Imax CEO Talks Supersizing Netflix Originals, China Trade Tensions

Richard Gelfond - H 2015
AP Images

Richard Gelfond - H 2015

"We would love to have the opportunity to play some of the blockbuster streaming movies in Imax," Richard Gelfond on Tuesday told the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference in New York City.

Imax is looking to position itself as a movie launch platform for streaming giants that are expanding in the blockbuster movie business and traditional Hollywood studios that are developing their own streaming products.

But Imax CEO Richard Gelfond on Tuesday said pushback from traditional exhibitors has his company respecting the traditional theatrical window and not supersizing Netflix and Amazon originals until it has a green light from the major circuits.

"We would love to have the opportunity to play some of the blockbuster steaming movies in Imax. But we have partners housed in multiplexes. And as long as we're housed in those places, we will respect the windows that they agreed to. Period. End of story," Gelfond told the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference in New York City during a session that was webcast.

The exec added that Imax is working to achieve a compromise between major streamers and exhibitors so American consumers can eventually leave their homes to see action movies from Netflix and Amazon on giant screens at the local multiplex. "Going forward, we would love if there was a compromise of some sort reached that worked for some of those exhibitors and allowed us to play some of that content. Behind the scenes, we're hoping to facilitate that," Gelfond said.

Imax is talking to players in an expanded streaming space as Comcast, Disney and WarnerMedia look to compete in the digital era with Netflix, Amazon and upstart Apple. At the same time, the giant-screen exhibitor faced resistance in 2015 when the sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend launched simultaneously on Netflix and in select Imax venues.

And while The Aeronauts recently lost its berth in Imax theaters domestically after Amazon Studios scrapped a plan to give the awards hopeful a traditional theatrical release, Gelfond said the Felicity Jones- and Eddie Redmayne-starring balloon drama will get play on its big screens in the U.K. 

"If you look at what's going on around The Irishman and you know the streaming services really want a theatrical release badly ... we've talked to all of them, because they know they can't put it [a movie] online and believe people will come," he argued. 

The Imax topper also discussed his growing network of giant-screen theaters across the globe as his company remains a standard bearer in the large-format business. "Our global growth pattern continues to advance nicely," he said as the Middle East, Japan, Western Europe and Asia are key growth markets for Imax.

"I keep waiting for it to slow down, but it doesn't," Gelfond said of China as he pointed to recent theater signings, including with CGV Holdings and a 40-theater deal. Expanding on Imax's continuing bet on the country, even as rising trade and tariff tensions between the U.S. and China spook investors, the Imax boss cited "a lot of noise in China."

But Gelfond insisted his company's Chinese box office is up. "We're not a manufacturer. We're not an exporter. We're a play on the Chinese consumer," he told investors.

Gelfond was also asked about any potential impact on Imax's current theater backlog from a possible downturn in the U.S. economy, leading some exhibitors to pull back on their own Imax theater growth plans. "In the 25 years that I've been here, at most we've written off a handful of theaters in the backlog. ... I don't really see a significant risk there," he said.