IMAX’s Indian Odyssey

It’s been 20 years since the first IMAX screen opened in India, and 10 years since the first Indian IMAX film was released. Is there a market for the cinema technology company here?

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Do you remember the first time you watched an IMAX film or a 3D film? For some, it might have been a documentary during a school trip to one of India’s ‘Science Cities’ (mine: a space documentary at the fulldome 3D theatre in Science City Kolkata). Or perhaps you remember picking up your first pair of 3D glasses to go watch James Cameron’s Avatar back in 2009.

IMAX is among the most recognisable of these cinema technologies today. It used to be the obsession of science and cinema nerds or actual film professionals. Now turned into an entertainment option ordinary Indians want to pay extra for.

Yet, over twenty years since the first IMAX screen opened in India, the technology company merely has a toehold in the country’s film industry.

So, the question is:

Can IMAX go mainstream in India?

Christopher Nolan’s biographical film Oppenheimer will be among India’s biggest box office successes this year. And a big reason for that is IMAX. A lot of the film’s hype was around the fact that Nolan had shot it entirely on an IMAX film camera, a rare distinction.

In the 1960s, a group of Canadian filmmakers and an engineer invented a screen and projection system to show films in a large format—so large that viewers were blown away by the panoramic images. The first IMAX film, Tiger Child, debuted in Japan in 1970 but it was decades before the company invented more technology (including cameras and film conversion technology), raised funding, and became a permanent fixture of big-budget Hollywood films.

Nolan was the first director to take the million-dollar IMAX cameras from science museums and use them to shoot a feature film (The Dark Knight, 2008). Since then, few others have had a chance to do this, including astronauts at the International Space Station. When Nolan was shooting Oppenheimer, IMAX also helped him modify its equipment to shoot scenes in black-and-white, another first.

The marketing worked. Oppenheimer made over ₹100 crore (~$12 million) at the Indian box office; a large chunk came from the sale of IMAX tickets, which cost anywhere from 2X a normal ticket to as high as ₹2,450. The film gave IMAX one of its biggest opening weekends of all time. Some tickets to this week’s IMAX release, Jawan, are also selling for about ₹2,000 ($24) each.

All this is happening along with a significant jump in the number of Indian IMAX films, from just one to two a year (if any) to five in 2022 and another five this year as well, across the Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada film industries.

Harish Arjun/The Signal

It has taken the Canadian firm IMAX Corporation more than 20 years to build more than just a marginal presence in India. Since opening its first screen in 2001 in Mumbai, IMAX has 25 screens in India today, including a standalone IMAX theatre in Delhi and another to be opened at Mumbai’s iconic Eros Cinema.

“When we released the first Hindi IMAX movie Dhoom 3, we had a mandate to get it to 10 screens. We were struggling to get there,” IMAX Corporation’s Preetham Daniel told The Impression in an interview. He is the vice president of theatre development for IMAX Asia-Pacific (excluding China) and joined the company’s India arm early, in 2004.

“We only had two IMAX theatres. One was the Adlabs Dome in Mumbai, and the other was a flat screen in Hyderabad. I used to knock on the doors of all the big cinema chains you can think of, and nobody would answer my calls back in the day.”

India is one of the world’s biggest film markets (the biggest by volume of films produced). So why has IMAX taken so long to get more than a toehold in India?

Money Machines

First, a quick recap. How does IMAX Corporation make money?

IMAX sells technology, equipment, and services to two kinds of customers: exhibitors (aka cinema hall owners) and filmmakers. Only one kind of customer will not do; to make money, the company needs content and the screens equipped to show it.

In the Indian context, the majority of IMAX’s money comes from:

  • Equipment: licensing IMAX projectors and screens to cinema hall owners for a fee or share of revenue along with maintenance fees. These are 10-year contracts with a few extensions.

  • Conversion technology: also called ‘Digital Re-Mastering,’ this technology converts a regular film for IMAX screens. The company usually gets a share of ticket sales as payment, per its annual report.

So here lies IMAX’s initial problem: which customer should it go after first and for how long?

“It is always a challenge to get started,” Daniel says. “It’s a chicken and egg story, to be honest. The theatre chains always said, ‘Give us more movies and I will give you more screens.’ And movie makers said, ‘Give us more theatres and we will give you more movies.’”

IMAX prioritised opening screens first because there were Hollywood films to show. But, Daniel explains, it was difficult to show filmmakers that investing in IMAX conversions was worth their while.

Local Fine-tuning

IMAX made adjustments to woo the Indian market.

First, it ditched its more popular deal structures to offer hybrid models to exhibitors. Here, the cinema owner makes a fixed upfront payment for the IMAX equipment and the rest is repaid as a percentage share of revenue earned from IMAX screenings.

“This is another element [wherein we are] relaxing our business model itself for the country,” Daniel said. “We understand India has lower ticket prices, and the entry barrier may be much higher. So, we changed the way we would structure our deals a few years ago. Today, it’s a lot cheaper [to get an IMAX screen] than what Prasads would pay.” Prasads operated India’s second IMAX screen in Hyderabad, opened in 2002. Both the exhibitor and IMAX make money only if people actually buy tickets.

As of today, there are 25 operational IMAX screens in India, while contracts for another 15 locations are in process. “I want to touch the 30-screen mark by the end of this year,” Daniel says.

But IMAX told investors in an earnings call this April that opening new screens in India was a tedious process. There are so many individual exhibitors in India that it’s difficult to crack a deal for tens of IMAX screens in one go, CEO Rich Gelfond told investors. “It's much more blocking and tackling, and it will take some time. And then, the third thing I would say about India is that construction and rollout takes much more time there. There's more bureaucracy, there's more approvals, there's more government intervention,” he said.

Second, the company made it easier (and cheaper) for filmmakers to have their films converted to IMAX. “If you look at Dhoom 3 and some of the earliest movies we did in India, all of those movies had to be sent to Los Angeles for the DMR process,” Daniel says. “That involved time constraints because you’re working in different time zones. And with censor cuts [from the Central Board of Film Certification], you had to go back and forth across a time-zone difference.”

Now, IMAX Corp has partnered with Mumbai-based visual effects studio Prime Focus. “They are well-versed in what the [CBFC] rules and regulations are, so we are able to turn around a film much faster, almost 10-15 days before release.”

That might explain the rise in the number of IMAX films in India. It also helps that the company has many more screens opening in India now than in the last two decades, including in smaller cities like Coimbatore. Daniel says the company no longer has to pursue filmmakers to consider the IMAX format.

“Until we didn’t have the footprint [of IMAX screens], converting to IMAX did not bring in incremental revenue,” he says. “Today, we bring in substantial incremental revenue for every movie released in IMAX. That understanding has set in. I do get calls from people saying they would like to do an IMAX movie. Now, it is for us to choose the right movie for the IMAX canvas.”

IMAX India/Instagram

To convince the film industry to adopt a new, expensive technology, all it takes is a few big hits. The sound systems firm Dolby Labs launched Dolby Atmos in India in 2012 with a theatre in Chennai. But after Rajinikanth starrer Sivaji 3D released in Dolby Atmos in 2017, the number of theatres fitted with the sound system grew to 500 screens in just two years.

Not There Yet

So, exhibitors and filmmakers are finally getting excited about IMAX in India. But compared to other markets, India is far behind.

Consider this: when the company opened its second screen in the country, in Hyderabad in 2003, India and China had the same number of IMAX screens. Today, China (along with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau) has nearly 800 screens, while India is at just 25.

“The multiplex revenues have grown, but our universe of screens that we should have had in this country is below par,” Daniel says. “We were at about 10,500 screens in total three years ago. Post-Covid, this has actually come down by about 1,500 screens. China has 60,000-65,000 screens, while we are stuck at 9,000.”

India is also a marginal presence in IMAX filmmaking. Among “local language” films, as IMAX calls it, China is the biggest contributor, followed by Japan. India is part of the “Rest of World” segment even in its latest investor presentation (pdf). This, despite CEO Gelfond telling investors the company is talking to Indian filmmakers about using IMAX cameras. “..This one filmmaker I know of in India, I've talked to myself who's starting a project probably in about six months, who intends to film it with IMAX cameras,” he said in the investor call quoted above.

Three years ago, IMAX launched a “Filmed In IMAX” programme to certify cameras made by manufacturers such as Sony and ARRI to work in the format. Top Gun: Maverick and Dune were among the first films marketed under this programme. But India hasn’t had a ‘Filmed In IMAX’ title yet, although the 2022 Telugu film RRR was shot using IMAX-certified cameras.

Daniel says the company needs to cross two barriers before it can get films shot in, and not merely converted into, the IMAX format.

First, it needs to find a filmmaker willing to actively work with the company’s executives on the making of their film. “It’s not just about handing over a camera and saying: go shoot!” Daniel says. “There is a whole lot of involvement by IMAX into making the movie. We think there is a way to shoot a film in IMAX which will be more immersive. Sometimes, it may be a very foreign concept for a filmmaker.”

Second, the company needs a bigger network of screens before it can officially launch local films made (and not converted) in IMAX. “We are in active discussions with many, many filmmakers,” he said. “When I have 50-60 IMAX [screens] in the country, I’m pretty sure all sorts of DMR-ing, cameras, and ‘Filmed For IMAX’ programmes will all be very, very active.”

Do you spend extra to watch movies in IMAX?

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Is it okay to berate rude customers online?

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