IMAX rolling ahead with ‘hitch­ing its wagon’ to China

China Daily (USA) - - ACROSS AMERICA - By CHINA DAILY in New York

Just like a 60-foot-tall movie screen, IMAX Cor­po­ra­tion’s con­fi­dence in the Chi­nese mar­ket is hard to miss.

Ear­lier this year, the gi­antscreen ex­hibitor signed a deal with China’s largest cin­ema op­er­a­tor, Wanda Cin­ema Line, to add 150 the­atres to its cir­cuit over the next six years. Last Oc­to­ber, the com­pany’s China sub­sidiary went pub­lic on the Hong Kong Stock Ex­change.

In a re­cent in­ter­view with China Daily, Imax CEO Richard Gel­fond ex­plained how the com­pany has “hitched its wagon” to China, the sec­ond­largest movie mar­ket in the world and one that’s ex­pected to pass the US as num­ber one by 2017.

Q: How’s Imax do­ing in China?

Imax has about 350 the­atres in China to­day and an­other 40 the­aters that are sched­uled to open over the next several years. We li­cense our tech­nol­ogy to our part­ners, about 45 Chi­nese ex­hi­bi­tion chains. Wanda is the largest of them.

In China, we de­liver both Hol­ly­wood movies and local movies. We work with al­most ev­ery ma­jor stu­dio in China, in­clud­ing China Film Group, Bona Film Group, Wanda, Huayi Broth­ers and many oth­ers. We also work with some of the lead­ing di­rec­tors, in­clud­ing Zhang Yi­mou, Feng Xiao­gang and Jackie Chan.

Q: Why China?

We had a com­bi­na­tion of good judg­ment and luck. We en­tered the mar­ket in the late ’90s, a time when the mul­ti­plex ex­pan­sion was boom­ing and the qual­ity of Chi­nese films was really in­creas­ing. So we in­vested cap­i­tal and re­sources. Now we have about 100 em­ploy­ees in China, al­most all Chi­nese.

Cine­mas in China have grown from around 2,000 to 35,000 (since our en­trance), and Imax has grown from five screens to 750 — all fu­eled by Chi­nese con­sumers’ in­creased dis­pos­able in­come, spare time and will­ing­ness to the see the best movie ex­pe­ri­ence pos­si­ble — and that’s Imax.

Q: How does the Chi­nese mar­ket dif­fer from the US?

It’s pretty much growth ver­sus ma­tu­rity. China is a rel­a­tively new mar­ket in en­ter­tain­ment, and Chi­nese con­sumers really seek out the new­est and best ex­pe­ri­ence. Peo­ple are will­ing to try dif­fer­ent things and see what they like, and if they like it, they go back for more. For­tu­nately, they like Imax.

In other mar­kets, peo­ple may be more used to ex­ist­ing pat­terns and are less likely to try dif­fer­ent things. Also, Chi­nese con­sumers tend to be very loyal, so brand and rep­u­ta­tion are very im­por­tant.

The US mar­ket is very ma­ture. It is grow­ing very slowly, adding very few screens. The stu­dio sys­tem in the US is en­trenched, while China is much more dy­namic and grow­ing like crazy. There are al­ways new stu­dios, new tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies and a lot of money pour­ing in.

Q: Do you fore­see any ob­sta­cles slow­ing the com­pany’s ex­pan­sion in China?

I don’t. A lot of out­siders say that we can’t keep up this growth rate, or real es­tate is chang­ing, but we are in 121 cities with 48 dif­fer­ent part­ners. I think the ap­petite for en­ter­tain­ment is big enough in China that over the next five years, I’d be really sur­prised if there’s any­thing that slows us down.

You al­ways have to be at­tuned, as a busi­ness­man, to the risks you don’t see. I’m not sure what govern­ment poli­cies will be; we’ll have to pay at­ten­tion to that, and the longterm health of the econ­omy and dis­pos­able in­come — the kinds of things that would be ob­sta­cles in any mar­ket in the world.

Q: What’s next? What’s new?

We are al­ways in­no­vat­ing and pro­vid­ing new tech­nol­ogy. We just in­vented our next gen­er­a­tion “Laser” pro­jec­tion sys­tem and in­stalled it in China, and we plan on broad­en­ing our busi­ness to other ar­eas.

Vir­tual Re­al­ity (VR) is def­i­nitely one of them. We just es­tab­lished a joint ven­ture with Google in the US to de­velop a cam­era that we’ll use world­wide to cre­ate spe­cial VR con­tent. We have a spe­cial head­set, which is like the Imax of VR, with a much larger, more im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence. We are launch­ing the first test sites around the world in a few months and I be­lieve one or two of the six will be in China. first

Q: Are Chi­nese films catch­ing up to Hol­ly­wood?

Chi­nese films are def­i­nitely mak­ing a lot of progress. There are more skilled cam­era­men, more skilled di­rec­tors of pho­tog­ra­phy and more skilled di­rec­tors. Bud­gets are go­ing up, hence you’ll see bet­ter spe­cial ef­fects, higher paid ac­tors and higher pro­duc­tion value. Over time, the gap be­tween Hol­ly­wood films and Chi­nese films will nar­row.

Of course, the Chi­nese will have to deal with some is­sues on the con­tent that they pro­duce. Is it dis­tributable on a world­wide scale? I think that’s the aim, but it hasn’t been achieved yet.

CHINA DAILY PRO­VIDED TO

IMAX Cor­po­ra­tion CEO Richard Gel­fond (right) and Peggy Gel­fond at China In­sti­tute’s an­nual Blue Cloud Gala last Tues­day.

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