Collider Interviews Greg Foster – The Chairman and President of IMAX Filmed Entertainment!

     October 31, 2008

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

Last week I did something incredibly cool….I got to visit IMAX headquarters in Santa Monica and take a short tour of the facilities. Of course the tour alone would’ve made the drive down there pretty cool…but I wasn’t just going to see their headquarters. No, I went there to interview Greg Foster – The Chairman and President of IMAX Filmed Entertainment!

As a huge supporter of IMAX, you could sort of say I was excited.

As most of you have probably noticed, every time I speak with a director I always bring up IMAX (Jon Favreau, D.J. Caruso). I figure with the success of “Dark Knight” and how even casual moviegoers raved about the IMAX footage, many other filmmakers and studios are going to start working with the format.

And Greg Foster confirmed my suspicions.

Anyhow, since this interview is a big one, I want to keep the intro brief. But since some of you might not have the time to read the entire conversation… are some important bullet points from the interview:

  • Greg says they’re working on showing live events and classic movies in IMAX theaters! Imagine watching the Super Bowl or a Radiohead concert or Rocky Horror (at midnight) in IMAX! He said he hopes this will be set up and working in 12 to 24 months.
  • As most of you know, IMAX cameras are very noisy. Greg said they are working very hard to create a quiet camera that would be easier to work with. This would help filmmakers on dialogue scenes. He said they are working with a partner but wouldn’t say who the partner is…
  • Explains how IMAX used to play movies for 8-10 weeks, then it became 6-8 weeks, then it became 4-6 weeks and it’s probably going to become 2-4 weeks for a new movie due to demand for the format.
  • He explains all the benefits of digital IMAX and how the new format will make showing more movies feasible and easier. Imagine instead of one movie playing all week, having multiple movies at the same theater.
  • In the next 18-24 months he thinks 200 more theaters will have IMAX – with theaters around the world getting the format.
  • Says Chris Nolan and Wally Pfister (DP on Dark Knight) spent a year studying IMAX before deciding to use the format on Dark Knight. He called them “true students of IMAX”.
  • He goes through their releases of 2009 till Night at the Museum 2
  • He thinks “Watchmen is going to just blow the covers off our screens”
  • Confirms Michael Bay is shooting with IMAX cameras on TF2

Anyway, what’s posted below is a great interview with one of the heads of IMAX. If you’re a fan of the format like I am, I know you’ll find it an interesting and informative interview.

Of course a big thank you to everyone who set this interview up and to Greg Foster for taking some time out of his busy schedule to talk to me. It’s much appreciated.

Collider: So there’s a lot of things I’d like to cover and I don’t even know where to start, so let’s start with this year’s been very good for you guys. The biggest thing I see as a fan of the IMAX format is that there aren’t enough IMAX screens. I’m not talking about the digital IMAX…I’m talking about the full-on IMAX experience. So where are you guys right now as far as getting more screens available in the United States and also in foreign territories.

Greg Foster: I’m going to answer that in 2 parts. First of all, we do not nor will we differentiate between a film screen, a digital screen—we’re speaking in reality here as opposed to theory and the reality is that IMAX Corporation is basically in every cool museum, aquarium, space center that you could possibly be in. We have 3 at the Smithsonian. So after we worked our way through that network, we realized we needed to be in the commercial multiplex situation. And so we started building IMAX film-based screens in giant multiplexes. Multiplexes, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are…there are lots of them. They’re not being built any longer with a thousand seats, 800 seats, etc. There’s a cost involved and the world is getting digital. So I would take fairly major exception to what you said of full IMAX vs. not the digital IMAX because, in our opinion, and there’s lots of marketing research to back it up, but it’s also my intuitive gut, while it’s correct that the screen sizes are often different just like they were different between our original, initial theatres and the ones that were built that were film-based 5 years later and the ones that were built that were film-based 5 years after that. What we have become is user-friendly, and we are a practical solution to exhibition to our 3 constituencies; studios, exhibition and movie-goers. And we want to be as many places as we possibly can and the only way we can do that in a real world, 2008 business environment, because we are a for-profit company, is to take advantage of the digital technology that we’ve created and also to not be unilaterally focused or singularly focused on one thing. Screen size. It’s the quality of the image. It’s the 12,000 watts of digital surround sound. It’s the geometry and the relationship between where someone is sitting and the screen. It’s the fact that our screens are curved and tilted towards the audience producing a much more immersive experience rather than just a flat, stagnant screen. When a movie starts in IMAX, you don’t have 15 trailers. There’s one or two trailers and a 30-second branding trailer. You get right to the feature. So there’s a variety of elements, or suite of tools, that make up the IMAX experience and it really should be irrelevant whether it’s in the digital environment or a film-based environment.

Collider: Yes, I didn’t mean to come at you like that with my first question. That wasn’t my intention, but I definitely heard…listen I’m a huge fan of IMAX as you know.

Greg Foster: Yes, we love that.

Collider: But, in my opinion, there aren’t enough IMAX screens and so where I was going with my initial question was…

Greg Foster: How do we expand our network?

Collider: Well, what are the expansion plans in 2009?

Greg: Great, I’ll tell you right now. In July we began opening…can I get economic in any way or is it not really relevant to your crowd?

Collider: You know something? I don’t think it’s as relevant as just the hard fact of how many more screens will be….

Greg: Can they be expecting . . .

Collider: Exactly.

Greg: There is something that I think you have to know though.

Collider: Okay, what’s that?

Greg: When we convert a movie, there’s a fixed cost converting through DMR a film. And then when you release the movie a print of a movie like “The Dark Knight”…I’m looking for the poster. It’s outside. The best…now you said 2009 is going to be better than 2008. That would be incredible. I’m not sure how you top “The Dark Knight” but if you’re…

Collider: No I’m not.

Greg: I hope that that happens. I’m not betting on it but I hope that it happens. If a print of “The Dark Knight” costs $30,000 in IMAX — a digital print of a movie like “The Dark Knight” or any other 2-1/2 hour movie in IMAX costs less than $1,000. So if you’re wondering how do we expand our network, we expand our network with digital auditoriums where an exhibitor and a distributor can get together and create a deal to play a film when they’re dealing with a fixed cost of less than $1,000 as opposed to a fixed cost of $25 or $30,000 and if you’re a distributor or studio and you want to play a movie but you’re spending $30,000 a print, you’re going to have to play that movie for 4-6 weeks to be able to make your money back. But if you’re playing that movie and the print or the digital hard drive costs less than $1,000, you can afford to play the movie for 2 weeks and then have IMAX move onto another movie in its theatres and that gives IMAX movie-goers to see more movies from more studios in more locations due to this technology.

Collider: Absolutely. And that’s definitely a factor for IMAX and for you guys but I guess I’m getting back to my point of…how many more theatres do you think will have the IMAX format? That’s where I was going.

Greg: I’ll tell you. So “Eagle Eye” opened in 14 digital locations and 60 something film-based locations. “Madagascar” will open in all of our original theatres that have traditionally been playing Hollywood DMR titles as well as 35 new locations all of which are digital and all of which have been installed in the last 3 months. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” will play in 10 more locations than “Madagascar” because between November 7th and December 12th we will install 10 more theatres. When we get to “Watchmen” in March, we’ll probably have an additional 20 theatres. When we get to “Transformers 2” we’ll probably be close to 100 new theatres from where we were a year before that. So we’ve sold in partnership—sold is the wrong word—we have…they’re joint venture theatres most of them—over 200 theatres in the last year we’ve made these arrangements. We’ve installed to date 20 of them. So over the course of the next 18-24 months those 200 theatres will be into the marketplace. We just announced today 2 new theatres in the U.K. with Odeon. One in Wimbledon and one in Greenwich. Last week we announced 3 new theatres with Constantine in Austria. A month ago we announced 4 new theatres with Hoyt’s in Australia. A month before that we announced 4 new theatres with Tokyu in Japan.

Collider: So let me ask you this question. How much do you think the success of “Dark Knight” this summer helped your brand?

Greg: “Dark Knight” was sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back. If you look at the last 12 to 18 months it was “Night at the Museum”. “300” was really important to IMAX. “300” was the movie that….and we had one core audience for a long, long time. Families– people that would go to see our movies that would bring a 5 or 6 or 8 year old kid. Then we expanded our audience with Hollywood DMR to start including….when we did “The Matrix” we thought…we worried that the sky was falling. That oh my God we’re taking a movie, we’re making it a 2,3, 5 to 1 aspect ratio because that’s how the Wachowski’s designed it and we’re releasing it. It’s kind of R-rated, right? Some stuff that you haven’t seen in IMAX before and we’re releasing it into our network. And you know there was like this religious zealotry of IMAX that you know you couldn’t do that and we tried it and it worked. “300” was the movie that put us over the edge. “300” was the movie where people really accepted that IMAX had this new core audience to go with the family audience of the techy crowd. 15 to 30 year old’s, a little bit more boys than girls, very gadgety, very sort of internet focused, buy your tickets in advance and it was hugely important to us. So now we’ve got these 2 core audiences, so while “The Dark Knight” was really important, I would venture to say that “The Dark Knight” was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It really began 12 to 18 months ago and I don’t think that we would be where we are where it not for “300”, “The Dark Knight”, “Harry Potter” etc.

Collider: As you know I’ve been interviewing a bunch of directors and asking them, are they going to shoot with IMAX cameras. So…

Greg: Like D.J. Caruso who you spoke with.

Collider: Exactly. So my question for you is…

Greg: Who we love.

Collider: …which he sounds like he’s going to use and Favreau talked about possibly doing IMAX or 3D. I don’t think he’s exactly figured out what he’s going to do.

Greg: Well you know we’re doing…Michael Bay is shooting “Transformers 2” with IMAX cameras.

Collider: I’m a huge fan of that franchise and Michael Bay. I can’t wait. Have you had other filmmakers come at you….

Greg: Many. But we’re very, very, very careful. And the reason we’re very careful is because we’re spoiled. And we’re spoiled because of Chris Nolan and Wally Pfister. When “The Dark Knight” happened, Chris and Wally spent a year studying IMAX. They did not decide they were going to do it until they had done tests and really had ingested the IMAX process and learned about it, and are probably now infinitely more versed, well versed in IMAX than most of the people that work at IMAX. These are true students of IMAX. And, you know we’ve learned lots of different ways that we are not a panacea. And often people think we are. We know we’re not. We know that you can’t save a movie by simply shooting with IMAX cameras. We know you can’t save a movie by simply deciding to put it in 3D. So we need to make sure that when someone gets involved with something as intimate as our cameras, which is so important to us, that it’s someone who understands what IMAX means, who understands how to shoot with the cameras and who has a movie that is a success whether IMAX is a part of it or not. If you’re going to use the IMAX cameras as a gimmick to get involved and try to sell more tickets, not interested. If you’re going to use IMAX cameras to organically take you somewhere take you to a different place, a better place than perhaps you’d have been in the beginning but you’re already in a great spot to begin with, then we want to talk with you. If you’re going to use IMAX cameras and you’re a visionary film maker like Michael Bay, like Chris Nolan—great. But if you’re going to use IMAX cameras just because someone’s willing to pay for it but you don’t really have a vision, it’s not for us.

Collider: So my next question for you is Chris Nolan mentioned that the cameras are very loud and he obviously would have loved to have done some dialogue sequences but obviously couldn’t.

Greg: And we’re working very hard to make sure that the next time he chooses to shoot with IMAX cameras he’ll be able to.

Collider: And that’s my follow up…that’s the question I want to know. How are you guys on your end adjusting the technology to make it quieter?

Greg: We’re working very hard on it.

Collider: So this is like priority one?

Greg: It’s priority one– A or B. There are several top priorities. It’s one of them. We know where we are. We know that this is something that is valuable but maybe even more than valuable—exciting, that really showcases IMAX and showcases IMAX as part of…you know I always have this saying… It’s show business. You have to do both. There’s no show without the business and there’s no business without the show. Shooting with IMAX cameras is kind of a bull’s-eye on both of that. If we’re careful and really discrete about who we let use our cameras, if we deliver them a user-friendly experience that allows for picture and sound to be synced up and for you to be able to get dialogue in then I think you kind of optimize your show business criteria. And so it’s very much in all of our best interests to make that work and that’s something that with a partner, who’s also in the camera business, we’re spending a lot of time trying to figure out.

Collider: Okay. So I guess I’m not going to find out who the partner is?

Greg: Not right now.

Collider: So besides the big-budget Hollywood movies that are coming next year we have “Transformers 2”, we have “Watchmen”, what other projects are coming down the IMAX pipeline that you’re excited about?

Greg: Well, I’ll go through our release schedule, at least the ones we’ve already announced. There’s some ones that we haven’t announced that we know what we’re doing and you’ll be hearing about them soon.

Collider: And I understand.

Greg: Well let me go through them. Okay….so we have “Madagascar 2”, which you haven’t seen that yet?

Collider: I have not.

Greg: I think you’ll really enjoy it when you do. “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, very excited about that with our partners at Fox who we haven’t spent time with in a while so it’s great to go back with them. Big supporters of them.

Collider: Yeah, I’m a supporter of Fox and I’ve been incredibly disappointed with that studio and the films that they’ve been releasing recently. I hope that “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is a return to them making good movies.

Greg: All I can tell you is that they are spending with the marketing of that movie like a studio that is very confident that they have something.

Collider: Good.

Greg: So we hope that it’s a great movie as well….Then in January, as some people have talked about, I think it’s likely that there’ll be a re-release of “The Dark Knight”. In February we’re really, really excited about a movie called “Under the Sea 3D” which is a 45-minute IMAX documentary movie about under the sea. Probably not for your group but nevertheless we’re very excited about it.

Collider: I am too.

Greg: We think “Watchmen” is going to just blow the covers off our screens. You know Zack is a huge supporter of ours. He has crafted the movie to take advantage of the IMAX experience. It would not surprise me at all on future movies if Zack shoots with IMAX cameras at one point or at least explores it. And I’m very confident and really pumped. When you go and see that trailer when it was shown, which I must have seen 15 times before “The Dark Knight”, people went ape-shit.

continued on page 2 ———->


Collider: I know.

Greg: And that’s always a good sign.

Collider: Yeah.

Greg: Very excited about “Monsters vs. Aliens”, in fact just saw a piece from it today which is really, really funny.

Collider: I saw about 10 minutes of it. Did you see the sequence with the President going up the stairs?

Greg: I did and I saw in the war room which I thought was very good.

Collider: I saw the same stuff.

Greg: Yeah, very funny.

Collider: I think it was really good.

Greg: I do, too. We love working with DreamWorks. Jeffrey Katzenberg has been a great partner and in fact just last week or the week before announced that we anticipate being a part of “Kung Fu Panda 2” which is great.

Collider: He talked very passionately…I interviewed him recently right before Comic-Con and he spoke very passionately about 3D filmmaking, 3D IMAX, all that stuff and he seems to be a very strong proponent.

Greg: He’s bet a big part of his company on 3D and it’s been great to see the way he’s embraced us. Not only do they make incredible movies and he’s the smartest guy around, but he’s really been a great partner to work with. At every studio and it’s my job to bring studios to IMAX and to bring IMAX to the studios and at every studio there’s sort of a go-to person. For the relationship to be successful I have to have someone who I work really closely with. And he has been, along with Anne Globe who runs marketing, that person at DreamWorks and I’d be less than honest with you if I told you it hasn’t been really fun to have that experience with him because he’s just a completely straight no surprises sort of guy. You just have to lay it all out, tell him what the scoop is, just be direct and it’ll all work out. And I really, really enjoyed that experience. He’s Jeffrey Katzenberg. He’s a legend but it’s been a really…I’ve really enjoyed it a lot. So, anyway then we go to the next movie that we can discuss that we’ve announced which is “Night at the Museum 2” also with Fox. I think we’ve announced that haven’t we? Okay. I don’t know actually now that I think about it.

Collider: Yeah we have.

Greg: Have we? Okay. Then we go to “Transformers 2”.

Collider: I just realized “Night at the Museum” is next summer.

Greg: It’s May 22nd.

Collider: For some reason I thought it was a holiday film.

Greg: That’s because the first one was. And then….I think that’s as far as I want to go for the time being.

Collider: Okay. And with those….I know that Michael Bay is filming, I believe with IMAX cameras.

Greg: Correct.

Collider: But with the other ones…

Greg: Three sequences right now.

Collider: Are the other ones filming with IMAX cameras?

Greg: No.

Collider: Are they using the DI and…?

Greg: It’s DMR.

Collider: Is that what it’s called?

Greg: We’re DMR-ing their DI’s. We’re using our digital re-mastering and converting the movies into IMAX like we’ve done with “I Am Legend” and “The Matrix” films and “The Dark Knight” besides the 30 minutes that were shot with IMAX cameras etc which is a propriety process that’s based off a very confusing algorhythm that allows us to take traditional 35mm and/or digital intermediates and through 4 key steps convert them into IMAX so they look as if they were shot with IMAX cameras.

Collider: So I have another question about the 3D IMAX.

Greg: Okay.

Collider: I’ve gone to see a 3D IMAX…I’m talking as a personal experience…I’ve gone to see a 3D IMAX movie before and they have a big bucket of glasses, they give them to you. And I’ve had glasses before that are not in perfect condition. What’s the story if you are like an IMAX 3D fan or with a lot of 3D movies coming in the future, I think that Jeffrey Katzenberg spoke about they’ll be a point where everyone will have their own glasses.

Greg: Maybe he’s right. I’m not one to disagree with Jeffrey Katzenberg because he’s forgotten more than I’ll ever know. But maybe to me that feels like a while away.

Collider: Okay, so the glasses thing is just….

Greg: Here’s the thing with the glasses. The glasses…there are sometimes you go and the glasses aren’t as fresh as they should be, you know they don’t work or the battery is out. In the old days when you needed batteries—which you don’t anymore—but most of the time the glasses work. It’s very much of a very….I mean like 99.9% of the time it’s an operator issue meaning the AMC or the Regal or Cinemark or National Amusements whatever, we do a lot of training on making sure that those are up and running. And so it shouldn’t happen that often that there’s a problem and I’m sorry that you had one.

Collider: Oh I was just curious about that whole thing. My other question for you is “The Dark Knight” obviously did extremely well….I’m back on that subject…and it played for many weeks. In fact, it’s probably….I don’t even know if it’s….

Greg: It’s still playing.

Collider: Yeah, I was going to say it’s still playing. What I’m curious about is say next year you have a lot more movies coming in IMAX, say there’s going to be a few that double up, you know that are near each other. How does it work behind the scenes in deciding how long a movie plays? Will you only have the 2 weeks…when they sign the contract is like for 3 weeks or for 6 weeks? I’m just curious, you know, how that all works behind the scenes.

Greg: IMAX had a chicken and the egg problem. We couldn’t sell enough theatres because we didn’t have enough movies and we couldn’t get enough movies because we didn’t have enough theatres. Well we’ve cracked the code on that problem now. And so what you’ve just hit on is how I spent 75% of the last month. It is an incredibly topical issue. We used to play movies for 8-10 weeks, then it became 6-8 weeks, then it became 4-6 weeks and it’s probably going to become 2-4 weeks. There’s discussions on should we have, with lower print costs because of digital, 2 separate tracks existing at one time. This is all in theory. You open a movie in Los Angeles and it plays….you open 2 movies on Memorial Day weekend in IMAX. Half of them play in….one of them plays in half of the theatres in L.A. or any other market, and the other one plays on the other half. That’s great in theory. What we’re trying to do now is work on what kind of mix we can have so we can have more than one movie successfully playing and being profitable for our studio partners in the marketplace at one time. We haven’t cracked it yet and I don’t know if it’ll be a year before we do or 2 years but it’s something that we’re definitely contemplating and juggling and it’s a function of some of the success that we’ve had. You know, we have…next year we’ll have 10 maybe 12 movies. 4 years ago we had 3. So it comes with the territory. It’s a by-product of success. It’s a nice problem to have but it’s a problem.

Collider: I’m sure you’re already encountering this on your end is that with the success of your product you’re going to have more theatres approaching you to be putting on more screens and hence as the years progress you would be able to deal with this by just having more screen space.

Greg: Yeah, but we’re not going to be on every street corner. It’s very important to us that we uphold the responsibility of being a premium experience and when we sell someone or partner with someone on a JV feeder, we’re not going to go into Santa Monica on one side of the promenade and then all of a sudden sell another exhibitor and IMAX digital theatre on the other side of the promenade. We have to be very careful to keep that premium experience. You’re not going to see “My Dinner with Andre” in IMAX. There are certain movies that are right for IMAX and certain movies that aren’t. We have to be careful that we create and encourage this sort of premium experience that allows for a special environment. We’re not something that someone wants to go to for just any movie. That’s the whole point that I was making earlier about IMAX is not a panacea.

Collider: So what is the story with possibly down the road now that you’re going to be moving into digital projection and having digital prints, having say like a Friday night midnight movie of an IMAX kind of thing or doing special….you know what I’m saying?

Greg: Yeah, and live events. We’re working on it and I think it’s a great idea. I mean, there’s no way anyone can tell me that you wouldn’t enjoy the Super Bowl in IMAX or seeing a concert in IMAX or you know, seeing “Rocky Horror Picture Show” at midnight in IMAX. So we’re definitely….and digital allows for programming flexibility that we never would have had before.

Collider: And that’s what I was actually going to. They’ve recently started doing the opera at certain closed circuit events things at theatres and you know…my question is I want to see Radiohead in concert. You guys have an amazing sound system. How far down the road do you think that is before you guys…

Greg: 12 to 24 months.

Collider: And the way you envision that down the road, do you envision that….how do you envision that being shot? Are there going to be special digital camera and are those things around now or are you guys working or developing them?

Greg: They’re not necessarily IMAX cameras which is what makes it user-friendly. They’re digital cameras that we can then take into our system and in real-time output to our servers to be able to show an IMAX version literally real-time which is what we’re working on and are very excited about.

Collider: Okay. Final question. What’s your screen…I’m just curious for tech numbers…what’s your screen count now and where do you envision at the end of 2009 and then 2010 your screen count being?

Greg: I’m taking in round numbers here.

Collider: Sure. That’s what I’m looking for.

Greg: IMAX was 40 years old a year ago. So in October of 2007 we had more or less 300 theatres in 40-something countries. Today— since then, maybe that’s a better way of putting it, we have either sold or partnered on an additional 250 more or less screens. 99% of those 250 screens—the new screens—are digital. A lot of them are in the U.S., probably 200 are in the U.S. and 50 are overseas. More or less. Might be even 210 in the U.S. and the rest overseas, whatever. But all of them are…or 99.9% of them are also commercial. Meaning they’re not in museums, science centers or aquariums, they’re in multiplexes. So in December of 2009 were one to release a movie, my guess is, you’d be releasing that movie in 150 more commercial locations than you’re releasing the movie in today. So if you’re releasing a movie today in 110 North American locations and up to 50 international locations, so that’s 160, right? You’d have 125 or so additional locations at the end of 2009.

Collider: Okay. And I’m assuming you envision it continuing to go…

Greg: Oh no it is. You said take me to the end of 2009.

Collider: Absolutely. So is there anything I have covered that you want to get across to say the audience.

Greg: No, I think that we feel their love. We appreciate it. We’re working our rear ends off to continue to deliver high-quality cool entertainment that they can experience on our big giant screens with our great sound and our crystal clear images. Our screens are always the largest screen in any complex but screen size is one of many variables that creates the IMAX experience and we think we’re on to something. Movie-goers and our “secret sauce” moviemakers seem to get that. We work with the most visionary film makers in the world whether is Chris Nolan or Bob Zemeckis or the Harry Potter people or Bryan Singer or Zack Snyder or Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg. Those are the people that gravitate towards IMAX and it’s their movies that we seek and we will continue to do that and try to deliver to your audience and our audience the most dynamic exciting experience they could imagine.

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