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IMAX CEO Gelfond On "Ghost Protocol" And The Future Of Big

IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond talks about the strategy to preview Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol in IMAX theaters, building the IMAX brand, and the Chinese market.

The latest Mission: Impossible flick is much more than a chase-riddled Cruise comeback vehicle. It’s also a carefully monitored experiment in IMAX film releases.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol's brand of explosive espionage hit theaters December 21 and went on to win the holiday season box office stakes. Meanwhile, the film had already made a comparative mint on its buzz-building IMAX preview screenings. By opening six days early on 425 giant IMAX screens, the film netted $14 million, which placed it third for that weekend against wide-release powerhouses like Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

This strategy of releasing big movies early on big IMAX screens is poised to be big business. Richard Gelfond, IMAX’s chief executive, gives us a behind-the-screens look at the strategic underpinnings of the Ghost Protocol release, and the future of the larger-than-life film format.

FAST COMPANY: Okay, so the MI:4 IMAX preview performed comparatively well from a per-screen perspective. But how do gauge the overall success of an IMAX movie?

Richard Gelfond: It really depends on the film. With MI:4 we’ll largely define success by how the movie does in both 35mm and IMAX. The MI:4 preview was actually a test to see if IMAX really creates a buzz and helps market the movie. Obviously our core movie tends to be that "fanboy" type of film, so we expect to do a larger portion of the box office on those rather than family movies.

How did the preview work out compared to, say, 2008’s IMAX preview for The Dark Knight?

What [director] Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight proved is that differentiation--making content specifically for audiences--helps the IMAX box office and the overall box office. At the time, The Dark Knight gave us one of our highest box office yields of all time.

MI:4 is the first film we’ve released earlier than the wide-release date. It’s almost more like an indie film in terms of its release pattern: We put it in certain theaters first to try to generate a buzz, and once the buzz expands you tend to do better in the overall release of the movie. That’s really what Paramount and IMAX are trying to accomplish. If this works, our hope is that other studios will take note and release their films early in IMAX. After our performance this past weekend, we’ve started to receive calls about it, too.

[MI: director] Brad Bird says that shooting in IMAX adds a degree of showmanship to movies. Do you think spectacle is still part of the appeal for filmgoers?

I think spectacle and showmanship is just a part of it. The biggest part of it is feeling like you’re part of the movie and that immersive experience. If you watch a movie in a regular theater it’s more like a third-person experience, whereas IMAX is like a first-person experience.

Take MI:4 for example--when Tom Cruise is repelling off the tallest building in the world it looks amazing in a regular theater. But if you’re watching it in IMAX you might need to close your eyes or grip the armrest because it looks like you’re actually there. It’s the difference between seeing something and believing you’re part of something.

How much of MI:4 is actually shot in IMAX?

It’s all IMAX footage in a sense. We have proprietary algorithms that convert the film from 35mm format to IMAX format. But about a half hour of the film was shot specifically with IMAX cameras.


There were a couple dustups with comedian Aziz Ansari and even film critic Roger Ebert about IMAX’s varying specs from theater to theater. How much of the experience is reliant on IMAX cameras and a 72-foot screen?

I think IMAX is a matter of scale. If you’re in a large theater with a lot of seats then you need a very large screen. If you’re in a smaller theater you can get a similar effect with a smaller screen.

I think it’s really about field of vision. The audience has to come in, look at the screen relative to where they’re sitting and be wowed. For us, it’s mostly about that "wow" test. We often refuse to install an IMAX theater because we can’t get the right aspect ratio. We won’t put one in unless it accomplishes that.

What other criteria goes into selecting a location?

We won’t go into a multiplex unless we can get the largest theater. A theater’s brightness levels and its ability to use specially made lenses to produce the right aspect ratios are part of our criteria too. I’d say that for every location we do green light, we turn down about three others because they don’t fit our specifications.

Now that filmgoers are familiar with the format, how has your relationship with the theaters and the studios changed?

We’ve become much more integral to the way theater chains and studios release those big, blockbuster-style films. On the theater side, we used to premiere only five or six films a year because we were still working with incredibly expensive film prints. Now that we’ve gone digital we do north of 20 films a year. We’ve effectively become both a part of ticket sales and the feature that sets a theater apart from its peers in town.

From the studio perspective, we used to have to cajole and convince them to release a film in IMAX format. That dynamic has changed dramatically. Now we get offered three or four films for every one we do. As we become much more plug-and-play we become much more desirable for the release schedule patterns of both the exhibitors and the studios.

Are the IMAX cameras getting easier to use too? That’s been one of the biggest complaints from the Camerons and Nolans of the industry.

I think shooting with our IMAX cameras is still a labor of love. I’ve heard Brad Bird talking about shooting MI:4 and Nolan talking about The Dark Knight Rises and the language is similar: "The biggest canvas you can paint on…movies that are made how I thought about them as a kid..etc. etc." I do think it has its limitations and its challenges, but if you’re a top-notch filmmaker it’s outweighed with the results and the image you can bring to the audience.

With that said, we’re continually working on tools to make it easier. In time, I hope it becomes less of a labor of love and more user-friendly.

When do you think technology will allow us to see more than 30 minutes of IMAX footage in feature films?

Actually, about half of The Dark Knight Rises was shot with IMAX cameras. But, Nolan also filmed almost 1,000,000 feet in IMAX raw stock film to create that half of the movie. My goal wouldn’t necessarily be to do an entire film with an IMAX camera. It would just be to create a more memorable experience than what consumers are used to seeing today.

To help with that, we’ve acquired a number of patents from Kodak, which we’re turning into a next-generation digital projector. From the projection perspective the upgrades in this projector could close the gap between a technology that converts film into IMAX format and actually filming with an IMAX camera.

Aside from the new tech, what else will you be working on in 2012?

One of the things we’ll be focusing on is starting to own our marketing. Our brand has historically been marketed by the exhibitors and studios because we didn’t really have the resources for direct consumer marketing.

We actually hired a chief marketing officer this year and we’ve put together a significant budget for next year. It’s kind of miracle that we’ve gotten where we are without consumer brand marketing. So, what we’re hoping to do for 2012 is use that direct contact with the consumer to raise our box office and attendance.

And what would that marketing look like to consumers?

For the MI:4 release, we took over the YouTube homepage for 24 hours. During that period of time we averaged between 500-700 click-throughs a second to our homepage.

Ultimately, I feel like we need to start setting a dialogue with our own consumers so that our brand isn’t totally defined by the theater the viewer just happens to be at. We’re trying to ensure that we’re in control of the message, rather than the film, studio, or theater that a consumer just happens to patronize.

You’re in the process of branching out into China too. From what you’ve seen, does any of the IMAX experience get lost in translation?

We’re using the same technology in the 59 theaters we have in China as we do in North America and other markets. In fact, the ticket prices are even a little higher in China too. It’s about $13 here in the U.S. to their roughly $16 there. Our market research shows that the Chinese are just as interested in quality as other markets, so it’s not a hard sell.

The main difference is that the market is growing so quickly in China. There are only 8,000 conventional screens in China today. In the next five years there’s slated to be 25,000. The U.S. is fairly penetrated--some would even say over-screened--at 35,000. Meanwhile, film budgets and theater budgets are on the rise in China. It presents a really great opportunity for us.

Is IMAX working with China’s "Camerons and Nolans" too?

We started a little bit later but the impact is the same. We’ve worked with Feng Xiaogang, one of the leading filmmakers in China, on Aftershock. We have a film with John Woo, called Flying Tigers, due out next year too. I think it’s very similar to what’s happened in North America. The top directors have the same ambitions--to show their films in the best way possible.

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