Here’s the 411.
The darkened Vegas hotel room was the theater at the Paris Las Vegas. I was there to report on the ShoWest screening of Cars for Jim Hill Media. In front of me sat former Disney Studios Chief and current head Dreamworks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Behind me, the newly appointed CEO of Disney, Robert Iger.
Suddenly, there was a blur of black. A hand gently pressed upon my shoulder and above me stood Steve Jobs in his trademark jeans and black turtleneck. He looked at me, apologized, and went into a brief conversation with Iger – not about business, but about each other’s families. Then he turned to me, apologized again, and started a little bit of chit-chat, again on a personal level. He never asked if I had an iPod or what was on it. That didn’t matter to him. Jobs was a real person treating me as an equal for a brief moment in time.
I didn’t mind any of this. I mean, this was Steve Freakin’ Jobs, a rock star to the nerd generation. He embodied a philosophy that was defined by a brand serviced by technology. Quite different from the man whose hand I shook the day before – IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond. Gelfond embodied a brand based on technology that had an undefined philosophy.
There’s been quite a bit of anger towards Gelfond in the giant screen community, especially after his 2008 New York speech in which he pretty much changed the rules of what IMAX is. The director of a rather prominent institutional theater complained that by Gelfond not attending any giant screen conferences since 2008, he’s shown a lack of interest in his constituent clients. But that sort of complaint is nothing new. More than a decade ago, the director of an IMAX theater in the Hudson Valley complained that the company’s owners owned homes within a short drive and had never visited. Unique to that complaint is the fact that this particular theater was and remains to this day owned and operated by IMAX Corporation itself.
One former IMAX executive countered this argument by explaining that Geldof and IMAX management have given them the greatest gift possible. “They should be thankful they have the IMAX name. Without it, they wouldn’t be getting anywhere near the numbers they have.” The former executive continued, “The magic of IMAX is that nobody can really define what it is, but they know it’s better than the next big thing.”
And Greg MacGillivray certainly knows this. This past April, I was in Washington D.C. interviewing for the Director, Theaters position at the Smithsonian. The question came up on whether to switch to other systems or keep IMAX. I brought up the point that it would be best to see if future MacGillivray Freeman films will be exclusive to IMAX or not. Months later, the answer is obvious.
There are those that complain about this exclusivity clause. I should point out that fifteen years ago, films distributed by IMAX, including the space films, were available for non-IMAX systems, including the 870 format. Somewhere in the last decade, that changed. It is no question that those theaters that have or are considering switching from IMAX will be affected by this deal, but those theaters that for years have operated non-IMAX 1570 and 870 equipment will as well.
In the short-term, the deal is a positive business decision by IMAX. It gets them out of the production end of documentaries while retaining the content exclusive to their format. It’s also a short-term win for MFF, aligning themselves with the leading projection technology company while competitors such as Giant Screen Films and National Geographic pursue digital implementation elsewhere.
There are numerous tales of partnerships dissolving over disagreement of procedure and benefits, be they sponsorship (Disney and McDonald’s), production and distribution (Disney and Imagemovers), or just plain stupidity (the Academy and Brett Ratner). I’ll be surprised if this deal makes it beyond five years. For MFF to meet the viewership they desire for their One Ocean giant screen film, the number of institutional IMAX theaters operating in five years will not be enough.
The industry is in flux, a bit chaotic, and becoming ever more splintered. It used to be that giant screen or large format cinema was not just based on the size of the screen, but on the film format and the projector designed for that format as well. With digital cinema technology, many of the same projectors used in conventional cinemas can be used on flat giant screens (domes if tiled) and anyone who has the knowhow to install in a conventional auditorium can in a large one as well. The GSCA giant screen specs are limited to screen size only and I fear that if DIGSS is not adhered to, we will lose standards altogether.
Christian Scheidegger, the President of Euromax, recently issued an open letter to the giant screen community regarding this matter, which accompanies this post. Although I agree with most of it, I do not with all. And that is what makes this industry so vibrant.
One day, I hope to shake Richard Gelfond’s hand again and congratulate him. For every institutional theater he loses because they don’t feel he cares, he gains ten commercial ones in China. He’s a business man. His company has always been about making a profit, ever since he bought it in 1994. IMAX has been on the brink of financial troubles so many times, and yet each time, Gelfond and his team have reinvented it, making it stronger, and making the brand stronger, no matter what that might mean. I wonder what’s on his iPod.
That’s it for now. See you in a week or two unless breaking news happens – like Rich Gelfond laughing while Greg MacGillivray holds me down in a darkened Santa Monica screening room.