Richard Gelfond has led IMAX for nearly three decades – guiding the company through the pandemic and the rise in popularity of watching films from the home rather than on the big screen. During the interview earlier this week, Gelfond was on cloud nine as his company has grossed $123 million worldwide from “Oppenheimer” since it premiered on July 21. On The Money spoke to him about the “Oppenheimer” trend and how IMAX will deal with the potential lack of content amid the Hollywood strikes.
Lydia: It’s certainly been a great summer for Oppenheimer, but how will that affect the film business in the long run and can it be repeated?
Rich: It will definitely have a long-term impact on the business, and it already has. Filmmakers have called and said, “How do I get an IMAX release after seeing the film and the box office impact?” Others have asked how to film with IMAX cameras, what it costs and what’s involved .
One of the surprising things about this film is that it did really well in places where we weren’t sure how it would resonate – the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Central Europe. Exhibitors who have been partners in the IMAX business are therefore calling and asking for more IMAX theaters to be created. Exhibitors said, “I need to have more IMAX in my theaters.” So it’s not just a short-term thing, it’s more of a broadening of demand across all areas of our business, and I think that will create momentum.
Lydia: Do you really think this will encourage more directors to film at IMAX?
Rich: In fact, I met someone who claimed that. Usually these don’t work on an alarm clock basis – usually it takes a while. But I was approached by someone who is working on a large two-piece and said they were interested in filming with IMAX cameras. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and it’s really surprising that someone has approached me within a few weeks, so I think there will be more.
Lydia: Some directors have said that filming with IMAX cameras is inherently noisy equipment and that the sound editing process can be a tedious process. Will this be a problem for adoption?
Rich: Shooting with IMAX film cameras requires some technical skill, and not every filmmaker is ready for it. But as a very prominent director once told me, “It’s like flying first class; Once you’ve done it, you never want to go back to the coach.”
The new film cameras we are developing will be quieter. Additionally, we are working with high-end digital camera manufacturers to upgrade and certify select models for filming for IMAX, giving filmmakers another opportunity to create for our platform.
Lydia: How else do you intend to capitalize on the popularity of IMAX? Will you be bringing back other IMAX movies?
Rich: We’re thinking about maybe bringing back some of Christopher Nolan’s other films because they’re so popular. Some of them couldn’t be seen in cinemas because of the pandemic, so we’re thinking about it. We are building four more film cameras because we expect demand to increase in the future.
We have “Oppenheimer” on hold until the end of the month, but are considering keeping it longer. We’re considering reintroducing it in certain locations because there are gaps in the calendar every year – and bringing films back opens up other possibilities that aren’t obvious at first glance.
Lydia: We are in the middle of one of the biggest writers’ and actors’ strikes. How will studios potentially changing the release dates of their films affect you? Do you think they will keep many films in the can?
Rich: Most films are unlikely to be delayed for the remainder of the year, particularly those already slated for a 2023 release. Sony has delayed a couple of films, but we actually benefited from that because it allowed us to play Oppenheimer longer, which is doing so well that we didn’t want to take it off the screen now. Mostly because IMAX is so global – we make about 30 or 40 local language and non-Hollywood films each year – we have a lot of flexibility in programming our own movements around them.
Much worse has happened to the industry in recent years. While there are challenges, I think it pales in comparison to the pandemic.
Lydia: Will you bring classic films to cinemas?
Rich: Absolutely, and we’ve done that on special occasions — for example, last year we did a special showing of “JAWS” at IMAX for the first time, and we also did “Apocalypse Now” a few years ago.
Lydia: There are a lot of movies on the IMAX website that say “Coming Soon” – when will you be announcing the release dates?
Rich: We speak to studios regularly so we have a good idea of what will and will not be available ahead of release. Most, if not all, won’t move, giving us a good look at what’s going on. But if something happens, we have other things to plan for, including Oppenheimer.
Lydia: You sound very optimistic that the strike will not have any financial impact on your business.
Rich: I don’t think the strike will have any financial impact on our business this year. Until we know more, it’s too early to make a forecast for next year.
Lydia: Are the union talent requests reasonable?
Rich: I think we all want talented people to be paid fairly for their work. There is no great content without talent, so I hope this 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 end up.
Lydia: I would like to know your opinion on the film industry and cinemas in general – will we only see tentpole films in cinemas in the future?
Rich: There are many theaters around the world – 40,000 in North America alone. I think we will, especially as multiplexes have many screens. We also program in the IMAX outside of blockbuster films. This year we did a limited edition Beau is Afraid. There will be a role for non-blockbuster films.
On the other hand, we really specialize in blockbusters and I think the success of Oppenheimer and Barbie and other big films shows that there is a big appetite to see movies, especially at IMAX.
Lydia: Do you really think we’re going to have mid-budget movies that are expected to hit $50 million in theaters?
Rich: You don’t have to take my word for it – look what Sounds of Freedom is up to – this film reportedly cost less than $15 million and grossed more than $160 million. Earlier this summer’s Jennifer Lawrence comedy also beat its modest budget.
Lydia: China has been hit hard by the pandemic. How did that affect you and how is the market situation in China?
Rich: We have 800 out of 80,000 IMAX theaters in China – so 1% of the theaters. But with a recent film, Creation of the Gods, we made 16% of box office sales in its opening weekend. Oppenheimer opens in China at the end of August. We had the best July ever in China. China overall has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, but IMAX is doing well there.
Lydia: Apple introduced AR glasses. Would IMAX consider getting into the hardware or collaborating with Apple?
Rich: We’re always looking for places where our technology and our brand can add value. Apple is also heavily involved in the cinema business. “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Napoleon” are both coming out in IMAX, so I think we need to figure out exactly what it is, but we’re open to a lot of things with Apple.
Lydia: And just for fun, what are your five favorite movies?
Rich: We have had the privilege of shooting so many incredible films at IMAX and, as I often say, I will not choose between my children. But my favorite movie of all time is probably Chariots of Fire.