IMAX has found its sweet spot and "Hunger Games" is in it.
The huge-screen theater company has shifted its focus from families to fanboys and the strategy is working.
IMAX expects spectacular business with its first Lionsgate release, “The Hunger Games,” on March 23.
Many of that movie's midnight shows have already sold out, and theaters are adding 3 a.m. shows to accommodate eager moviegoers. IMAX will have “The Hunger Games” for only one week – a small timeframe for a big movie.
But it needs to make most of its about 300 screens available for the March 30 opening of “Wrath of the Titans,” which is sure to be another fanboy favorite. Then it has to clear out "Titans" for “Titanic 3D.”
The shift in audience focus is part of a concerted move on IMAX's part.
“We have rebalanced our programming over the course of the last year,” Greg Foster, chairman and president of IMAX Filmed Entertainment, told TheWrap.
“We've zeroed in on tentpoles that cater to 18- to 30-year-old fanboys who have supported us and are focused on movies that take advantage of our scale and movies that can take advantage of our technology.”
That means live-action fanboy titles. And studios are paying attention.
“If you've got a big movie, an action-adventure movie, a fanboy-oriented movie, if you're not talking to IMAX, you're out to lunch,” Rich Ingrassia, an analyst with Roth Capital Management, told TheWrap.
Indeed, Paramount debuted its hugely successful “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” on 300 IMAX and 125 other large-format screens before opening the movie wide.
"Ghost Protocol" director Brad Bird filmed the movie with IMAX cameras, and kick-starting the release in IMAX gave the film's opening extra momentum.
“Their brand has tremendous resonance with mainstream and, specifically, with fanboy audiences throughout the world,” Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of distribution for Warner Bros., told TheWrap. “It's really a beacon for fanboy audiences.”
Last year, IMAX showed five animated movies. This year, it has announced two: “The Lorax” and “Frankenweenie.”
While family films still play at IMAX theaters – “The Lorax” and “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” had successful IMAX runs – the super large-format screens have slightly less appeal to families because IMAX movies are, on average, $5.50 per ticket more expensive than standard movies.
This year's 25-film slate includes “The Hunger Games,” “Wrath of the Titans,” “Titanic,” “The Avengers,” “Dark Shadows,” “MIB 3,” “Prometheus,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Frankenweenie,” “Bond 23 – Skyfall,” “Gravity” and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
Those are some of the most anticipated movies of the year, and “The Hunger Games,” “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises” are almost certain to open to more than $100 million each.
“This year is the strongest lineup that I think the company has ever had,” Ingrassia told TheWrap.
Even box-office dud “John Carter” opened well at IMAX, taking in more than $5 million – 16.5 percent of “John Carter's” entire opening weekend take.
Ingrassia said IMAX propped up “John Carter,” which grossed $30.2 million in its opening weekend “Without IMAX,” he said, “it would have been $25 million.”
"John Carter” replaced “The Lorax” at IMAX locations. Executives at the large-screen chain couldn't have been happy to see Universal's surprisingly successful film leave – especially for a film that, even before hitting theaters, was considered a flop.
But IMAX was clearly the venue of choice for the "John Carter" fans who were out there.
IMAX's limited numbers of sites – a bit more than 300 nationwide, 225 abroad – forces the company to choose its films carefully. It shows only 25 movies a year.
“For every movie we say ‘yes' to, there are four or five … we say ‘no' to," Foster said. "And that's a problem because we like taking care of our customers.”
By “customers,” he means both moviegoers and the studios.
But the company also thinks about filmmakers, adjusting schedules to allow some films to stay on the large screens much longer than the typical average of two weeks.
“'The Dark Knight Rises' will play for at least two months, even though our contractual commitment is only for two weeks,” Foster said. “We're big Chris Nolan fans. He's as strong a partner as we've ever had, and anything he does, we're in all the way. So we don't have a (new) title in August.”
The last of Nolan's “Batman” films doesn't open until July 20. But many opening night IMAX shows in major cities had already sold out in January.
Nolan's last Batman movie, 2008's “The Dark Knight,” brought IMAX more than $65 million – until that point, the highest-grossing IMAX film of all time. “Avatar” shattered that record, bringing in $242 million in 2009 and 2010.
Still, IMAX does not want to be everywhere. To keep its theaters from competing against one another, the company does not allow them to be located too close together.
“There's not going to be an IMAX theater on every street corner,” Foster said.
The company's stock closed at $25.86 on Friday -- down 29 cents. Most analysts rate it a buy.
In the last quarter of 2011, IMAX beat expectations on earnings and revenues, but still saw revenue and earnings per share fall compared to the same period one year earlier. So far this quarter, IMAX is up compared to last year. Halfway through the first quarter of the year, IMAX is up 45 percent compared to last year -- $55 million at the box office versus $38 million in 2011.
One analyst, however, isn't so impressed with IMAX.
Eric Wold, of B. Riley & Co., told TheWrap that he gives the company's shares a “sell,” based on concerns of increasing competition in the large-screen arena.
Although he acknowledged that “this year, they've got a great slate,” he noted that some movie theater chains, like Cinemark and Regal, have developed their own large-screen formats.
But Foster feels good about the future.
“The Hunger Games” and “The Dark Knight Rises” are selling out early, he said, and partnerships with studios remain strong. On top of that, it's a good year for movies, he said.
"There seems to be a freshness, a uniqueness to a lot of the titles this year," he said. "This year there are a handful of titles that will be ground swells that carry the momentum of moviegoing."