IMAX crossed $1bn at the global box office in 2018 for the first time and CEO Rich Gelfond expects to do even better this year after a 12-month cycle buoyed by significant contributions from China.
IMAX China Holding reported a record $337m last year as box office climbed 16% on the previous year. Grosses for the year-to-date have reached $78m, driven for the most part by local smash The Wandering Earth.
The large screen company shattered its Chinese New Year record, earning $32.3m over the six-day holiday for a 40% gain on the same period in 2018. Current grosses in the territory are running some 61% ahead year-on-year, and The Wandering Earth has generated more than $45m on IMAX.
Gelfond anticipates 2019 will set a new global record, with a release slate that includes Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Spider-Man: Far From Home, It: Chapter 2, Frozen 2, and Star Wars: Episode IX.
Captain Marvel will be formatted to show audiences up to 26% more picture exclusively on IMAX, an initiative the CEO said was at the core of the company’s strategy of differentiating itself from conventional theatres, while also working more with filmmakers.
Gelfond told Screendaily he began visiting China more than four years ago and has now been more than 50 times. “Early on we realised that we had to behave like a Chinese company and not like a North American company coming into the market,” he said. “So it’s a separate entity; it trades on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, we have over 100 employees in China, and we have worked with [around] 100 Chinese partners between filmmaker and studios.”
Key to the success on The Wandering Earth is a new programming strategy whereby IMAX programmed three films heading into the Chinese New Year holidays and focused its energies on the film that showed early signs of promise, in this case The Wandering Earth.
Gelfond sees international growth opportunities in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. “There’s a lot of activity going on for us in both Japan and [South] Korea and those are two of the best-performing markets in the world,” he said. “China still has a significant way to go. We’ve been making a lot of progress in the Middle East. We’ve started developing the market in Western Europe a few years ago where we didn’t have a presence until a few years ago, specifically Germany [where IMAX launched its first theatre last year] and France [where partners include Pathé].”
The executive also noted encouraging early signs in Italy and Spain, and Turkey, where IMAX has a relationship with exhibitor Mars. The UK, where IMAX operates 50 theatres, remains a strong market and IMAX regularly contributes more than 10% of box office on the tentpoles it carries.