IMAX Corporation today (Mar 3) announced a deal with US cinema chain Jack Loeks Theatres to install its first large-format theatre system specifically designed for use in multiplex theatres. The move is a departure from the traditional IMAX format, which required construction of a new theatre. Under the new IMAX MPX technology, a small projection system can be added to an existing multiplex theatre or converted from two adjacent and under-used stadium-seating auditoria in a multiplex.

The new IMAX theatre is expected to become operational in a Loeks multiplex in Michigan in the first quarter of 2004. The projection system works on the same level as a 35mm projection booth and costs around $3m to install the equipment and construct a booth, IMAX co-chairman and co-CEO Richard Gelfond told Screendaily. "It's more of what I call 'plug and play'," Gelfond said.

"We have been extremely pleased with the performance of our existing IMAX theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and are now thrilled to have a product that will enable us to bring IMAX to even more markets," John D Loeks, CEO of Jack Loeks Theatres, said in a statement. "The economics of adding IMAX theatres have been significantly improved, making the return on investment even more attractive, particularly in smaller markets." A traditional IMAX screen has in the past cost $5m to instal.

Once the IMAX MPX is set up, exhibitors will be able to screen traditional IMAX fare such as educational and nature programming or Hollywood "event" films like Star Wars: Episode II - Attack Of The Clones and Apollo 13. The Hollywood blockbusters were introduced to IMAX theatres last year after they were digitally remastered using proprietary IMAX DMR technology.

The New York-based IMAX Corporation believes remastering Hollywood blockbusters will be profitable for it and its exhibitor partners. The Episode II re-release grossed $10m from 58 screens and in many cases audiences were prepared to pay nearly double the cost of admission to a traditional 35mm theatre. During the re-release of Episode II late last year IMAX theatres charged as much as $13 compared to an average ticket price of $6.50 for other theatres. Research also revealed that on average people were prepared to travel 24.6 miles to see Episode II in an IMAX theatre.

"The idea is to get the best Hollywood content and show it in the IMAX format," added Gelfond. IMAX Corporation also has its sights on international expansion. There are currently around 100 IMAX theatres outside the US (with more than 130 in the US) and the first Russian installation is set to open in Moscow in April.

New theatres will also open this year in Prague, Budapest, Chile, Ecuador and China. Theatres already exist in India, China and Eastern Europe, among others. "Within five years China may be the second biggest market in the world after the United States," Gelfond said. He added that a major market was Eastern Europe, spurred on by steady economic growth. "IMAX is good at taking people where they cannot go, so films like Everest and Space Station appeal to countries that are emerging from a period of isolation to a place where their horizons are expanding. The IMAX vision fits the needs of those populations."