Can Imax Finally Crack the Elusive European Market?

Peter Iovino/Lionsgate; Courtesy of Disney; Kyle Kaplan/Warner Bros. Entertainment
Special screenings at CineEurope will include (from left) Lionsgate's 'A Simple Favor,' Disney's 'The Incedibles 2' and Warner Bros.' 'Tag.'

After years of struggle and a "minimal presence," the large format is finally making inroads on the continent: "It's not a clean slate, like in China."

European exhibitors will gather June 10 to 13 in Barcelona for the annual CineEurope trade show, where in addition to ultra top-secret presentations of upcoming tentpoles, the Hollywood studios will offer preview screenings of summer releases like Disney’s The Incredibles 2, Warner Bros.’ Tag and Lionsgate’s A Simple Favor

Imax, a mainstay at the trade show for decades, also will be returning to the familiar ground at the beachside Centre Convencions Internacional. While the company’s global expansion in the past decade has been steady — China now has in excess of 500 Imax screens — gaining a foothold in the fragmented European market has been elusive. Until now. 

As a whole Imax’s European presence comprises 189 screens, less than 14 percent of its global total of 1,382. But at a presentation in Cannes in April, CEO Richard Gelfond underscored that after years of intense effort to expand Imax throughout the continent, the next year will see a major uptick thanks to a flurry of deals with local exhibitors. 

Recent numbers back up Gelfond’s enthusiasm. Germany, which had zero Imax screens just five years ago, will be home to seven by the end of 2018. In Italy, Imax senior vp Giovanni Dolci says there should be five or six Imax screens in total by December. Meanwhile, France — where Imax struck a three-screen deal with exhibitor CineAlpes in Cannes — has in the past five years leapt from five screens to 19. 

“These are all very large cinema markets, yet there’s [been] only a minimal presence for Imax,” says Eric Handler, managing director for media and entertainment at MKM Partners. “It’s true that Europe has been sleepy,” Dolci concedes, adding that while regional cinema operators previously were reluctant to invest in enhancing their consumer offerings, they now feel compelled to provide “something better and different” to distinguish themselves from small-screen threats like Netflix.

Another issue that has held Imax back in Europe is the number of older, legacy theaters, where the company’s big-screen specifications are more difficult to install. “It’s not a clean slate, like in China,” says Dolci. But the need to adapt has led Euro exhibitors to embark on ambitious retrofit projects, such as in Copenhagen, where the company’s first Imax screen, opened in April 2015, is now its ninth-biggest performer in Europe. 

Handler says that it was Imax’s 2008 partnership with Odeon in the U.K. — the BFI Imax in London is one of the world’s highestgrossing screens — that helped demonstrate how the success of even one large-format screen can help smaller chains. “Others see it can raise the revenue profile of a theater,” he says. “All of a sudden, if they can get three partners with deals, it really creates a drive to build out more broadly.” 

This story first appeared in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.