimates that Imax accounts for about 20% of the international boxoffice for Hollywood films released in the format.

Welcoming of the likes of Spider-Man and Harry Potter, exhibitors such as Yelmo Cineplex in Spain, Pathe in the Netherlands and EuroPalaces in France have opened Imax theaters in new buildings and as retrofits. In Nuremberg, Germany, the owner of superplex Cinecitta even dug out an old underground bunker for its Imax 3D Dome.

Wolfram Weber believes that "traditional Imax fare can bring additional audiences," whereas DMR is "yet another print taking revenue from the multiplex screens."

Of Cinema City, the leading theater operator in Eastern Europe, O'Reilly says, "They've done tremendously well" with Imax.

The best example of the retrofit trend, he says, is South Korea's CJ Entertainment. Before the conversion of the largest auditorium at CGV Incheon to an Imax screen, this Seoul 12-plex "was already doing 3 million admissions annually." In the first six months since Imax became part of the entertainment mix, "the revenue went up 51% for the complex as a whole," O'Reilly says.

In India, Imax is expected to grow to 11 theaters by late 2008. Once that "critical mass" has been reached in India, "the market could explode dramatically," O'Reilly says.

Latin America also has new contracts signed to bring the current count of 19 Imax theaters to 33 by the end of next year.