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Avatar drives IMAX box office record


April 12, 2010
By Georgina Prodhan

LONDON (Reuters) Giant-screen movie operator IMAX took in more than $225 million at box offices the first quarter fueled by the massive popularity of Twentieth Century Fox's "Avatar," IMAX's chief executive said Monday.

Rich Gelfond told Reuters that Avatar alone would pass $100 million in international box-office sales this week, adding to about $130 million from North America since the 3D movie was released in December.

"For the first quarter...our box office was over $225 million," Gelfond said in an interview on the fringes of an investor presentation in London. "Obviously, that was positively impacted by "Avatar."

"We're going to pass $100 million internationally on 'Avatar' this week, probably by the weekend," he said. Toronto-based IMAX shares box-office revenue with the theatres where its films are shown and with the film studios.

IMAX's previous record for a single quarter was in the fourth quarter of 2009, when it made $101 million at box office and total revenue of $54.2 million.

Shares in IMAX have almost tripled in value in the past year, helped by a rapid rise in the popularity of 3D, which will get further exposure in this year's soccer World Cup when some games will be broadcast in 3D for the first time.

The number of digital cinema screens around the world almost doubled last year to 16,405, driven by 3D, which for the first time accounted for the majority of digital screens, according to UK-based media research firm Screen Digest.

IMAX, which opened its first cinema in 1970, has more than 400 cinemas in 48 countries.

3D NOT ONLY BET

Gelfond said, however, IMAX did not want to tie its fortunes exclusively to 3D, which it expects to account for about three-quarters of its releases this year.

"I've been somewhat cautious about betting everything on 3D, and our slate -- we try and balance 2D and 3D," he said.

He said that IMAX did not plan to participate in the live 3D broadcast of World Cup games this time around since it did not have technology to add value to the signal that will be provided by Sony and soccer body FIFA.

IMAX is also expanding its business in other directions, for example, by launching a portable IMAX cinema for which it sees great potential in rural China.

In general, Gelfond sees IMAX's international business growing faster than its North American operations this year. North America currently brings in about two-thirds of sales.

IMAX will have greater flexibility now that it has recapitalized its balance sheet, giving it options to invest in retrofitting more multiplex cinemas -- a more profitable way of operating than the alternative of leasing premises.

The company recently expanded its partnership with Odeon, Britain's largest cinema chain, by installing an IMAX digital cinema in Odeon's Southampton multiplex, and Gelfond said IMAX was in discussions with Odeon for more UK theatres.

It has 12 theatres in Britain, six of which are in Odeon multiplexes.

Gelfond said 2010 would be a big year for IMAX's operations in Europe, where he said the company only had 32 multiplexes of a target market of more than 200.

He also said more IMAX activity should be expected soon in Japan, and added that he saw enormous potential in Korea and China, where IMAX already has operations.

Gelfond said it would take longer for IMAX to take off in India, despite a huge Bollywood movie industry, due to the country's small number of modern multiplexes.

IMAX is also working on developing a U.S. 3D cable network with Sony and Discovery Communications, which it hopes to start in 2011. The parties have signed a memorandum of understanding, and Gelfond had no update on negotiations.

Gelfond said he envisaged some home viewing in 3D and some in 2D, as he did not expect viewers to wear 3D glasses for prolonged periods at home.

Asked how far off the day might be when 3D viewing would be without glasses, he replied: "I think far away. I think predictions of that are way premature."





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