Giant Prospects: Don Savant leads IMAX to new heights in Asia-Pacific

Cinemas Features

Don Savant joined IMAX Corporation in 2000 as VP and general manager for the Asia-Pacific region. In 2007, he was promoted to managing director, Asia-Pacific, and only recently he additionally took over the role of IMAX Corporation’s executive VP. During his 15-year tenure with the company he helped develop the IMAX® brand to become the premier cinematic format–both in Asia-Pacific and elsewhere. In September 2015, the company opened its 1,000th IMAX screen worldwide, in Taiyuan, China—a perfect occasion for an in-depth discussion of IMAX’s success in the region.

Film Journal International: What were your greatest achievements in helping develop the IMAX brand in Asia-Pacific?

Don Savant: I’ve had the pleasure of leading our on-the-ground development efforts in the region. Today, we have 360 IMAX theatres open in the Asia-Pacific market, with 246 additional theatres in backlog. But perhaps my greatest accomplishment in terms of building the IMAX brand in the region is that I helped our team forge strategic relationships with exhibitors, studios and other local stakeholders. Our philosophy towards doing business in the region was, and continues to be, about understanding the cultural nuances of the specific market and creating mutually beneficial partnerships. I have been intimately involved in securing major multi-theatre deals for IMAX in Asia, including contracts with many of the largest commercial exhibitors. In 2011, I led our efforts in establishing a partnership with Wanda Cinema Line, which is our largest exhibition partner worldwide, with 139 IMAX theatres open and 70 in backlog. This landmark deal not only propelled our network growth, but also firmly established IMAX as a leader in the China cinema market.

Outside of China, I have overseen the successful development of the IMAX theatre network in Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia. In addition to Wanda, CJ CGV is one of our largest partners worldwide, with 97 theatres contracted in Korea, China and Vietnam.

In 2009, I helped establish our first foreign film converted into the IMAX format through our proprietary DMR technology by signing a three-picture deal with Huayi Brothers for the debut film, Aftershock. Directed by Feng Shao Gang, Aftershock became one of the top-grossing Chinese films of 2010. To date we have converted 25 Chinese titles, with our 26th, Mojin–The Lost Legend, from Wanda Pictures, opening on December 18, 2015.

Earlier this year we established the IMAX China Film Fund with our partner China Media Capital to invest in Chinese tentpole films. This is the next step in our evolution to continue to support the growth of the Chinese film and exhibition market.

A lot of effort has also gone towards building IMAX’s operational infrastructure in the market. In 2001, we relocated IMAX’s Asian headquarters from Singapore to Shanghai and have had the pleasure of bringing together a tremendously talented IMAX team of 85 professionals who are committed to building the IMAX brand and network in the Asia-Pacific region. Today, we have offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo and Manila. I’m proud to say that the Asia-Pacific region is the largest IMAX market in the world.

FJI: In which year did IMAX open its first screen in Asia-Pacific, where, and why that country in particular? 

DS: Our very first IMAX theatre debuted at the 1970 World Expo in Osaka, Japan. But it was the Omnimax Theatre at the Hong Kong Space Museum, opened in 1980, which was the first permanent IMAX location in Asia.

FJI: What explains the audience acceptance of IMAX in Asia-Pacific? What appeals to them?

DS: Consumers across Asia-Pacific are sophisticated and have a deep appreciation for technology and premium entertainment experiences. Simply put, IMAX delivers a super-premium format and the most immersive cinematic experience available today, which has been embraced by audiences in this region as their preferred way to see the biggest blockbuster titles.

China in particular is an interesting case study. IMAX entered China 15 years ago as the nation’s entertainment, film and exhibition industry was developing and we grew and matured alongside the industry, which is now poised to become the world’s largest in the next few years. We’ve essentially become a part of the moviegoing culture in China. Unlike in the West, consumers in China did not grow up going to IMAX museums, science centers or aquariums because there weren’t any. They grew up going to IMAX in multiplexes. Today we are one of the strongest entertainment brands in greater China and have played a crucial role in building the modern moviegoing experience in the country.

FJI: In which Asia-Pacific country do you currently operate the most screens?

DS: In Mainland China, where we have a total of 260 IMAX theatres currently open and another 210 in backlog. Factors such as the nation’s population and an increasing middle class with disposal income have made Mainland China our biggest market.

FJI: Which countries are the runner-ups in terms of screen presence?

DS: Other Asia-Pacific nations with a strong IMAX presence include Japan with 30 theatres (25 open and five in backlog), South Korea with 20 theatres (17 open and three in backlog), India with 15 theatres (8 open and seven in backlog), Taiwan with 13 theatres (10 open and three in backlog, Indonesia with 11 theatres (six open and five in backlog), and the Philippines with nine theatres (eight open and one in backlog). All those figures are per September 30, 2015.

FJI: IMAX has just opened its 1,000th screen, in Taiyuan, China. This is a truly remarkable milestone…

DS: Yes, it was not just an exciting event in China, but also an important celebration for the global IMAX market. IMAX Corp’s CEO Rich Gelfond has said [on the occasion] that "IMAX has experienced significant growth in recent years, both in China and worldwide. While it took the company 22 years to reach its first 100 IMAX theatres, we have been able to launch the next 900 theatres in the exact same period of time."

FJI: What are the further development plans for IMAX in Asia-Pacific?

DS: In China, the moviegoing public has a voracious appetite for all things IMAX. To ensure that we meet this demand and continue our growth in this market, we successfully listed our IMAX China business on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on October 8, 2015, which was one of the most notable achievements in our company’s history of more than 45 years. Proceeds of the IPO will be reinvested to continue to grow IMAX in greater China. With a strong backlog of China installations and a fantastic movie slate over the next couple of years, we believe we are in a great position to take the business to new heights. 

Outside of China, I’m also very optimistic about our growth prospects in Japan. In 2014, our theatres in Japan generated per-screen averages of just under US$1.3 million and we are on track to increase the PSA in 2015. Key to our recent success has been our first theatre with Toho Cinemas, Japan’s largest theatre operator, at their flagship location in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area, which opened this past April. Toho Shinjuku IMAX has generated more than $2.3 million of box office in its first six months of operation.

FJI: Which Asia-Pacific countries currently still lack IMAX screens?

DS: Fortunately, we are operating in almost every major country in Asia, even Pakistan, and we are scheduled to open our first theatre in Mongolia in 2016. In terms of countries we are not in, we are looking forward to entering Myanmar as the country opens and develops.

FJI: Looking at how IMAX has matured over the years, what would you say are the most important developments that today make IMAX one of the most readily recognizable cinematic format brands?

DS: IMAX was founded in 1967 in the institutional market, where we had theatres exclusively in museums, aquariums and science centers, playing nature documentaries that we produced. In 1994, IMAX went public and recognized the potential of releasing Hollywood content to the commercial exhibition market. But studios wouldn’t start converting their films to IMAX until we had more commercial theatres. And the exhibitors wouldn’t build more [IMAX] theatres until we had more studio releases.

FJI: A Catch-22 situation?

DS: Yes, and we spent years exploring ways to make it easier and more cost-effective to show IMAX movies in multiplexes. The solution was the development of our proprietary IMAX DMR technology in 2002, which enables the conversion of Hollywood films into IMAX format, and also our development of IMAX digital theatre systems in 2008.

IMAX DMR’s acceptance by the big Hollywood studios, as well as moviegoers who are willing to pay a premium to see their favorite movies in IMAX, launched us into the commercial exhibition market. The debut of IMAX digital theatre systems in 2008 allowed us to significantly reduce the number of expensive 15/70 film prints, and as a result our business grew exponentially.

Equally important were the company’s tireless efforts to integrate IMAX into the Hollywood landscape. Led by our incredible film division, IMAX Entertainment, the company has carefully cultivated relationships and partnerships with virtually all major Hollywood studios and many of the top international studios.

FJI: What are IMAX’s further development plans in terms of improved technology?

DS: IMAX Corp. continues to push the boundaries of what is possible in immersive cinema experiences with the 2014 launch of “IMAX with Laser,” which is our next-generation projection and sound system featuring groundbreaking laser technology. It represents a quantum leap forward in cinema technology, providing audiences with the sharpest, brightest, clearest and most vivid digital images ever, combined with a whole new level of immersive audio. It also represents the largest R&D investment in our history, and to date we’ve signed more than 75 laser deals, including with iconic institutional venues such as the Smithsonian in Washington [DC] and Chantilly [VA], Pacific Science Center’s Boeing® IMAX Theatre in Seattle, and the Melbourne Museum. “IMAX with Laser” customers also include the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Empire Leicester Square in London, AMC’s Lincoln Square in New York, Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles, LG®IMAX Theatreat Darling Harbor in Sydney, Tokyu 109 Cinemas Osaka Expo Mall, Cinema Sunshine in the Ikepekuro area of Tokyo, CGV Cheonho in Seoul, and Wanda Cinema Line locations in China.

Partnering with German motion picture supply giant ARRI, IMAX is developing the next generation of IMAX 2D digital cameras. The IMAX/ARRI 2D digital camera will make content capture for IMAX easier, allowing filmmakers to integrate IMAX DNA into their movies. In fact, the camera will be used for shooting key scenes in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, and parts one and two of Avengers: Infinity Warswill be entirely shot with these new cameras.

FJI: Is there anything that you would like to add which might be of interest to our readers with regards to IMAX or the Asia-Pacific market?

DS: IMAX is committed to DMR local-language films. In China, we will have converted eight films into the unparalleled image and sound quality of the IMAX format this year. In Japan, we converted three local-language films. In 2016 and beyond, we expect to grow our local-language film slate. Specifically, IMAX China plans to add more Chinese titles to the IMAX film slate to accommodate Chinese moviegoers’ need for local blockbusters. IMAX China will also cooperate with local film producers. As I noted earlier, IMAX China announced this year the establishment of the IMAX China Film Fund together with China Media Capital. The Fund, which will be capitalized at up to $50 million initially, will target productions that can leverage the IMAX brand, relationships, technology and release windows with the flexibility to produce IMAX and non-IMAX content and develop original films or co-finance studio productions.