Giant-sized expansion: Former Paramount exec Andrew Cripps oversees IMAX growth in EMEA
As evidenced in our feature story in last month’s issue, IMAX Corporation is on the right track. In addition to a strong lineup of films, the ever-increasing footprint of its theatre network (see info box below) has consistently contributed to high grosses.
In his first-quarter 2012 remarks, IMAX chief executive officer Richard L. Gelfond noted, “We are still in the early stages of our international expansion, and our pipeline of new theatre deals remains robust. We believe that the IMAX platform is becoming increasingly important to our business partners and consumers, and we look forward to bringing The IMAX Experience to more and more audiences around the world.”
With this goal in mind, IMAX secured one of the top experts on global theatrical exhibition. At the end of February, Andrew Cripps joined IMAX as president, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), tasked with expanding the theatre network in these regions while working closely with IMAX Filmed Entertainment on international local-language IMAX DMR and distribution opportunities. Cripps was the founding president of Paramount Pictures International in 2007, and during the prior 21 years moved to the top position at United International Pictures.
“I am delighted to join IMAX, a company I know and respect and a name that is synonymous with quality entertainment,” he said at the announcement. For the readers of Film Journal International, Cripps shares more thoughts. “When I was at Paramount, I was a big fan of IMAX and we did many successful movies together,” he elaborates. “Clearly, to me, IMAX is where the out-of-home experience that the consumer is looking for is heading. Bigger experiences, better quality and better sound are increasingly important in the very competitive world that we all live in today.
“The second really important fact is that the business model is clearly working. In the last two years, IMAX has signed just under 450 theatres, of which 83% were with existing clients. The fact that the model works for the clients, and that they’re coming back for more and looking for additional locations was [for Cripps] a really, really positive sign.”
In addition to admiring the management team in place at IMAX and having tremendous respect for “all that IMAX has done in Asia and in the Americas,” Cripps had personal reasons to stay in London when PPI’s operations were consolidated to Los Angeles. “I’ve got two teenage children, so we wanted to stay here if at all possible.” Last but certainly not least, “in terms of a professional challenge, I think there’s a lot of growth still to be had in Europe. So it all worked and it kind of ticked all the boxes that I was looking for.”
As of April 30, there were 98 IMAX theatres open in EMEA (86 commercial and 12 institutional) and another 30 IMAX theatres in backlog scheduled to open throughout the region by 2014. Internal analysis foresees that this number might reach 350 theatres for the region over time.
Cripps details the thinking behind that ambitious goal. The Middle East is “absolutely” a growth region, he says, and certainly Africa, where even the general infrastructure is lacking for commercial movie theatres. But the more established markets are a different story. “In Europe, you’ve got a number of other influencing factors. A lot of the infrastructure there is old, particularly in downtown areas where cities have some building restrictions. One of the first things you look for when putting in a top-notch IMAX screen is the site. Where you’ve got listed buildings, that becomes a whole new set of challenges. In Europe, you just don’t have the number of new multiplex theatres being developed where you can plan an IMAX from scratch, like in parts of Asia at the moment. I am generalizing, I know, but some of those issues are clearly challenges that we face.”
Demographically, the analysis becomes more of a question “where admissions do take place in a given country,” he continues. “How many admissions, how much box office is generated. Then you break the country down into a variety of zones, making sure that the IMAX theatres don’t compete with each other and that the box-office catchment area is large enough to allow an IMAX theatre to thrive.”
On that note, if you have a tremendous location like the BFI in London, doesn’t one run the risk of watering down that success when additional IMAX theatres open? While Cripps confirms that the BFI is “always right up there and a fantastic, iconic location with great IMAX branding,” he also says, “London is a city of some 9.5 million people. There’s a lot of room for a lot of IMAX theatres in this town.”
Mark Welton, the president of IMAX Theatres, draws a further comparison to AMC Loews Lincoln Square in New York City, “a very powerful theatre in the U.S.” When IMAX started installing the AMC Empire on 42nd Street and AMC Loews 34th Street with their digital systems in 2008, he recalls, “of course, everyone was probably a little nervous as they were obviously retrofits. But not only has Lincoln Square continued to be very a successful theatre, but the additional theatres in New York have been extremely successful as well.” Actually, he suggests, strength in numbers has helped to boost the brand appeal and attendance overall.
While admitting that expansion in North America has somewhat stabilized, Welton points to additional growth regions beyond those under Cripps’ watch. “In China we set up our 100% subsidiary, and we’re growing just tremendously. South America is another underserved market with big moviegoing audiences. We have a small footprint at this time, where we need to really expand and get a foothold into the market.”
With the success IMAX has been enjoying in China, was Welton initially surprised that the brand was so well-known when it was not widely accessible before? “Honestly, we’re actually probably not surprised,” he responds, “because it just really took a lot of hard work, starting as much as 12 years ago when we first set up our very small sales office.” Today, the subsidiary employs approximately 40 staff members. “We started with just a couple of institutional IMAX theatres,” he continues. “We went over and met with all the different parties—exhibitors, studios—setting up a couple of good relationships. So it’s actually been on our radar for a long time. Our team has put in a tremendous amount of work, and built up the infrastructure.”
Going digital has obviously had a major impact on expanding that infrastructure. Will it make life easier for Cripps as well when it comes to delivering more titles to the theatres in the network? “If I am an exhibitor, there’s just no comparison between the film-based system and the digital system in terms of programming flexibility. As the IMAX screens often offer the biggest capacity in a multiplex, to have that flexibility, and to make sure you’re going to get product on a regular basis, is essential in planning your release schedule. The fact that IMAX has gone from a handful of big Hollywood films a year…to something like 20, 22 films this year gives us the ability to go to exhibition and program theatres for a full year.”
Going forward, that will include local-language films and non-studio productions as well. “Everything that we do with Hollywood movies is predicated on the U.S. schedule,” he explains. “As we all know, international release dates are very different from domestic release dates. Especially when you get to markets where summer is an issue, like Italy. So part of our role is to make sure that we can help them program those down times. Finding local-language possibilities [is one way,] or even finding other Hollywood movies that fit well into the local release schedule. IMAX and DreamWorks Animation are doing Madagascar 3 in Russia for the June holidays there. We just released our first French movie, Marsupalami, with Pathé, and have announced our first Russian film, Stalingrad, for next year. It’s really about looking at the release schedule over a 12-month period, and making sure that there are no big gaps. And where there are any, we want to be opportunistic and find the right titles to fill them.”
Staying in Russia, the pre-general global-release opening of Marvel’s The Avengers has proven equally successful, Cripps feels. “If you go back to Mission: Impossible, the five-day preview opening early in the United States became part of the marketing campaign for the film. Every consumer that was going to see Ghost Protocol during those first days of release was going to see it in the best format possible.” While “it becomes an important word-of-mouth tool,” he says, “you’ve got to have a critical number of theatres in the country to be able to do that effectively.”
With IMAX showings of The Avengers pretty much selling out everywhere and all the time during opening weekend, it comes as no surprise that Cripps predicts “a pretty amazing summer in store” and beyond, with the first James Bond film in IMAX, Skyfall, and The Hobbit. “If you are an exhibitor looking at the IMAX business, you couldn’t really map out a better lineup if you tried.” From a regional perspective, “obviously there’s the European football championships in June,” he cautions, “the Olympics in late July, early August. With that, there are some external factors that are going to affect the overall business this summer. But I think that IMAX is in a unique position of having the major blockbuster films. I am very, very optimistic.”
Speaking of blockbusters, it occurred to this author that, looking back as a distributor, Cripps must be thrilled to have every single hit movie in his lineup now. “You know, it’s really weird,” he laughs. “I never rooted for other studio movies before, so it’s kind of a strange situation I find myself in. But yes, I’m rooting for all the blockbusters now. And yes, that’s a nice position to be in, absolutely.”
Theatre Network Growth
During the first quarter of 2012, IMAX Corp. signed contracts for 23 new theatre systems and installed 26 systems worldwide, which broke down into 16 new installs and the balance going to nine digital upgrades and one film-based system upgrade. As of March 31, there were 261 IMAX theatre systems in backlog (116 under joint revenue-sharing arrangements and 145 under sales and sales-type lease arrangements).
Going forward, plans call for 17 to 21 of them to go online during the second quarter. No less than 62 new theatre systems are scheduled for installation in the second half of 2012. However, IMAX cautioned that “in any given year, the company will sign agreements for new theatres that will install within that same year,” which raises the expectations to installing “more than the 95 to 100 theatres currently scheduled to be installed out of backlog this year.”
As of March 31, 2012, IMAX counted a total of 510 systems installed in commercial multiplexes, compared to 386 systems at the end of the prior year’s first quarter.
(Source: First Quarter 2012 Report, IMAX Corporation.)