An Open Letter to the Giant Screen Industry

By Christian Scheidegger

Just recently, MacGillivray Freeman Films and IMAX Corporation announced a new alliance. The official announcement at the GSCA conference in Austin, Texas, created lively discussions amongst theatres, producers and distributors. At this moment, a lot of details, conditions and consequences of this collaboration are still unknown. This was the reason for me to write an open letter to the giant screen industry network.

Last week I attended the Swiss premiere of the film Art of FLIGHT– a state of the art production about extreme snowboarding with some of the most talented and experienced snowboarders of the world in spectacular landscapes and impressive and innovative photography. The theatre at the Swiss Museum of Transport was packed, the digital experience on the giant screen—the biggest screen in Switzerland—took in everybody with its amazing pictures, music and breathtaking rides. Tickets for this and a couple of follow up shows were sold out very quickly.

Two years ago we have started to transmit operas and ballets live and in HD to our giant screen. Tickets for the 11 shows from the Met went away immediately, more than half of the seats were sold as subscriptions for all 11 transmissions.

You can’t almost think of more diverse offers to our patrons—also compared to our traditional 45- minutes documentaries—but they both are very interesting business opportunities for our theatre and they create an additional stream of revenue at a time where there is no marketplace for classic giant screen films.

Unfortunately, I cannot tell about the same experience for most of the traditional 45-minutes documentaries we have released over the last few years. Some of them have done good numbers but we can’t reach the numbers we had ten years ago, even with enhanced marketing campaigns and augmented sales promotion activities.

During the GSCA conference in Austin Texas this September IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF) in a closed circle announced their future collaboration in film production and distribution. While not many details of this joint venture were revealed at that point a huge discussion amongst theatres, producers and distributors about the impact for the whole giant screen industry was set-off by this announcement of two of the big players of the industry. The following press release from IMAX and MacGillivray from September 26 did not disclose any new details about the actual plans in details.

Many theatres were asking themselves what this meant for them as film buyers. Was this a move from IMAX to tell them to wait for their proprietary digital system because otherwise they would be excluded from the access to the IMAX and MFF library? Was this a move from Greg MacGillivray to secure his life’s work? Would they still get films from IMAX and MacGillivray? What would this mean for the whole library of films of both companies? Would the respective distribution departments at MFF and IMAX be merged, laying off some of the most committed people in the industry?

According and based on the list of films published by the Giant Screen Cinema Association GSCA over all those years there have been produced and distributed 416 giant screen titles altogether (including titles not exclusively produced for the giant screen). Out of those 86 (20%) have been produced and/or distributed by IMAX Corporation, whereas MacGillivray Freeman Films has contributed 45 films (11%) to the giant screen film library so far.

A look at the last three years gives the following picture: in 2011 there are six new films released which were originally produced for the giant screen. IMAX contributed one film; no films from MFF are on the record for this year. In 2010 seven out of nine new films have been produced by neither IMAX nor MFF. In 2009 IMAX and MFF were producing one new film each, resulting in 50% of the yearly output from new films.

Thus the fear of some theatre operators that IMAX and MFF are controlling the market with their combined production and distribution efforts doesn’t seem that evident just looking at the sheer number of films released on the market. What is of more concern is the fact that IMAX will maintain their philosophy of a proprietary system with their new digital system and thus play the gatekeeper of what will be available on IMAX screens and what not.

This has been a good model as long as IMAX themselves kept this gate open for productions originally produced for the giant screen. It was a closed circle with a clear positioning of the product that was available. It got less convincing when IMAX started to release 35mm Hollywood releases blown up to 70mm, thus allowing content that was not originally produced for the giant screen to be shown with cropped edges on the giant screen. Suddenly the congruency of technology, content and the actual experience got blurry. All around the world every giant screen theatre operator had to decide if he would follow and “eat the meal” IMAX had prepared for them or not. Given the diverse situation on every marketplace this was and still is quite a challenge for many theatres.

Over the last few years the whole cinema industry was shaken by the transition to digital. This process took a bit longer to reach the giant screen industry but it looks as if it has arrived much earlier than expected by many. In our case the digital formats based on the open DCI standard allows us a theatre operator to take our entrepreneurial responsibility to create convincing offers with compelling product on the giant screen. I think the giant screen industry has left its age as a supply dominated industry and is now—as the rest of the (cinema) industry—in a phase dominated by consumer demand.

Today, as a theatre operator you have to be flexible and innovative if you want to survive or even thrive. With the arrival of digital 3D and also with other changes in the leisure world the old recipes of film production AND theatre operations do not longer work in many marketplaces. In a time where the majority of traditional cinemas have opted for digital and 3D giant screen theatres have to adapt to an new situation: 3D is no longer a unique selling point; the sheer size of the screen is one right now and probably will stay, even more for domes.

In this light I hope that both IMAX and MacGillivray do see the signs of the time and take their responsibility in order to support the innovation of the industry without compromising its core values and without restricting or even dictating (or excluding) product to a theatre operator community with a very high developed business acumen who is no longer willing to simply accept business decisions taken by somebody very far away (not just geographically) from their marketplace. On a short notice it will be crucial for everybody in the industry to learn more about the details, conditions and consequences of the deal to recreate a certain visible reliability and stability for everybody in the industry.

Christian Scheidegger is the Manager of the Filmtheatre at the Swiss Transport Museum, Zurich, and current President of Euromax, the European giant screen trade association.  Mr. Scheidegger can be contacted at: Christian.scheidegger (at) verkehrshaus.ch

This letter is published on the Kinotech Blog with the understanding and approval of the author.  Publication of this material on the Kinotech Blog does not constitute endorsement of its contents by the Blog or its blogmaster.

 

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