In an this exclusive interview with Julian Stanford, Managing Director of EMEA (Europe Middle East and Asia) IMAX shares some much needed positive news about the 3D film industry and what the growth strategy of IMAX Digital 3D is.
IMAX needs little introduction. Since 1968, the Canadian theatre company has grown to 528 theatres in 46 countries and most would agree that an IMAX presentation is the current pinnacle of the movie going experience. IMAX has become a major format in its own right, so much so that some films even feature IMAX sequences filmed with IMAX cameras.
IMAX are now expanding into ODEON cinemas, as the company fuels its growth with a proprietary up-converting process called DMR, which blows up 35 mm films to a size and resolution suited for an IMAX screen, much to the dismay of several high profile directors who say the DMR upconversion does not match the quality of true 70 mm filming, but a strategy that is reaping big financial rewards.
During last week’s 3D TV Masters event, I caught up with Julian Stanford, Managing Director, EMEA IMAX, who spoke how to ask him if the company is being affected by the downturn in 3D movie ticket sales, how an ODEON IMAX theatre can deliver the same experience and what innovations IMAX are working on.
3D Focus: Explain the partnership between IMAX and the ODEON
Julian Stanford: The IMAX business model changed fairly fundamentally about 2 – 2.5 years ago where we moved from a 70 millimetre film-based system to a digital system. We moved from our product being predominantly documentary programming to big Hollywood features. As part of that, we moved from a model of selling our IMAX equipment to exhibitors to where we do joint ventures. We pay for the IMAX equipment and we share the revenues with the exhibitor. Our client base therefore migrated from the documentary based theatres who were often based in institutions and museums to our main customers now being the big cinema circuits. In the UK that customer is ODEON. We have 17 IMAX theatres in the UK and soon 12 of those will be ODEON / IMAX cinemas.
3D Focus: How can the immersive experience of a large screen 70 millimetre IMAX theatre be replicated in a local multi-plex? What compromises have been made?
Julian Stanford: The geometry is as near as we can get it the same as a regular IMAX screen. The idea is, when we moved from film based to digital, the IMAX experience was just being delivered via a different technology. Moving from the big bespoke theatres, what we call the GT theatres, to what we call the multiplex retrofitted theatres, we are effectively taking a very large screen that is slightly further away and making it a slighter smaller screen that is nearer. Your line-of-sight geometry is the same because the key to the IMAX experience is that you are immersed in the picture. The object of the exercise is to try and recreate that IMAX immersive experience which consumer research and commercial results have shown we have succeeded.
3D Focus: How does the resolution of the IMAX digital format compare to the previous 70 millimetre film format? Is the IMAX digital resolution higher than the resolution of regular digital cinema?
Julian Stanford: It is higher resolution than regular cinema resolution. Most of the films that we project through the IMAX system have been shot either digitally or on film, not IMAX cameras or equipment. We therefore put them through a process called DMR which is a propriety digital remastering process which basically takes out all the artefacts and improves the resolution and colour saturation. It basically works over the whole film to create the best version of the film that we can and we work very closely with the Director of each film to make sure that what goes out on the IMAX screen is as close to their vision of their film as we can get. That is the same whether it is in 2D with a Director like Chris Nolan or Brad Bird or whether it is in 3D with a Director like James Cameron or Tim Burton.
3D Focus: What expansion goals do you have for IMAX over the next few years?
Julian Stanford: We have targets and we are growing fairly fast. We have 126 screens opened or signed at the moment and we signed 50 of those last year. There is a very strong growth curve with IMAX which is driven partly by the business model I was describing earlier. It lowers the cost of entry for an exhibitor, by lowering their upfront costs with a revenue sharing model. It means that they can get into the IMAX business with much a lower capital outlay.
3D Focus: How does the ticket price of an IMAX Digital 3D screening compare to a regular 3D screening?
Julian Stanford: There is a premium on the premium. It varies from country to country, exhibit to exhibitor, and we don’t fix the prices, the exhibitor fixes the prices, but roughly speaking the premium of IMAX 3D over regular digital 3D is about half the premium that 3D is over a regular 2D feature ticket price.
You don’t need to discount an IMAX ticket so much because the people who buy an IMAX ticket want that premium experience and are prepared to pay for it. The key to the enduring success of IMAX is that, when people go to see a film on IMAX, they feel the experience is worth the premium that they paid. If you are going to charge a premium, it has to be justifiable to be sustainable.
3D Focus: What are the most recent innovations in IMAX? Will you be growing the IMAX Dome business?
Julian Stanford: We will not be expanding the IMAX dome until probably after 2013. We have just brought in a regulating sound system. At the beginning of each day, we regulate the sound system in the cinema the same as we regulate the picture. We regulate the picture in real time. There is a camera in the projector housing that watches what is coming off the screen and in real time a computer will regulate the picture.
3D Focus: What do you mean by 'regulate'?
Julian Stanford: We have two projectors – if one of the lamps dims a little bit, the computer will feed more power into that projector so that the light levels of both projectors remain exactly the same. One of the key aspects about IMAX presentation is that the light level is considerably higher than the DLP standard. The DLP standard is 14 foot-lamberts and we generate 22 foot-lamberts in IMAX projectors. When you watch a 3D movie you put sunglasses on and cut out a good proportion of the light; this is compensated in the IMAX experience.
3D Focus: Is the IMAX business suffering the same downturn in 3D ticket sales as the rest of the cinema industry?
Julian Stanford: We are not experiencing the same decline in percentage as other people are and in fact, if you read some of the analysts reports, they talk about the decline in ‘non IMAX 3D proportion’. So for example, on Pirates Of The Caribbean IV, the IMAX per screen average was 6 times the normal per screen average which is consistent with the way it has been so we are not experiencing that same decline. We are not protected from it entirely however. We chose our films very carefully. We are a hits driven company and we chose our films to make sure they are the really big titles to release and they significantly over perform in the IMAX screens.
3D Focus: Can we expect more films with to include sequences specifically shot for IMAX presentation?
Julian Stanford: The key scene that Director Brad Bird shot in Dubai for Mission Impossible IV due for release at the end of the year, was shot on IMAX cameras and Chris Nolan is shooting a proportion of the next Batman film – The Dark Knight rises with IMAX (2D) cameras so there will be more of that.
Born To Be Wild 3D was partly shot on an IMAX digital 3D camera. Very shortly there will be a 4K IMAX digital 3D camera which we have just developed available to commercial directors for a lower price point and are operationally much easier to use.
3D Focus: What has 3D meant for IMAX?
Julian Stanford: IMAX will always be a balance between 2D and 3D. We produced the first 3D film in 85/86 and we have lead 3D but we are not just about 3D; it is about the IMAX experience. We are committed to continue to provide the premium cinema experience and justifying the premium price to consumers. If we want people to keep coming to the cinema and not staying at home, watching a Blu-rays, we need to continue to provide a much better experience in the cinema.
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