Imax CEO Rich Gelfond said enticing patrons away from Friday and Saturday night s is critical for the successful reopening of the exhibition business. It’s something he thinks will happen naturally in a COVID-19 environment with some help from marketing and promotion.
Wall Streeters have been fretting that hard-hit theaters will have to leave money on the table by not having the capacity to handle a rush of moviegoers flocking to blockbuster films once circuits reopen with an increasingly packed release slate. Gelfond noted that traditional cinemas usually operate at 20%-25% of total capacity, and Imax at 10%, with fans clustered on Friday and Saturday nights. Spreading them out over the week would solve that. “The key is, can you spread that out? And I think that will naturally happen before there is a vaccine. People who are a little bit older … may say, ‘Let’s go Thursday afternoon or Wednesday night.’ And we will market to stagger those hours,” he said at the CSFB media conference Tuesday.
“This particular business is built for a Friday-Saturday night, so there is enough capacity there. The questions is that we don’t know the answer to is how does it spread out. How do we move people?” He said Imax would be running discounts and promotions to nudge the transition.
Other theater execs have said the same over the past few months but the necessity is becoming clearer as reopening becomes a reality.
In any case, no post-coronavirus theatrical relaunch is “going to challenge Avengers: Endgame for the best opening of all time,” Gelfond said, trying to temper expectations. “We don’t think in the very early going that people should be looking at this and expecting huge box office numbers. For Imax, it’s about getting open… It’s about opening right. Making sure people are healthy and that they feel safe.”
He said China, where Imax has a large business, still hasn’t announced an opening date but he hears it may be late June-early July. Its theaters are open elsewhere in Asia like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. He expects the rest of the world – save parts of South America – will open in early July.
With safety precautions and checkerboard seating he thinks theaters should be a lot safer than restaurants or sports stadiums “where people are talking or clapping and people are going by. In theaters you are sitting in a dark place, you are looking at a screen, and you leave. [It] seems like a safer environment than a lot of other locations that are opening.”
Asked if he’s worried about Imax being caught in the middle if big chains like AMC, boyott Universal films over PVOD, he said he thinks all parties will work it out. The Imax business is built on blockbusters, which are not at risk of going directly on demand like Trolls World Tour. But it does operates theaters within other circuits. “Universal doesn’t release a blockbuster of that magnitude until next year so I think there’s a lot of time to work that out. I woud make a bet that this resolves itself.”