There was an air of quiet optimism among theatre owners at CinemaCon last week, writes Jeremy Kay.

Far from the madding crowd of previous conventions, when hot-button topics like collapsed windows and digital conversion dominated the agenda, the mood was reflective and positive.

If the biggest ‘controversy’ came when NATO chief John Fithian admitted he found 12 Years A Slave too intense to watch on the big screen, that’s an indicator of how placid the entire convention really was. Fithian is devoted to theatres, meant no harm and articulated what many in Hollywood feel. So he was a little outspoken and apparently ruffled feathers at Fox Searchlight. The movie won the Oscar and has grossed more than $175m worldwide. Give him a break.

Sure, there are challenges to exhibition. Piracy is the industry’s equivalent of the war on drugs and will never go away. The march of alternative platforms continues apace and sooner or later Hollywood will have to address the subject of collapsing windows.

Furthermore, the growth in North American box office – numbers that are trumpeted each year by Fithian and MPAA chief Senator Chris Dodd – is driven in large part by 3D price premiums and inflation. We should never allow the rhetoric to seduce us away from the fact that, barring the occasional spike, US admissions have been in gradual decline for decades.

No industry is without its challenges and these are the realities of an exhibition sector that seems confident about how entertaining it can be. I am dazzled by the possibilities that technology and alternative platforms offer storytelling – of course it is the future – but they are not mutually exclusive with theatrical exhibition.

Movie-going will remain a viable business in some form for many years to come, so it’s good to see theatre owners stop whining about what they cannot change and focus on what they can improve. Alternative content, better in-theatre experiences and cutting-edge specs are key.

The rise of international box office and astonishing growth rate in select markets is cause for optimism. It’s going to be fascinating to see how this plays out in the years ahead: the Chinese, for example, are opening 13 theatres a day and at the same time online streaming is all the rage. Oh for a crystal ball.

If exhibition in the US were to take a long hard look at itself and ask what were the next steps in a mature and oversaturated market, I would suggest the answer lies in going even bigger. As big as Imax, to be precise.

In his talk to the massed ranks at CinemaCon, Christopher Nolan was wary not to give anything away about his November release Interstellar. But, whether by accident or design, the British auteur gave us an insight into a potentially huge tweak to the distribution model.

He said he had shot more on Imax than he has for any other movie and was preparing “really beautiful Imax prints that will be in certain key locations.” He added that the format could not be beaten in terms of resolution and, most intriguingly, said the presentation of his newest movie would be more crucial than at any other time in his career.

Nolan loves Imax and Imax loves Nolan. Warner Bros and Paramount, partners on Interstellar, are in his thrall, as are exhibitors. So what if Nolan were to advocate releasing Interstellar first in an exclusive Imax window? Who would deny one of cinema’s greatest visionaries and technicians?

The relatively low number of Imax screens in the US means it would be a fairly limited footprint – but imagine the word of mouth. And I’m not talking Ghost Protocol Imax previews, but a nice two-week run. After that amount of time it would arrive in conventional theatres and crowds would be banging down the doors. That’s what Harvey Weinstein does with his platform releases, so why not make it a scalable business model?

Imax Corporation (which declined to comment for this article) is thriving. It’s cutting installation deals all over the world, signing more studio tentpoles and announcing box office records every month. More and more filmmakers want their movies to get the Imax treatment. Nolan could really start something here that would be a win for Imax, the studios and conventional exhibition.

And it would be one way of keeping people excited about going to the movies.

Jeremy Kay, US editor, Screen International