It has been an exciting few years for IMAX. Unprecedented expansion and tremendous profit growth have brought considerable attention to the large format pioneer, and recent advances in tech are underpinning this success.
After making its 70mm debut at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Toronto-based IMAX evolved into a company that both built the theaters and produced the films shown on its giant screens, gaining initial success largely with its 45-minute educational features and natural history docs. Since 1986, after several thin years, it has been working with a 3-D capability that has grown audiences, but also doubled production costs.
But fresh IMAX 3-D technology – which alternates 96 times per second between two images, mimicking the optic signals from the left and right eyes – as well as a new process to convert Hollywood features to the large-screen format and recreate multiplex theaters as imax houses (a process known as mpx conversion) have made the IMAX brand a hot commodity. In 2004, the company’s profits rose to US$10.2 million, from under $1 million in 2003. Right now, imax has 248 screens worldwide, and since June 30, 2004, it has signed deals to build more than 50 new theaters worldwide, all with IMAX 3-D technology. China is the largest of these emerging markets – which also include India and other southeast Asian nations – and the second-largest overall after the U.S., with 25 theaters scheduled to open by 2008.
This growth is largely predicated on the success of converted Hollywood releases and the popularity of 3-D blockbusters. But it’s not just Hollywood fare that’s thrived in 3-D. While The Polar Express: An IMAX 3D Experience grossed $45 million, some IMAX 3-D docs have done even better. NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience became the second highest-grossing doc of 2004. The 2002 release of Space Station 3D, narrated by Tom Cruise, has nearly reached $90 million.
This September, Tom Hanks and Playtone Pictures are releasing Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D exclusively to IMAX 3-D theaters, and the 2006 film slate already includes two IMAX 3-D films from Warner Bros. Pictures: Deep Sea 3D in the spring, and The Ant Bully in August.
But there’s still room for the traditional 70mm wildlife and adventure films that have long been the mainstay of the IMAX experience. ‘We’re pretty bullish on that,’ says Mike Lutz, head of distribution for Laguna Beach, U.S.-based 70mm producer McGillivray Freeman Films. ‘We anticipate that the theaters that have supported us for the past 25 or 30 years will continue to support this kind of filmmaking.’
MFF is in production with three new 70mm docs to be released in 2006 and 2007: Greece: Secrets of the Past, Wetlands and The Alps: Giants of Nature.
In addition, IMAX says it’s committed to its NH roots. Says Larry O’Reilly, exec VP of theater development: ‘Natural history films have consistently performed well at imax theaters and will continue to be made. We are committed to including them as a regular part of our film slates.’