While American Sniper continued to pick off box office records in its sixth weekend, as well as any new wide release in its path, we saw box office anomaly: Warner Bros.’ IMAX presentation of HBO’s Game of Thrones made $1.5M from 205 playdates for a per-theater of $7,323. While not necessarily an IMAX opening record of any kind, what the experiment proved was that die-hard Game of Thrones fans were quite willing to shell out serious bucks to see their favorite show in large format, even though the show is available about everywhere thanks to the HBO GO app.
“This is the first time that HBO has taken one of their series episodes and released it in IMAX,” said Warner Bros. distribution EVP Jeff Goldstein. “We see this as a future, and not just with HBO.”
The Game of Thrones IMAX release featured the last two episodes of season four, The Watchers on the Wall and The Children, with a five-minute tease of season 5. The episodes were digitally remastered into the IMAX format and sound quality with proprietary IMAX DMR (Digital Re-mastering) technology.
IMAX found that Game of Thrones worked best in the big cities, versus the suburban locations. Less surprising, it played heavily among the most avid of the show’s fans. Those cities showing Game of Thrones in IMAX include Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Montreal, New York, San Antonio, Seattle, Toronto and Washington, D.C.
“There is a business here and an interest from a rabid fan base,” said Goldstein about the potential for more popular TV shows to exhibit in large format. Game of Thrones’ timing couldn’t be better. The TV series fills a calendar block for IMAX known as a shoulder period – when a studio blockbuster pic isn’t being released (shoulder periods are defined as Super Bowl weekend, the end of August/beginning of September, the weekend after Thanksgiving, and the post-Easter to pre-Marvel May weekend period.
“It’s incumbent for us to fill out that shoulder period for our partners with content that is compelling,” said IMAX Entertainment CEO Greg Foster.
However, what’s key before any visual is screened in IMAX is that it meets the large-format provider’s visual and sound criteria. IMAX put Game of Thrones through its DMR conversion process, which is the same technique used to convert movies. Within a week, the IMAX tech team found that the HBO show did in fact look cinematic; the visuals were more high-def and the sound crisper. Bringing Game of Thrones to theaters wasn’t just about blowing it out for the big screen. Game of Thrones executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss expressed to Entertainment Weekly that they were blown away by the conversion.
It’s not the first time the screening of a TV episode has clicked at the box office. In November 2013, BBC America released the 50th anniversary 3D episode of Doctor Who, “The Day of the Doctor” making $10.2M over three days in 15 countries with $4.7M in the U.S. alone at 650 sites. In addition, BBC America in association with Fathom Events exhibited the season 8 premiere episode of Doctor Who, “Deep Breath” in 550 theaters across the U.S. Aug. 23-35 with bonus footage (no box office results were reported).
While large format has always been prime for such mega franchise titles like The Dark Knight, The Hobbit and sci-fi epics like Interstellar, the success of Game of Thrones, and even American Sniper, demonstrate that audiences are willing to pay and see other types of genres on the mega-big screen. American Sniper alone has made $21M in IMAX. This weekend alone, moviegoers paid $3.2M to see the Clint Eastwood R-rated drama in non-IMAX large format screens.
Locally in Hollywood during the Emmy pre-season, there’s been a huge turnout for TV episodes on the big screen. For the audience, taking in popular hour-long TV shows in a movie theater is akin to sharing the awe of a big summer film with a large crowd. For example, at a 2013 TV Academy screening of the Mad Men season 6 episode “Favors”, attendees let out a loud gasp when young Sally Draper walked in on Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in bed with Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini).
Granted, TV Academy screenings are gratis for Emmy voters. But consider that TV fans routinely shell out $50 to $100 for tickets to the PaleyFest annual shindig at the Dolby Theater, where they see an episode or two of a show and hear from most of the show’s principals.
Last year’s American Horror Story: Coven screening with Emma Roberts, Evan Peters and Denis O’Hare drew a sell-out crowd; in addition there was a packed house for the Veronica Mars reunion. Next month’s PaleyFest will include hot TV episode screenings as Teen Wolf, Scandal, Girls, Outlander, Glee‘s farewell, Arrow and The Flash.
So will we see more TV episodes released in the near future?
“No one ever foresaw the possibility of doing this with Game of Thrones,” said one TV marketing executive. “What makes these releases complicated are all the button-down TV series contracts. Going forward, all these legal entanglements should work themselves out as the industry sees the promotional value and how we can monetize these TV shows further. It works well for the stakeholders.”
Explained Foster, “Game of Thrones was a lab experiment in IMAX that we’ll continue to fine tune from what we learned. Our goal is to provide compelling content for our exhibitor partners 52 weeks out of the year.”