IMAX Looks to Improve on 'Avatar' Success in China

Eyes 10-15 Films on 30-40 Screens

HONG KONG – It’s an understatement to say that Greg Foster, IMAX chairman and president of filmed entertainment, is bullish on China.

Sitting on the sidelines of the CineAsia distributors and exhibitors trade show, Foster said the opportunities in the world’s fastest growing movie market – and the enthusiasm that Chinese moviegoers are showing for giant screen projection – puts IMAX at the top of the list of companies that “get it.”

“We’re not yet at the point where we can show two films at the same time, but that’s going to change really, really fast,” Foster said.

At the start of the year, Avatar showed on 14 IMAX screens in China and the costlier tickets helped the 20th Century Fox blockbuster gross $207 million in China alone -- more than in any country outside the U.S. Next up is Tron: Legacy, set for 25 screens.

“We’ve got 100 theaters in China in backlog, contractually locked in and only delayed because the shopping mall construction isn’t finished,” Foster said.

In a country where the government long has limited the number of imports – to 20 per year that pay copyright holders back a percentage of the gross – IMAX is in a unique position. Sometimes its films circumvent the cap, sometimes they don’t, Foster said.

“Recently, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs got in a year after its release and I only heard about it after the fact,” he added.

What’s sure, is that IMAX owes a debt to James Cameron, whose 3D fantasy was such a hit in the big screen format that it totally changed Chinese thinking about the company and its product. Before Avatar, Foster said, “IMAX was known but had no urgency or hipness for the Chinese.  Now we have people telling us they love the experience of waiting in line to see a big movie in IMAX.”

There were so many Chinese desperate to see Avatar in IMAX that businessmen approached the company offering to rent their theaters out for the day, a proposition the company didn’t take them up on.

“Getting IMAX Avatar tickets was like supply and demand. The more you wanted one, the harder they seemed to be to get,” Foster said.

And then there’s Aftershock, the historical earthquake disaster film by director Feng Xiaogang that not only was the first IMAX film shot in a language other than English but has become the highest-grossing Chinese language film of all time, selling more than $100 million worth of tickets at the domestic box office on both big and regular screens.

Aftershock christened a three-picture deal with Beijing-based and Shenzhen-listed movie studio Huayi Brothers Media. “We loved working with Feng Xiaogang and would love to be a part of his next picture,” Foster said. “Now, we’re looking for our next projects with Huayi, trying to determine just the right one.”

With another, even more widely well-known Chinese-language director, IMAX is backing – as a big-screen distributor, anyway – John Woo’s Flying Tigers, a $90 million picture featuring an as-yet named Hollywood leading man as the head of the U.S. Army Air Corp volunteers who helped China fight Japan during World War II.

In order to support its exponential growth in China, Foster said IMAX is beefing up its China staff.  “Releasing 10-15 movies on 30-40 screens in 2011 is taking us, already, to the next level.”

The company also is working with South Korean media powerhouse CJ Entertainment to open IMAX screens in China and is open to working with other partners as the number of Chinese movie studios grows and gets more sophisticated – partners, Foster said, that might include including such outfits as the Beijing-based Bona Film Group, which last month filed to list shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

“We’re building a company in China. It’s not just a little outpost anymore.  China is by far the biggest market outside the United States.  Nowhere else comes even close,” he said.

To further explain the excitement, Foster put it this way: “Our business used to be about the material experience of the big screen, the fancy theater,” he said.  “Now, in China, it’s about the whole experience, about Chinese moviegoers saying ‘If I’m going to see a big movie, I’m going to see it in IMAX.”