The large screen theater company set a high bar for itself this morning when it reported a 55.7% jump in the gross box office for its films in Q4. But CEO Rich Gelfond will try to beat that in 2013 by taking more control over the films IMAX theaters show. One initiative, unveiled this morning, will deploy digital projectors in about 30 of the company’s most popular theaters which currently use conventional film — including Regal’s IMAX theaters in Irvine, Cal.; Ontario, Cal.; and Orlando, Fla. The change is needed because film stock is “disappearing faster than we had anticipated” and the cost of processing it is rising. “With a digital projector we can show 25 films a year because each hard drive costs $150,” he tells me. “You can swap it in or out, no big deal. In a film theater each print costs $30,000. They’re big, bulky, and expensive.” But the digital projectors aren’t powerful enough to light some of the largest screens including theaters in New York’s Lincoln Square, Los Angeles’ Howard Hughes Center, and the Universal CityWalk. That’s one reason why the digital projectors are merely an “interim solution” until late 2014 when IMAX will roll out its more powerful laser projectors.
In addition to the digital projection plan, Gelfond says that IMAX is more actively programming overseas theaters. “Years ago we might have just said, ‘Die Hard opens this weekend; play Die Hard.’ Now we’re being more proactive at filling the gaps in programming an international schedule.” For example he says that IMAX has had good luck in China with a local film, Journey To The West, while elsewhere some theaters are showing Life Of Pi and other territories have Les Miserables. “Once you reach a critical mass of theaters, it’s like subscribers to HBO,” he says. “As you open each theater you don’t have to pay more for the content. So your margins go up and your recurring revenues go up. We hit that critical mass.”