Early Imax Strategy Doesn't Supersize 'Everest' and 'The Walk'

Everest Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Universal

Everest Still - H 2015

'The Walk' opened to a paltry $1.6 million in Imax and premium large-format theaters, and was even beat by a Saturday live broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's 'Il Trovatore.'

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

When Universal and Sony revealed they would open Everest and The Walk, respectively, in 3D Imax theaters one week before going wide, some proclaimed it the birth of a new distribution model. But that strategy might be backfiring.

Over the Oct. 2-4 weekend, Robert Zemeckis' The Walk — a love letter to French artist Philippe Petit, who walked on a wire between the World Trade Center towers in 1974 — grossed only $1.6 million from 448 Imax and premium large-format theaters. (Even the Oct. 3 live transmission of the Metropolitan Opera's Il Trovatore earned more.) The Walk's poor showing doesn't bode well for its nationwide bow Oct. 9, and Sony essentially is having to pay to promote two wide opening weekends in a row.

In addition, Imax operators aren't happy, because they committed to playing a film few are coming to see, even as Fox's The Martian grossed $54.3 million in theaters, including many premium large-format auditoriums, a rival to Imax. "The Walk is a niche film that doesn't fit in Imax's traditional wheelhouse," says MKM analyst Eric Handler. Adds box-office analyst Phil Contrino, "It's going to be hard for The Walk to rebound."

Everest fared far better in its exclusive Imax foray, taking in $7.2 million over the Sept. 18-20 weekend. But if the Imax run was intended to spur word-of-mouth, it didn't pay off. Everest grossed a modest $13.2 million when rolling out everywhere the following weekend, far below projections. "Everest confused me. I thought it would get to a better number. It definitely did well in Imax," says Contrino.

'The Walk' was outgrossed by a live broadcast of an opera.

The Imax early strategy worked with 2011's Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, which earned $13.2 million in its first weekend in Imax before becoming a global blockbuster. "Studios are trying to find different ways to open movies," says Handler. "Going first in Imax was great for Ghost Protocol because it created great word-of-mouth." But Ghost Protocol was an escapist tentpole and a known franchise, unlike Everest, which is more of a dramatic adventure. It dropped a steep 57 percent in its third weekend, putting its domestic total at $33.3 million through Oct. 4, compared with a more robust $104.1 million overseas.

Sources say studios won't stop partnering on exclusive Imax runs, but now they likely will reserve the strategy for bigger event films. "People might think they are getting an inferior experience if they go see it in a regular theater," says Contrino. "That might not be the message you want to send."

"We've learned over the last 10 years that Imax supplements and enhances movies, but we're not a panacea. I do think Imax helped all three movies build word-of-mouth," says Imax Entertainment CEO Greg Foster.