Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'India is one of Imax's most successful markets'

Imax Corporation CEO Richard Gelfond talks about constant technological innovation, and why people love going to the cinema

Naini Thaker
Published: Jan 31, 2023 05:58:50 PM IST
Updated: Feb 1, 2023 01:18:19 PM IST

During Richard Gelfond’s recent visit to India, he spoke about technological innovations at Imax Corporation, growing bigger in the Indian market and a lot more. Image: Neha Mithbawkar for Forbes IndiaDuring Richard Gelfond’s recent visit to India, he spoke about technological innovations at Imax Corporation, growing bigger in the Indian market and a lot more. Image: Neha Mithbawkar for Forbes India

Richard Gelfond started his first business as an eight-year-old, polishing shoes at barber shops across New York. Later, in high school, he went on to starting a sports magazine called New York Ball. Gelfond knew business was his calling, but being raised in a lower-middle class family, his parents insisted he study law. “So, I went to law school, and didn’t like being a lawyer. It was boring,” he says. Over the years, he set up various businesses.

In 1994, his firm Cheviot Capital Advisors acquired Imax. “I was always entrepreneurial, but this is better than shining shoes,” Gelfond laughs. At that time, Imax had only 50 theatres that showcased movies that were mostly documentaries about space or wildlife, at science centres and museums. Twenty-nine years later, Imax has transitioned from niche to mainstream entertainment, with close to 1,800 theatres worldwide.

During Gelfond’s recent visit to India, he spoke to Forbes India about technological innovations at Imax Corporation, growing bigger in the Indian market and a lot more. Edited excerpts:

Q. How important is India as a market for Imax?

When we were setting the calendar for 2023, I told my team that I’d like to visit a market that was very significant to us. Without hesitating, they said, you must go to India. It’s really the right time for us to be in India, because we are coming off a year where we had several breakthroughs. In 2022, we released about six Indian language films, like RRR, KGF and Ponniyin Selvan:I in Imax, and about one-third of our total box office [earnings] was from Indian films.

India has been one of our most successful markets, in terms of our ability to get up to speed and make a difference. Our per-screen average in India was about $900,000 for 2022, which is great—almost the same as in the US or slightly higher. We believe India has a lot of catalysts in place to see explosive growth in the coming years.

Q. How well have these Indian films performed globally?

One of the good things about regional language films being released on Imax is that we not only do well in India, but we also release these films in other markets such as the Middle East, Sri Lanka or the US. RRR is an interesting example, because while we had a successful run in India, the film made $3.2 million in its opening weekend in the US as well. Earlier, our focus was mostly Hollywood films, but we are transitioning to films in other languages now. With India, we did see a few obstacles in the last few years, with mall construction slowing down, followed by the pandemic. But this appears to be the right time for us, when all the pieces are in place.

Also read: From 'KGF - Chapter 2' to 'Kantara' and more, here's how Indian cinema fared at the box office

Q. The pandemic took a severe toll on the industry, and changed the way we watch films. Has the film exhibition sector globally recovered?

I was never too concerned about the pandemic; the narrative that was going around saying people will never get off their couch was false. Going to the movies is a cultural phenomenon and a communal experience—you laugh, cry, go aahh… together. This narrative has collapsed. The numbers for Avatar: The Way of Water, which has grossed $2.12 billion worldwide, says it all. Imax screens accounted for $227 million of this, making it the second-highest grossing Imax release of all time.

I think 2022 was a transition year for the industry, where a lot of films that got delayed due to the pandemic were released. For Imax, 2022 was a pretty good year. Outside of China—which has been up and down—we did 41 percent more than our box office in 2019.

Part of the reason is that post-Covid, people are really seeking out special experiences; be it sports or music, they’ve come to cherish events a lot more. Avatar, for instance—though it might cost a little more to watch it in an Imax theatre—was something people wanted to experience, something special. We have been sitting in front of our screens at home for the last three years, and want a change now. So, this has provided us with a lot of momentum.

Q. What is the process of releasing a film at an Imax theatre, from a technology point of view? How do you decide which films to release at Imax? 

There are two ways to release a film at Imax: One is to use a special process to improve the film’s resolution, and the other is to use Imax cameras to shoot the films.

The way we decide is by looking at the scope of the project, the scale of the film and how important sound is in that project. Second, we also look at the director. For instance, if its Christopher Nolan or James Cameron, you just know that the film is made for Imax. We are seeing a similar trend for India as well, where we want filmmakers known for shooting large-scale, quality projects to release their films at Imax. Lately, we have many more inquiries for new projects than we have capacity for.

Some filmmakers want to use Imax cameras, whereas some don’t. Dune, is a great example. The filmmakers had a great experience, and so we are now doing Dune 2 using Imax cameras as well. More and more filmmakers prefer shooting with our cameras. Cary Fukunaga, the director of No Time to Die, filmed it with Imax cameras. He said, “After I was flying first class, I don’t want to go back to economy.”

Q. What are some of the new technologies that are being explored by Imax?

Recently, we have been exploring a new generation of cameras that could help capture images better and are easier for filmmakers to use. Sound is also very important to the Imax experience, and there is innovation happening in that space as well.

The process of blowing up films to make them good at Imax is called Digital Media Remastering (DMR)—which is now available in the cloud. Earlier, we had to send the movies to Los Angeles, but now with the cloud, our turnaround time is much better. This will be great for films across India or China, since films can be available on Imax much faster.

During the pandemic, we introduced a new service called ‘Imax Live’, with which we are wiring theatres so we can do live events. For instance, a Q&A session with Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson. The image is as good as an Imax theatre, but available live on the internet, and people from across the world can ask questions to the guest. Additionally, we recently acquired Ssimwave, a company that optimises streaming content. This helps people sitting at home experience a Christopher Nolan film in the best possible quality.

Q. Are you also considering live sports?

We have experimented with soccer and NHL hockey. I’m not sure if we want to look at it, because Imax provides a special experience, and we don’t want to compete with television or streaming. We are doing all kinds of tests right now, but it will have to meet the criteria of being very special.

Q. How necessary is it for you, as a leader, to constantly reinvent?

It is extremely important to stay ahead of the curve. We are constantly innovating and we will continue to do so, in different ways. I get bored very easily. I have done this for 30 years; doing the same thing for 30 years can get boring. So I like being uncomfortable and restless. I feel that if we don’t do it, someone else will… so we need to keep at it to stay ahead.

Q. What is the expansion plan for India?

We are speaking to several studios, filmmakers and theatre owners across India to expand our network. Currently we have 23 theatres in India, and are looking to open six new ones in the coming year. That’s about 25 percent growth in the next couple of months for India.

We’ve also got a lot of interest from Indian studios and filmmakers to work with us. In 2022, we did six films, but in 2023 we are hoping to release 10 to 12 Indian films. We hope to really help the Indian film industry make the most of the Indian and global box office. The thing is, as soon as the audience knows the film is coming to Imax, they know it will be something special.