Imax CEO Eyes Early Film Releases, Brand Extensions

Rich Gelfond calls cable network joint venture 3net a first "flag planting" outside the company's core business, with consumer electronics partnerships possibly being next in line.

NEW YORK - Imax CEO Rich Gelfond has recently held talks with studio bosses about making more films available for early releases in a brief Imax-only window in international markets, but also about possible early releases in the U.S., he said here Thursday.

Appearing at the Gabelli & Co. Movie & Entertainment Conference, he also said that 3D cable network 3net, a joint venture with Sony and Discovery Communications, may only be the first brand extension for the large-format movie theater firm, with consumer electronics products another possible area for partnerships.

Asked about the film industry's current debate about release windows, Gelfond said he recently held talks about possibly doing more early Imax releases of select films.

He cited the success of such very limited Imax-only runs of a Harry Potter film, Tron and I Am Number Four in select international markets. France, Russia and Mexico have seen such early releases days before the general theatrical start of the movies, he said.

Gelfond emphasized that studios are concerned that such early releases could cause problems for films that create negative buzz, which could affect the remainder of their theatrical run.

"I don't really think there will be a ubiquitous pre-release window, but I think there is an opportunity, particularly in delayed release markets, to leverage the platform," Gelfond told the conference.

He later later told The Hollywood Reporter that early Imax releases in the U.S. would come at a premium price, and films would likely launch in Imax theaters only a couple of days or so before the start of their broader theatrical run.
"That could definitely be an opportunity" for the company, but also studios, said Gabelli analyst Brett Harriss. Giving Imax theaters a film a day or two early,  could help studios seal a distribution deal with Imax in a competitive market, plus Imax has tended to sell out easily with big releases, he said. While early release deals could ruffle some feathers of exhibitors with a small Imax footprint, it shouldn't be a major issue and would help Imax theater partners generate additional foot traffic, Harriss said.

Calling 3net a first "flag planting exercise outside of our core space," Gelfond also said on Thursday that "we really want to find ways" to expand into other new fields, and the company is starting to spend more time on thinking about such opportunities that, like 3net, make sense for its brand and fans.

The consumer electronics space is one possible area for expansion, Gelfond said in a possible signal that he may be exploring branding partnerships with TV set or other device manufacturers.

"Imaxing an event makes it better," he explained his way of thinking about extensions of the Imax brand.

In that context, he also cited portable theaters that the company has been developing as an emerging business opportunity. They could, for example, be temporarily set up during big events, such as the soccer World Cup, he said.

Gelfond also told the conference Thursday that Imax is looking to bring its revenue share model to China, which would give it recurring revenue rather than a one-time financial benefits in the country.