Imax CEO Rich Gelfond On Warner-HBO Max Theatrical Plan: “It’s a Real Issue”

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Imax CEO Rich Gelfond doesn’t see the Warner Bros.-induced sound and fury in Hollywood subsiding anytime soon as talent joins theaters to protest the studio’s 2021 theatrical windows – nor does he think Warner will stick it out for a full year.

“I don’t this is a storm that’s going to blow over in a few days. I think it’s a real issue and I think actually it’s going to have even more influence than what exhibitors think,” Gelfond told CNBC Friday.

Warner Bros. announced last week it will release its entire 2021 slate day-and-date on HBO Max and in theaters domestically. Christopher Nolan, CAA and the DGA are among those in the creative community protesting what they call a relationship-busting, ill-advised, abrupt shift that breaches contracts.

“I think it was mostly a lack of understanding of a lot of elements of how the theatrical business works,” Gelfond said of the storied studio. “When people make movies [it’s] different than making TV things for streaming. So when big directors like Chris Nolan or Denis Villeneuve or Patty Jenkins envision their movies they envision them on the big screen and they do special effects that way, lighting, camera. They are telling a visual story in a certain way. That doesn’t translate well to the small screen and it’s not what the talent wants.”

He concedes as most have a need for flexibility at the height of a pandemic. But, if Imax is any guide, moviegoing could jump once the worst is over. He said attendance at Imax theaters in China and Japan is back at 100% of pre-Covid levels. With a vaccine imminent in the U.S., “I just don’t understand for the life of me why WarnerMedia would give up that box office. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“If theatrical comes back, and I think it will come roaring back as it has in other places, I think they are going to look at those numbers, especially for movies later in the year like Suicide Squad and Dune, and they are going to look at the market and say, ‘This just doesn’t make sense … [and] they are likely to change what they say they are doing.”

It’s not clear how U.S. theaters will respond. HBO Max is U.S.-only so Warner hasn’t changed windows elsewhere. Gelfond the studio may be counting on overseas theatrical revenue to offset a U.S. hit. But he noted that chains Stateside have wide reach. Regal is owned by U.K.-based giant CineWorld. AMC is global (and is owned by Wanda of China). “It will be interesting to see if they play it or not.”

Unlike Warner, Gelfond said he took Disney’s investor day string of news Thursday as a reaffirmation of a commitment to the theatrical business. It kept “about seven movies” for theatrical-only release and CEO Bob Chapek said the studio’s $13 billion in 2019 box office would be hard to replace, he noted. He said Disney indicated it will protect its product in a pandemic but that “when things change we are gong change.”

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