Imax Promises More Early Releases of Hollywood Blockbusters

An increasing number of studio pics employing large-format cameras on set should herald more pre-release engagements for teen tentpoles, analysts were told Friday.

TORONTO – Walt Disney Studios is releasing Marvel's The Avengers in Imax theaters in Russia one week before it goes wide in that market on May 3.

That’s the latest sign Imax is busily looking to increase its number of pre-release engagements for Hollywood tentpole titles as the Toronto-based exhibitor aims to stand out in a crowded field, which includes new competition from China's upstart Dmax technology.

“We believe that incorporating some kind of Imax DNA, such as the cameras and aspect ratios, is one of the key ingredients of ensuring the success of an Imax early-release,” Imax CEO Richard Gelfond told analysts Friday morning after the release of his first quarter results.

Gelfond pointed to six to eight upcoming Hollywood titles that could potentially benefit from audiences slipping on the Imax 3D glasses early.

“On that point, stay tuned,” he told analysts.

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Imax got the ball rolling as a possible preferred head-start window to help market Hollywood studio pictures when Paramount Pictures last December pre-released Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol on its giant screens domestically.

The giant screen exhibitor has since been talking to Hollywood studios about additional early release windows for tentpole pictures before they land on movie screens elsewhere.

It's no easy equation.

Hollywood movies that get early releases in Imax theaters need to have been shot, if only partially, using proprietary cameras and with a specific aspect ratio.

Gelfond told analysts that around an hour of The Dark Knight Rises will feature footage shot on Imax cameras.

And Star Trek 2 has two Imax cameras on set to partially shoot that project in its big screen format.

For their part, the Hollywood studios need to know their film will benefit from early word-of-mouth from Imax’s fanboy audience, something it can only determine when a movie is completed or locked.

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And Imax early-release strategy has so far worked better in international markets like Russia and Latin America because U.S. exhibitors with a small Imax footprint have been reluctant to see the giant screen exhibitor secure additional early window engagements domestically.

Gelfond also talked Friday about possibly installing two of its digital screens in multiplexes, after fielding interest from its exhibition partners.

“The reaction I’ve gotten from exhibitors so far is this sounds like a win-win situation. Let’s see how it works in the real world,” he argued.

These and other Imax innovations, including laser projection technology rolled out earlier this week at ComiCon, aims to distinguish the giant screen exhibitor from possible competitors.

These include China’s own version of Imax technology, Dmax, which has opened on two screens in Beijing and Anhui, and, according to Gelfond, poses no competition for the Canadian-originating large format technology.

“Some of our people have seen it (Dmax) and think there’s a significant differentiation with Imax,” Gelfond told analysts.

He added Imax has faced copy-cat competition throughout its 40-year history, and has still managed to grow its international worldwide theater network and Hollywood offerings.

And beyond its technology, Imax is betting that network growth, including in China, paired with a pipeline of digitally re-mastered Hollywood movies, will continue to entice film-going audiences and produce recurring profits for shareholders.

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