Op-ed: Will the public come back to the cinema? They already have, says IMAX CEO

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Hollywood has always captured the fascination of the American public. But, with Covid-19 targeting global businesses, it has been for the wrong reasons.

Even despite the encouraging vaccine news from Pfizer and Moderna that has finally made people believe there may be an end in sight to the pandemic, there is still a lot of speculation about the movies’ deaths.

Many experts believe the theater industry will be devastated by the pandemic’s longstanding effects on their businesses and consumer behavior. Studio versions keep getting pushed back and then reversed. Viewers are confident that consumers will forever be content with streaming content at home because it is easy, relatively safe and convenient.

The bottom line is that a global industry that has been at the center of culture for a century – and which brought down a record $ 42.5 billion at the box office in 2019 – will be wiped out in a matter of months.

Really?

As a New York resident, I am unsure of when we will return to normal. And I can’t blame the media and investors here and my industry friends in Los Angeles, whose own experiences are shrouded in the same uncertainty that I feel every day.

But I also run IMAX, which gives me a different perspective than most – a real “front row seat” of what’s going on in the rest of the world. We make it possible to create and distribute great movies in the best possible way on the biggest screens around the world, in 82 countries and territories.

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And when people ask me if audiences will really come back to the movies, my answer is simple: they already have.

Where the virus has been treated with genuine public health discipline – places like Japan, South Korea, China and across Asia – the public is returning safely and with enthusiasm. These are countries with tech-savvy consumers who have returned to the cinema, avoiding the isolation of home entertainment to once again enjoy a shared experience on the big screen.

It is not a prognosis. These are facts.

Earlier this month, China overtook North America for the first time at the box office – a crown the Middle Empire is not expected to relinquish until the end of the year. China’s burgeoning multiplex network has generated around $ 2 billion at the global box office to date.

While the country has returned to normal in many ways – even masks are no longer needed in most indoor theaters – most mainland Chinese still cannot travel abroad and are turning to the cinema for to escape.

Weekly IMAX tickets sold at the Chinese box office have completely returned to levels seen in the second half of 2019, despite lingering capacity limitations that were only recently increased to 75% and a few Hollywood movie releases – which typically represent more than a third of the global Chinese box office.

The world’s biggest blockbuster of the year doesn’t come from Hollywood, but from China. The war epic “The Eight Hundred” – the first Chinese film shot entirely with IMAX cameras – has grossed more than $ 370 million at the box office to date and is among the top ten releases of all time in Canada. Chinese box office.

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And yes, these are real numbers. At IMAX, we have the receipts to prove it.

In Japan, manga sensation “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” opened at $ 44 million – blowing Japan’s previous best opening weekend out of the water – and broke $ 100 million in just two weeks.

The New York Times reported that a theater in Tokyo had scheduled 42 screenings of the film in a single day to meet unprecedented audience demand from 7 a.m. to well after midnight. And a Japanese economy minister hailed it as “a spectacular achievement for the worlds of culture and entertainment as they battle the coronavirus.”

In July, the South Korean zombie hit “Peninsula” was the first international film to enter the void as theaters began to reopen – marking an opening weekend of $ 21 million to hit nearly $ 40 million. dollars in Asia, Europe and even the United States.

From Japan to Russia, local film industries are profiting from the shortage of Hollywood films – showing the world the breadth and depth of their ambition, and how many of their blockbuster productions now rival the best of Hollywood.

And they’re greeted by massive audiences eager to leave their couches and, perhaps, the reality of a tough year.

There will of course be changes, especially here in North America.

Streaming and windowing strategies will evolve. Streamers will continue to push further into blockbuster movie making, striving to create new franchises with filmmakers and creatives who want to see their work on the big screen. In a world of shortened windows, this creates a new pipeline of potential content that movie theater owners should welcome.

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Many North American theater owners face restructuring, which would be difficult. But, in the end, less debt and a smaller, more focused and productive number of multiplexes could be a good thing.

The theater industry needs to embrace change, rather than trying to escape it.

But we also need to stand behind the magic of the shared experience of seeing a movie on the big screen. The biggest blockbusters were made to be seen in theaters. Streaming – with its many advantages – cannot replace the cultural and commercial impact of a theatrical release.

And think about it. In the midst of 2020’s relentless news cycle, turning off your phone, sitting in a dark theater, shaking off your worries and immersing yourself in the incomparable sight and sound of a movie, doesn’t it sound pretty good in this moment?

From our global perspective, it is clear that rumors of movie deaths are overblown. And our mission at IMAX continues: to provide consumers with the best movies with the best entertainment experience they can get anywhere.

Whether it’s next week or next year, you can be sure – we’ll see you at the movies.

—Richard Gelfond is Managing Director of IMAX.

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