Imax’s New China CEO Is Confident the Premium Theater Experience Will Weather the Global Storm


Two months after its New Year’s week debut in China, “Full River Red” opened in limited North American theatrical release this past Friday. The thrilling, macabre period thriller wasn’t expected to make much money in the United States over the weekend. But the somewhat nationalistic historical epic was the year’s biggest global grosser with $672 million worldwide — and its lush visuals were built for Imax.

“We’ve got policy on our side, we’ve got film supply on our side, and most importantly, we have an audience base that is truly demanding a more premium experience,” Imax’s new China CEO Daniel Manwaring told TheWrap of how Imax is future-proofing itself to thrive theatrically even amid an ecosystem challenged by COVID variables, streaming competition and even global tensions between China and the U.S.

“There’s a demographic much younger than you and me that is less discretionary about paying for a premium experience,” he continued. “That could be a live concert, a big film in Imax or a quality coffee before work.”

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The strong start for the Chinese box office was also an auspicious beginning for Manwaring, who stepped into the role of CEO of Imax China this year in time for “Avatar: The Way of Water” to fly past $245 million in the country, breaking COVID-era records (previously “Jurassic World Dominion” with $160 million last summer) for a Hollywood import.

Balancing local films with movies that resonate with Chinese audiences and play to the strengths of the Imax format will define his tenure in a changing era for the movie industry. A string of American films, from “Uncharted” to “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” to last week’s “Shazam: Fury of the Gods,” have underwhelmed or outright flopped in China, bringing into question Hollywood’s hopes to revive its pre-pandemic success in the key global market.

Manwaring, the former head of CAA China who happens to be married to Zhang Mo, director of “Suddenly Seventeen” and daughter of “Full River Red” helmer Zhang Yimou, spoke with TheWrap about the moment we’re in. The conversation touched on whether strong local revenue will compensate for declining Hollywood earnings — even “Avatar 2” earned maybe one-half of what might have been expected prior to 2020 — and how China’s reopening has affected Imax’s outlook in the country.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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How did you end up at Imax from Creative Arts Agency?
I was first introduced to Imax when I was eight years old in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, going to a science museum. When I joined CAA over 10 years ago, Imax had already made a significant footprint in China. Over that decade, we worked with Imax here in China, whether it was talent coming in for promotions or figuring out what release dates. There’s a community of Hollywood companies that have been in China for a long time.

What role did Imax play over the last 10 years in advancing the idea of Hollywood blockbusters doing well in China?
I think that Imax globally has popularized the blockbusterization of films. There’s no question it’s helped curate a population in China that demands better quality. In addition to being a facilitator and a curator of big movies and big experiences, it’s helped sharpen Chinese audiences’ demand for better experiences. It set the bar much higher in terms of theatrical experiences.

How have you begun to balance a potential new normal of fewer Hollywood movies playing in China, lower grosses for the films that do get in compared to pre-COVID times and rising grosses for local tentpoles in China?
I don’t think there’s a consensus yet that Hollywood films are underperforming. However, Imax gets to dabble in both local-language as well as Hollywood films. There’s always going to be a balance of Hollywood films that come in and franchises that have an incredible record of accomplishment here that will break out and do well. There are going to be new local language films from young filmmakers and older, more experienced filmmakers that surface. The beauty of Imax is we get to enjoy both of those.

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China’s box office was the biggest in the world in 2020 and again in 2021, with North America placing second. It fell behind a resurgent North American marketplace in 2022, partially thanks to Hollywood films underwhelming in China. However, 2023 is off to a roaring start, including a $1 billion-plus box office around the Lunar New Year in China. Is this the start of a return to pre-COVID grosses there?
Absolutely. Along with “Avatar: The Way of Water” earning $53 million in Chinese Imax alone, there’s a major sense of business recovery at both the government and business level. Everybody is focused on making 2023 a big recovery year. Every policy and business factor is lined up in a way to be great for our business.

Will the increasing grosses for Chinese tentpoles make up for potential long-term declines in grosses for American exports?
It’s really about the total supply of films. We have a strong pipeline packed with both Hollywood and domestic blockbusters this year. For local-language titles, we’ve got a backlog of films that have been sort of on the shelf for years due to COVID delays or waiting for censorship approval. We’re going to be doing more movies given that the Imax theater network spans from tier 1 to tier 4-5 cities in China, and the market can decide which films are right for Imax screens.

How have shifting global relations between China and America affected Imax over the last few months?
We don’t have insight into that. We’re involved in entertainment. But we’ve seen such proactive policies from different bureaus within the government, refocusing the energy back to economic recovery.

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What do you want to accomplish in your first year?
China just reopened in December of last year. The key focus for 2023 is our core business. We have 794 screens in China with a backlog of over 200. When you add that up, and then that’s 1,000 screens in China. Maintaining and growing that core business is going to be priority No. 1.

Priority No. 2 will be improving the audience experience, whether that be our… reward system or the in-theater experience. We’re going to be really focusing on the audience. We also have an incredible relationship with Chinese filmmakers. We are helping them improve the quality of their storytelling with our cameras and our expertise.

And another key priority is Imax Enhanced. The premium in-home entertainment experience has intersected with our irreplaceable in-theater experience — together, we extend the lifecycle for quality content. Our certified device partners in China already included a few industry leaders such as Honor, TCL, Hisense and Xiaomi. We hope to further expand our footprint on this program with more high-profile local partners.

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What role will non-Hollywood and non-Chinese tentpoles like “Pathaan” play for Imax in China?
We’re completely sovereign. We want to see non-English-language blockbuster films, Hollywood blockbusters and Chinese tentpoles thrive in Imax. We’re solely focused on creating the best experience possible for the biggest movies out there. We have “The First Slam Dunk,” which has earned $124 million in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, opening in China soon.

Will we ever start seeing Chinese tentpoles like “Moon Man” or “Monster Hunt” make a global impact in North America or elsewhere outside of China?
Absolutely. Imax has been and will continue to be a facilitator of cross-border entertainment and culture. For example, “The Wandering Earth” opened in 31 Imax theaters in North America during the Chinese New Year, with Imax accounting for 30% of the film’s three-day gross.

Even if Hollywood films like “Minions: The Rise of Gru” are going to play a little bit softer in China than in pre-COVID times, Imax might not feel any of that because a larger percentage of people that still want to show up are going to opt for your auditoriums?
The overall box office is important, as is our indexing. Nevertheless, it’s obvious audiences are seeking a premium experience in the post-pandemic era, and thus our business benefits from that trend.

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So, random example, if “Fast X” underperforms in China, it’ll still over-index enough in Imax that it won’t necessarily underperform for you?
I don’t believe “Fast X” is going to underperform. But yes, for big movies like “Fast X,” we are confident that the Imax experience will be a preferred choice for audiences.

What films coming up — Hollywood, Chinese or otherwise — are you most optimistic about?
We’ve had a great start already in the year. We are excited about a healthy pipeline of films, including “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” which just confirmed a day-and-date release (in China) with North America; “Fast X”; “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts”; ” Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning part I” and so on. On local language titles, there are “Post Truth,” “Born to Fly,” “The Creation of Gods Ⅰ” and more to confirm.

Those types of trends really serve well for our business and the demand for premium is always going to be a driver for us.

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