Imax says it's no big thing

Execs: Exhibitor is more about digital than giant screens these days

Imax execs sought Tuesday to wow the media at a company presentation while also performing a bit of damage control amid a controversy over the size of the specialty exhibitor's new digital screens.

That might sound like an awkward dance step, but corporate twists and turns are nothing new for Imax veterans.

Long known as a "giant-screen exhibitor" thanks to a circuit of movie screens of up to 76 feet tall, the Toronto-based company is maneuvering into digital projection by rolling out hundreds of new venues. The move is connected to Imax's other strategy of regularly programming its auditoriums with such commercial fare as last summer's "The Dark Knight" and current hit "Star Trek."

Most of Imax's original venues were based in museums, and for years the exhibitor showed mostly nature and space films. "Most of the films were bears, whales and seals," Imax co-CEO Rich Gelfond recalled.

The transition into Hollywood-oriented digital cinema has been good for Imax shares, which have risen steadily during the past six months. The stock dipped 3 cents to close at $7.03 on Tuesday.

But investors were jarred briefly when actor Aziz Ansari of NBC's "Parks and Recreation" complained in a Twitter-fueled blast that he felt duped into thinking he would be seeing "Star Trek" on a giant screen, only to discover its digital screens were close to conventional size. Ansari noted he paid a $5 premium to see the sci-fi actioner in an Imax auditorium.

Imax officials dealt with the matter by calling it an old issue that hadn't kicked up a fuss until now. The average Imax screen has been slightly bigger than conventional screens for about six years, ever since the company began offering less expensive Imax-format systems for easier implementation in multiplexes, they noted.

The newer systems cost just $1.5 million to get up and running compared with about $5 million in start-up costs for an original Imax system. The digital systems now being rolled out — with multiplex-installation costs of just $150,000 in many instances — are of the same dimensions as the second generation of Imax's analog systems, officials said.

The company's multiplex agreements allow the removal of the lower portion of seating in stadium-seat venues, creating the perception of greater screen size and viewing immersion, they added, and Imax's remastering of commercial films tagged for its distribution boost image resolution and brightness.

The move into Hollywood programming came after technological innovations allowed a similar lowering of costs to distributors.

"Now virtually every studio wants to release their films to Imax, because the costs are just incremental," Gelfond said. "And that's because instead of telling the studios they have to get into the Imax business, we got into their business."

Imax Filmed Entertainment chief Greg Foster, who oversees the company's relationships with Hollywood majors, said he expects Universal soon to join other Hollywood majors in agreeing to release films in Imax venues.

"We have multipicture deals with every studio, with that one exception, and we're having conversations with them," Foster said.

The broad interest in partnering with Imax has given the specialty exhibitor a nice problem: Having to choose among films offered for release. Those set for summer release include this weekend's "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" from Fox; "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" from DreamWorks and Paramount; and Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," which will have select 3-D scenes viewable only in Imax presentation.

Imax concluded its media event with a 25-minute reel of several trailers from its upcoming Hollywood releases. (partialdiff)