IMAX boss basks in ‘Oppenheimer’ afterglow as Hollywood strike clouds future

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By Dan Sears

Richard Gelfond has helmed IMAX for nearly three decades — navigating the company through the pandemic as well as the increasing popularity of watching movies from home rather than on a big screen. During the interview earlier this week, Gelfond was on cloud nine as his company has raked in $123 million worldwide from “Oppenheimer” since it premiered July 21. On The Money spoke with him about the “Oppenheimer” craze and how IMAX will handle a potential dearth of content amid the Hollywood strikes.

Lydia: It’s certainly been a great summer for “Oppenheimer” but how will this impact the movie business long term and is this something that can be replicated?

Rich: It will definitely impact the business long term and it already has. Filmmakers have already called up and said, “having seen the movie and the effect on box office, how do I get an IMAX release?” Others have asked how to film with IMAX cameras, what does it cost and what’s involved.

One of the surprising things about this movie is that, in places where we weren’t sure how it would do — the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Central Europe — it’s done really well. So exhibitors who have been partners in the IMAX business are calling asking to explore doing more IMAX theaters. Exhibitors have said “I’ve got to get more in IMAX in my theaters.” So, it’s not just a short-term thing, it’s really spun out inquiries in all areas of our business and I think it will create momentum.

Lydia: Do you really think this will spark more directors to film in IMAX?

Rich: Actually I’ve met with one who said he did. Usually these don’t work on an alarm clock basis — usually it takes a while. But someone approached me who is working on a big two-part movie and said he’s interested in filming with IMAX cameras. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and having someone approach me in a matter of a few weeks is really surprising so I think there will be more.

Christopher Nolan has recommended fans see Oppenheimer in 70mm format on an IMAX screen.
Studio Carre Photographie

Lydia: Some directors have said that filming with IMAX cameras are inherently noisy devices and that the sound editing process can be a lengthy process. Will this be an issue for adoption?

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Rich: It takes quite a bit of technical skill to shoot with IMAX film cameras, and not every filmmaker is up for it. But, as one very prominent director once told me, “it’s like flying in first class; once you’ve done it, you never want to go back to coach.” 

The new film cameras we’re developing will be quieter. Additionally, we work with high-end digital camera manufacturers to upgrade and certify select models to film for IMAX, which gives filmmakers another option to create for our platform.

Lydia: How else do you plan to capitalize on IMAX’s popularity? Will you bring back other IMAX films?

Rich: We are looking at maybe bringing back some of Christopher Nolan’s other movies just given how popular this is. Some of them — because of the pandemic — couldn’t be seen theatrically so that is something we’re thinking about. We’re building four more film cameras because we think there will be increased demand going forward.

We’ve held “Oppenheimer” over until the end of the month but we are exploring holding it over even longer. We are exploring bringing it back in certain places because every year there are gaps in the calendar — and you bring back films so there are other opportunities that aren’t obvious on the surface.

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer.
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Lydia: We are in the midst of one of the biggest writers’ and actors’ strikes. How will studios potentially changing film-release dates impact you? Do you think they’ll keep a lot of movies in the can?

Rich: Most of the movies for the rest of the year are all unlikely to move, especially the ones already programmed for release in 2023. Sony moved a few movies around but as a matter of fact that benefited us because it allowed us to play Oppenheimer even longer, which is doing so well we wouldn’t have wanted to take it off the screen right now. Especially because IMAX is so global — we do about 30 or 40 local language/non-Hollywood films each year — we have a lot of flexibility about how to program things so I believe that if some things move we’ll be able to make our own moves around them.

A lot of worse things have happened to the industry in the last few years. Although there are challenges, I think it pales in comparison to the pandemic. 

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Lydia: Will you put classic films in theaters? 

Rich: Absolutely, and we have for special events — for example, last year we did a special engagement of “JAWS” for the first time in IMAX and we did “Apocalypse Now” a few years back as well.

Lydia: There are a lot of movies on the IMAX website that say “coming soon” — when will you announce those release dates?

Rich: We talk to the studios on a regular basis so before they announce things publicly we have a good idea of what will be and won’t be available. Most, if not all, will not move so we have good visibility into what is happening. But if something happens, we have other things to slate in including “Oppenheimer.”

Members and supporters of SAG-AFTRA and WGA on the picket line.
Getty Images

Lydia: You sound very optimistic that the strike won’t have a financial impact on your business.

Rich: I don’t think this year the strike will have a financial impact on our business of any magnitude. Until we know more, it’s too early to predict for next year.

Lydia: Are the talent requests the unions are making reasonable?

Rich: I think we all want to see talent get paid fairly for work. There is no great content without talent so I hope that is the end result of the strike. But how we get from here to there is complicated and I can’t predict where it will land.

Lydia: I want to get your view on the movie industry and theaters generally — are we only going to see tentpole movies in theaters going forward?

Rich: There are a lot of theaters around the world — 40,000 in North America alone. I think we will, especially because multiplexes have a lot of screens. Even in IMAX we program outside blockbuster films. This year we did a limited run of Beau is Afraid. There will be a role for non-blockbuster films.

On the other hand, what we really specialize in is blockbusters and I think the success of “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” and other big films tells you there is a big appetite for seeing films especially in IMAX.

Lydia: You really believe we’ll have middle-budget films that are projected to make $50 million in theaters?

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Rich: You don’t have to take my word for it — look what “Sounds of Freedom” is doing right now — that movie reportedly cost under $15 million and has made more than $160 million. The Jennifer Lawrence comedy from earlier this summer also outperformed its modest budget.

Lydia: China has been hit hard by the pandemic. How has it impacted you and what is the state of the market in China?

Rich: We have 800 IMAX theaters out of 80,000 in China — so 1% of theaters. But with a recent film, Creation of the Gods, we did 16% of the box office business opening weekend. Oppenheimer is opening in China at the end of August. We had our best July ever in China. China isn’t back to pre-pandemic levels overall yet, but IMAX is doing well there.

Lydia: Apple has unveiled AR glasses… would IMAX consider getting into hardware or working with Apple?

Rich: We always look for places where our technology and brand can add value. Apple is very committed to the theatrical business as well. We have “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Napoleon” both coming out in IMAX so I think we have to explore exactly what it is but we’re open to doing lots of things with Apple.

Lydia: And just for fun: What are your top five favorite movies?

Rich: We’ve had the privilege of doing so many incredible movies in IMAX and, as I often say, I won’t choose between my children. But my favorite film of all time is probably “Chariots of Fire.”

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