Imax CEO Talks 'Tenet,' China and Why Premium VOD "Doesn't Work"

Richard Gelfond  - Getty - h 2018
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"Where it was safe and there was capacity, it did extremely well," Richard Gelfond said of Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet' in theaters.

Imax CEO Richard Gelfond touted the recent theatrical release of Christopher Nolan's Tenet while pouring water on the premium VOD window for Hollywood blockbuster releases during an investor conference appearance on Wednesday.

"Where it was safe and there was capacity, it did extremely well," Gelfond said of the Tenet theatrical rollout during a session at the Communacopia Conference that was webcast. Gelfond pointed to big business for Tenet at the multiplex overseas, including in China, but was less bullish about the North American play for the Warner Bros. tentpole.

"The U.S. had a weaker result, and that was probably predictable because theaters were only reopening. The plan was to get the world open and have movies follow on. In the rest of the world, that played out well. In the U.S., there wasn't enough awareness, so it opened slower. And hopefully, the movie will have legs going forward," Gelfond told investors.

But he was less optimistic about the evolving premium VOD distribution model for major studios as they continue to push tentpole releases into 2021 after Universal Pictures' recent decision to break the theatrical window for Trolls World Tour amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"I believe that the studios are very committed to theatrical releases, and they've said it," Gelfond insisted, while adding blockbuster movies don't generate sufficient revenues from the premium VOD window.

"PVOD is a failed experiment. The numbers haven't worked in a pandemic. So how can they work in a non-pandemic? Streaming is an alternative, especially for mid-level movies, but PVOD just doesn't work," Gelfond said.

Returning to China, where Imax has an expanding footprint, Gelfond said the local language film The Eight Hundred launched strongly, bringing in $115 million on the opening weekend, despite capacity limits in theaters.

"You're going to see a very strong recovery in China, it's very promising as there's nothing unique about China," Gelfond argued. "I do think it will be a model for the rest of the world," he added about China as a recovery model.