Cannes: Western Europe, Saudi Arabia Prime Growth Areas for Imax

Richard Gelfond  - Getty - h 2018
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The big-screen exhibitor inked a new three- cinema deal with French distributor CineAlpes and will soon unveil a major expansion in Saudi Arabia.

Europe and Saudi Arabia, not China, are the parts of the world where Imax sees the strongest expansion potential for its big-screen exhibition model, CEO Richard Gelfond said in Cannes on Friday.

China has been the driving force behind Imax's international expansion —the Canadian-based company now has 850 theaters in the Middle Kingdom (of a world-wide total of 1500) and is celebrating its biggest-ever opening with the bow of Avengers: Infinity War in China this weekend—but Gelfond sees major opportunity now in Western Europe as Imax “moves from being niche to being part of more mainstream entertainment.” I

max has more than tripled its number of theaters in France, for example, over the past 10 years. On Friday, the company announced a deal for another three theaters with regional exhibitor CineAlpes, an agreement that will bring the company's total network in the country to 24, against just 5 a decade ago.

“We think our strongest growth will come from the big European countries: U.K., Germany, where at the moment we only have two theaters, in Italy and in Spain,” said Gelfond, noting that the company was also in talks with exhibitors in recession-hit Greece.

Imax already earns the bulk of its revenue —75 percent — outside of North America, a figure Gelfond said he expects to climb to around 80 percent. The veteran executive is bullish on Imax's growth potential as the studios produce fewer but bigger tentpoles and "leave the mid-budget product to the streaming companies (Netflix and Amazon). That's good for us because we are in the global blockbuster business."

Saudi Arabia, which has just opened its first movie theaters after a 35-year ban, is also a prime territory for expansion and Gelfond said Imax would be making a major announcement concerning the region in Cannes on Saturday. “We expect Saudi Arabia to be our biggest territory in the Middle East within a few years,” he said.

Even Africa, which until now has been a very small part of the Imax business, could see an update in coming years. “At the moment, the (low) ticket prices in much of Africa are a problem for us, since we have a premium product, but the success of Black Panther was a real eye-opener for us,” he said. “In our theater in Nigeria, people were literally standing in the aisles. I think the key will be the studios producing more content that plays in Africa, then I think our business there will grow faster.”

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 12 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.