Looking at the Big Picture: Andrew Cripps discusses innovations behind IMAX CineEurope Award

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Technology

“No, it’s not a top-secret mission.” Andrew Cripps, president, IMAX Europe, Middle East and Africa, chuckles at our suggestion about his trip to Moscow, Russia. To congratulate IMAX on receiving the 2015 CineEurope “Award for Achievement Through Innovation,” we caught up with Cripps via a (non-secure) phone line on the night before the grand opening of an IMAX auditorium at Kinomax Mozaika, which also served as the official IMAX press day.

“We do one every year… The IMAX brand is very, very strong in Russia, and I think premium moviegoing as well,” Cripps observes. As for the reasons, he notes how the country “developed many of the multiplexes a little bit later than in some parts of the rest of the world, and IMAX had an early foothold in Russia. We have been very careful in nurturing the brand here, and it has been very successful.”

The opening of Kinomax Mozaika marked the 40th IMAX theatre across Russia and the CIS, with another 22 in backlog. “All signed, as we are waiting for the shopping malls that are scheduled to open.” Notwithstanding regularly outperforming strong box-office returns, the construction of these IMAX auditoriums has benefitted from both early foothold and later development. The majority of them are planned from the start, Cripps concurs. “And it is a lot easier obviously when you are not dealing with existing and historical buildings to incorporate an IMAX screen. So we’ve got some terrific theatres here. IMAX is in business with four or five of the top theatre teams in Russia, and we have been very pleased with the level of development here. Despite the economy, which had its ups and downs over the last six to nine months, in local currency it has held up extremely well and the box office in ruble has been very strong.”

The films come dubbed into Russian primarily, as with French, Italian, German and Spanish in those countries, respectively. “It’s what the consumers are used to and what the consumer wants. They are used to seeing their movies dubbed… So that’s what we play in the IMAX space.”

And that is also what needs to be prepared—on a global scale, for 940 theatres in 63 countries. “We mix the versions at IMAX and supply our special DCPs directly. As I am sure your readers know, we digitally remaster every frame of what goes up on IMAX screens. In doing so, we work very closely with the studio, the producer, the director…to make sure that, when we are putting their work on a 70- or 80-foot screen [24 m], it looks and sounds as good as possible.”

What about timing and logistics? “It depends when the filmmaker finishes the movie. Our post-production teams work very hard to make sure that they can deliver.” At times, this can be “pretty tricky,” he admits. “But I think advance planning is the key to working hand-in-hand with the studio and the producer and the director to make sure that we can deliver on time. I think we’ve got a really good track record.”

The CineEurope Award honors that track record as much as “IMAX’s efforts in pioneering entertainment technology that has set the standard of excellence for premium cinematic experiences,” according to CineEurope co-managing director Andrew Sunshine, “IMAX continues to be known as a leader in the motion picture industry through its innovation and vision. The company deserves tremendous accolades for its accomplishments and for its passion and commitment to the motion picture industry.”

This past year, IMAX delivered on its early commitment to the latest innovation, laser illumination. “We commercially opened our first laser system in Toronto. And subsequent to that, the TCL Chinese in Hollywood,” Cripps recounts. On his home turf as well, IMAX has laser illumination waiting to be lit this year at the Empire Leicester Square in London, England; at CineStar Sony Center in Berlin, Germany; and IMAX has another one coming up in Moscow as well. “I have seen the laser with my own eyes at the TCL Chinese, and it gives much greater light obviously, which is so important to 3D. The contrast is fantastic. The blacks are incredibly black. We saw a sequence of Interstellar up on the screen and it really was amazing.”

But will moviegoers really notice the difference? “It’s the kind of differentiation that consumers will recognize when they see it for the first time,” Cripps believes. “The big test is always 2K versus 4K. Will the consumer notice? On laser projection, based on what we’ve shown so far to our exhibition customers, I think the consensus is clearly, ‘Yes,’ consumers will notice and that’s another step to get them out of their house to continue going to movies.”

As the industry continues to differentiate the in-theatre experience from the home environment, IMAX remains at the forefront. “As part of the laser rollout,” Cripps continues, “we are deploying a new 12-channel immersive sound system that will also be incorporated into the same theatres.” On the production side, he adds, exciting things are happening as well. “IMAX recently announced a new digital camera tie-up with ARRI. As part of that, the Russo Brothers will be shooting the next two Avengers films entirely with IMAX cameras. This is the first time that has happened with a commercial feature in our history and really exciting.”

That’s especially true for exhibitors that have invested in IMAX technology. “They get this top-notch Hollywood product…with all the differentiation that comes with that. I think that’s a real milestone for us.” Greg Foster, the chief executive officer of IMAX Entertainment, went with Cripps “to see ARRI in London and they showed us the camera. It’s a terrific piece of equipment: small and lightweight and we’re really excited about it.”

Will the compact design increase the creative power of filmmakers? Cripps definitely thinks so. “Obviously, the 15/70 film camera that we’ve been using for many years [has] great, fantastic resolution, a fantastic image, but it’s a big piece of equipment… This will allow filmmakers a lot more flexibility and creativity and freedom when they shoot the movies. So hopefully we’ll see many more features coming out with it.”

More and more, exhibitors are launching private-label Premium Large Format screens. They are being developed, this author feels, much because of the success of IMAX. How does Cripps foresee these options existing side-by-side? “We are the only end-to-end solution,” he addresses the heart of the matter, “from capture all the way through projection… We work weeks, months in advance, or sometimes even years in the planning stage with the filmmakers to make sure that their films are digitally remastered and look different. The other Premium Large Formats simply take a regular DCP and blow it up to show it. So it is a different image and different mix from everything that we are putting out there.”

For people around the world, IMAX remains the premium format, Cripps contends. “IMAX is always the one that sells out first in the multiplex. IMAX is the one that consumers are willing to pay the higher premium for. IMAX is an incredibly well-recognized brand and I think consumers know that when they go see an IMAX movie, they are getting consistent quality.”

Not surprisingly, Cripps reassures us, “we are very comfortable with our place in the ecosystem. We never take things for granted, however. Given the number of theatres that continue to sign up, the many, many exhibitors that continue to work with IMAX and the pipeline of films that we have, we are very optimistic about the future.” Heading into CineEurope, Andrew Cripps feels, “It is a really good time not only for IMAX but also for the general film industry, coming up with some tremendous successes. I think compared to this time last year, the industry is optimistic and quite rightly so… We’ve just had The Avengers, and Jurassic World and Terminator are looking terrific… Bond and Star Wars open later in the year. It’s a great time to be in the movie business, and we are very excited about it.”