Op-ed: Will audiences return to the movies? They already have, IMAX CEO says

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Hollywood has always captured the fascination of the American public. But, as Covid-19 takes aim at global businesses, it’s been for the wrong reasons.

Even in spite of the encouraging news on vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna that have people finally believing that there may be an end in sight to the pandemic, there is still a lot of speculation about the death of moviegoing.

Many pundits think the theater industry will be felled by the longstanding effects of the pandemic on their businesses and consumer behavior. Studio releases keep getting pushed back, and back, and back again. Onlookers are convinced that consumers will be forever content to stream content at home because it’s easy, relatively safe and convenient.

The conclusion is that a global industry that has stood at the center of culture for a century — and pulled down a record $42.5 billion at the box office in 2019 — will be wiped out in just a few months.

Really?

As a resident of New York, I get the uncertainty about when we’ll return to normal. And I cannot fault media and investors here and my industry friends in Los Angeles, whose own experiences are wrapped in the same uncertainty that I feel every day.

But I also run IMAX, which gives me a different perspective than most — a veritable “front row seat” to what is happening in the rest of the world. We enable the creation and distribution of great movies in the best way possible on the largest screens in all four corners of the world, across 82 countries and territories.

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

Where the virus was handled with real public health discipline — places like Japan, South Korea, China, and throughout Asia — audiences are safely and enthusiastically returning. These are countries with tech-savvy consumers who have raced back to theaters, eschewing the isolation of in-home entertainment to once again enjoy a shared big-screen experience.

This is not prognostication. These are facts.

Earlier this month, China surpassed North America for the first time ever in overall box office — a crown the Middle Kingdom is unlikely to relinquish before the year is out. China’s thriving network of multiplexes has generated about $2 billion in global box office to date.

While the country has returned to normalcy in many ways — even masks are no longer required at most indoor venues — most Chinese mainlanders are still unable to travel abroad, and turning to the cinema for escapism.

IMAX weekly tickets sold at the Chinese box office have fully recovered to the levels seen in the back half of 2019, despite continued capacity limitations that were only recently raised to 75% and few Hollywood film releases — which typically account for more than a third of overall Chinese box office.

The biggest global blockbuster of the year hails not from Hollywood, but China. War epic “The Eight Hundred” — the first Chinese film shot entirely with IMAX cameras — has earned more than $370 million at the box office to date and is a top ten all-time release at the Chinese box office.

And yes, these are real numbers. We at IMAX have the receipts to prove it.

In Japan, manga sensation “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” opened to a whopping $44 million — blowing the previous best opening weekend in Japan out of the water — and crossed the $100 million in just two weeks.

The New York Times reported that a theater in Tokyo scheduled 42 showings of the film in a single day to accommodate unprecedented audience demand, from 7:00 a.m. until well after midnight. And a Japanese economic minister hailed it as “a spectacular achievement for the worlds of culture and entertainment as they struggle with the coronavirus.”

Back in July, South Korean zombie hit “Peninsula” was the first international film to step into the void as theaters began to reopen — scoring a $21 million opening weekend on its way to nearly $40 million across Asia, Europe and even the U.S.

From Japan to Russia, local film industries are taking advantage of the dearth of Hollywood films — showing the world the scope and scale of their ambition, and how many of their blockbuster productions now rival the best of Hollywood.

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

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

Streaming and windowing strategies will evolve. Streamers will continue to push further into blockbuster filmmaking, 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, that creates a potential new content pipeline that theater owners should welcome.

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

The theatrical industry must embrace change, rather than try and run from it.

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

And think about it. Amid the relentless news cycle of 2020, doesn’t shutting off your phone, sitting in a darkened theater, shedding your worries and immersing yourself in the unparalleled sight and sound of a movie sound pretty great right about now?

From our global perch it’s clear that rumors about the death of moviegoing are exaggerated. And our mission at IMAX continues: to bring consumers the best movies with the best entertainment experience they can get anywhere.

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

—Richard Gelfond is chief executive of IMAX.

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