As I’ve mentioned previously, I’d like to use this space to occasionally interview industry people who are doing innovative things. When I heard IMAX opened 80 new screens amid the shutdowns of 2020, I wanted to talk to its longtime C.E.O. Rich Gelfond, who has taken his large-format screens to 85 countries, and topped $1 billion in box office in 2019. I think that premium experiences like IMAX are the future of theaters post-pandemic, so I called him on Friday for his take on how the film recovery will play out. (This conversation has been edited.)
Matt Belloni: You’ve known Jim Gianopulos a long time. What’s your take on the shift at Paramount?
Rich Gelfond: Jim is an incredibly accomplished executive. But I think it takes a different perspective to integrate both a streaming service and a studio, and oversee the production of both theatrical content and streaming content.
But Jim’s job was to create big theatrical franchises, the kind of movies you love. Doesn’t this signal a shift away from that?
I don’t necessarily think so. They have long-term relationships with Tom Cruise and [Skydance founder] David Ellison, and a lot of their franchise business has come out of those relationships. I’m sure whoever runs it is still going to focus on what their IP is.
Do you really think the performance of Shang-Chi indicates a shift in the market, or is that just Marvel being Marvel?
If that was the only data point, I think there would be some doubt. But there are several more data points. One being Venom moving up from late October to early October, another is Bond holding its date. And I read your piece this morning about Eternals having a 45-day window around it. [Disney later that day announced all remaining 2021 movies would get a theatrical window.] When you look at the data, piracy really kills [day-and-date] movies pretty early in the theatrical run.
I’d bet the IMAX audience wants that elevated experience regardless of whether the movie is available at home. Did you see a dip with films like Black Widow and Jungle Cruise?
Thursday nights and Fridays, they were consistent with the pre-streaming world. But the fall-offs were much quicker.
We all know why studios are sending movies to their streamers. But taking those loss-leader variables out of the equation, you believe the movies of the past year would have been far more profitable with exclusive theatrical windows.
We have proof; it’s called Tenet. That ended up over $350 million, and it’s done well in subsequent windows. Contrast that with Wonder Woman 1984, which did a lot less than that.
People made fun of Chris Nolan and said he was forcing his movie on audiences that didn’t want to go to theaters.
Yeah, well, guess what. Chris was a leader, and his vision at that time was the right one. I worry that some of these movies that have been delayed four or five times, whether it’s going to lead to confusion, whether they’re going to have a dated feel to them.
Will Tom Cruise regret pushing Top Gun: Maverick and Mission: Impossible 7 again?
I was on the set of Mission a few weeks ago with Tom. I think Tom is one of the most thoughtful and informed filmmakers and actors on the planet. He had a lot of the data and I think he made his best judgment at the time. Hindsight is easy.
People might be surprised to learn that you actually opened 80 new screens last year. How did that happen?
I asked myself the same question. I like to think that our partners have globally recognized the value of IMAX and understand that IMAX is going to be more important in a post-pandemic world with shorter windows. If they can watch something on their television at home, in a shorter period of time than they used to, when they go out, they’re going to want something really special, and that’s IMAX.
In China and Japan, which reopened way before North America, our business has been much better than it was pre-pandemic. The biggest movie in the world last year was a Chinese film called The Eight Hundred, which was shot with IMAX cameras.
I agree that the premium experience is going to become even more important in theatrical. What is your advice to the major theater chains about improving that product?
Open more IMAX theaters! [Laughs.] Besides that, I think they have to do a better job marketing. Historically, most of the marketing is done by the studios, and the exhibitors kind of sit on the sidelines. AMC is doing a $25 million TV marketing campaign, and I think it’s a new world for exhibition in terms of their digital toolkit. Now that they have subscription services, and they know who’s seeing what, I think they should be much more aggressive in touting the importance of [theaters and] IMAX.
Netflix has experimented with releasing films in theaters, but the big chains still boycott if it’s day-and-date. Does Netflix need theaters to event-ize movies?
There’s no question in my mind that a theatrical window would really help their big movies. To some extent, they know that. Look at The Irishman.
But that was for awards and to placate Scorsese.
Yes, but it was more than that. Look at Disney’s success on Disney+. The Mandalorian came out of Star Wars, WandaVision out of the Marvel universe. [Theatrical movies] is where stuff gets planted in brains.
You actually consulted with WarnerMedia before it decided to put its 2021 movies on HBO Max. What was your advice to C.E.O. Jason Kilar?
I didn’t speak to Jason, I spoke to senior executives at Warner Bros., and I suggested that for a short period of time they should put some of their movies on streaming. They asked me, What if we did it for a longer period of time? And I said that was starting a nuclear war with exhibition. And if they unilaterally tried to disrupt the business in that way, it was going to come back to bite them. And, as you know, it did.
But Kilar is now doing a victory lap because the Delta variant has made him seem prescient.
Well, I guess he’s a better infectious disease specialist than Anthony Fauci. Some of their movies, like Dune and Matrix Resurrections, would do much better with an exclusive theatrical run. There’s no question in my mind, they’re not going to achieve their potential.
The piracy on Matrix is going to set new records, I predict.
Yeah. The audience is people who love to explore the internet. You’re basically asking for piracy.
You’ve been with IMAX for more than 25 years. Why haven’t you sold the company?
We have been approached many times over the years—by strategic and financial buyers—but it wasn’t the right time or price. But if and when there is a right time, we’ll have to be open to considering it.
Why don’t you produce your own movies? You have relationships with top filmmakers and a global network for releases.
We’ve considered that. And we do produce movies on a smaller scale, including the space documentaries. We have been approached about third parties putting up money, then creating a separate IMAX window, and then subsequently going to either theatrical or to streaming.
Netflix tried a day-and-date release with you in 2016 for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2, and the other theaters boycotted. But that was a while ago, do you think you’d face the same backlash now?
There would be issues with our exhibition partners. But one thing people really haven’t focused on enough is: Are streaming services going to keep their same model? Probably 10 years ago, I met with Reed Hastings and he talked about making movies that were just for IMAX and then would go to Netflix. But they were really committed to their day-and-date distribution strategy.
You’ve been going to China since the late ‘90s and IMAX is heavily invested there. So what the heck is going on there now? They’re not letting in as many movies.
It’s much more nuanced than just a political issue. For example, they don’t like releasing movies after they’ve been pirated. So that’s a big reason [day-and-date] films haven’t gotten it. Another reason is the oversight of Hollywood films has recently shifted from one department of the government to another. Now it’s the propaganda department who makes the decisions. That’s all getting sorted out right now.
You’re good friends with David Zaslav, you guys have lunch all the time. What’s on his mind right now in approaching the WarnerMedia assets?
He’s approaching it by learning, which is how I would have predicted David would approach. David doesn’t wanna be [part of] the Hollywood machine or the Hollywood narrative. He wants to form his own narrative. He wants to meet agents and filmmakers and friends, and then he wants to develop his own point of view by his own experience. People who have gotten in trouble have accepted narratives that were other people’s narratives.
The fear in Hollywood is that he’s developed a reputation at Discovery for being cheap and squeezing people. That’s not gonna fly with Charlize Theron or Michael B. Jordan.
All I can say is when I have lunch with David, he picks up the tab a lot.