IMAX: Digital “game changer” for movie fans

the-hobbitFive years ago the IMAX giant format cinemas had just 150 screens. That number is now 600, and up 50 or so on last year spread over 53 countries. A year ago it had few screens in China, for example, but the country now has 104 theatres open and another 130 in its ‘backlog’ list, under development or planned to open. IMAX also has 12-14 movies in production where directors are using dedicated IMAX cameras.

But IMAX Corporation is targeting around 1700 theatres globally, according to CEO Rich Gelfond, talking to analysts at Morgan Stanley’s Media & Telecom conference. “That number gets analyed on a yearly basis and as the developing economies continue to develop generally that number has been going up over the last couple of years.”

Gelfond said that IMAX theatres always charge a premium price to view their content which is a mix of theatrical blockbuster Hollywood movies and speciality material such as specially shot 3D or giant-screen documentary footage. The Chinese market similarly absorbs a mix of Hollywood and locally produced movies, and increasingly helps drive revenues for the company.  He said he had very high hopes for the next Star Trek movie, shot by J J Abrams, and will screen in IMAX theatres in May, and said an increasing number of Hollywood blockbusters are filmed with IMAX cameras.

Gelfond said that the biggest difference during his 18 years or so with IMAX Corp has been in the cost of screenings. “When I got to the company all of our technology was film projectors and it was largely film projectors for very, very large screens and it was a phenomenal experience [but] mostly in the institutional niche but the problem was that the film projectors were extremely expensive.”

He explained that a single copy of a 3D movie might cost up to $40,000 per celluloid print. “Now it’s $150. So that partly explains why the network has grown so rapidly because we sucked out a lot of cost. The next place we’re going is using laser projection. Right now our digital projectors use Xenon [projector] light bulbs which are terrific [but] our newer screens are so large that we can’t generate the amount of light output needed.”

Gelfond said that IMAX and Kodak have been working on a proprietary patent [to remedy this] and we’ve been working with Texas Instruments and Barco to design a proprietary system that can light screens up to 120 feet [across] maybe more than that.”

He said that this new technology should be completed by the end of this year, and rolling out in 2H/2014, “and is going to be a game changer for these very large theatres because again they are still spending $20,000 to $40,000 per print and that’s going to go down to $150. So that will drive their cost way down [and] enable them to play more movies, enable us to get more revenues on both the film side and the studio side because there will be more revenues coming into the theatre.”

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