IMAX readies Huayi film trio

Films will be large format's first non-English-language offerings

SHANGHAI -- Huayi Brothers, China's leading privately-owned film producer, has struck a deal to produce three IMAX format movies, the first-ever non English-language IMAX films.

The agreement kicks off with a commitment to produce a large screen version of upcoming historical disaster movie "Aftershock," using the Imax Digital Remastering technology that removes grain and improves sound quality. The picture was recently shot by China's most commercially successful director Feng Xiaogang (second ref: Feng) in the Tangshan region where the massive 1976 quake struck. The picture is scheduled for release in July 2010.

"Our aim is to elevate the visibility of Chinese films within China and on the world stage," said Imax Corp. CEO Richard Gelfond in Shanghai. "China is our fastest growing international market. We currently have 18 screens open and will have a further 42 by 2012."

Under the terms of the deal IMAX will bankroll the cost of converting the films to the 70mm format and then share in the revenues as it does with Hollywood movies. Gelfond acknowledged the high up front costs and the relatively narrow releasing platform compared with releasing an IMAX film in North America, but said "we expect to be profitable in the long term."

The deal lasts up to three years, although Gelfond said he hoped the three movies could be released before that. Huayi and IMAX have not yet settled which the other two films will be.

IMAX may also seek deals with other Chinese producers and has held discussions with China Film Group and Shanghai Film Group.

Feng said that he had been especially painstaking in production of "Aftershock" and that the budget may be pushed to 120 million – 150 million yuan ($17.6 million - $22 million) He estimated the break-even point at 350 million yuan ($51.3 million) and said that he hopes the film will be the first Chinese picture to pass the 500 million yuan ($73.2 million) mark.

"There are currently no plans to originate with IMAX cameras and equipment, but we hope that will follow as Chinese filmmakers become more familiar," IMAX Asia-Pacific managing director, Don Savant said. Savant said that IMAX will assist with international distribution of "Aftershock" outside China, but it will have no involvement in handling rights to the picture.

-- Etan Lessing contributed to this report.