IMAX CEO sees blockbuster summer season: 'People are screaming to come back to movies'

Alexandra Canal
·3 min read

Nearly one year after shutting down because of COVID-19, New York City movie theaters are reopened at 25% capacity.

The much-anticipated, albeit partial, return of Big Apple cinemas — one of the largest movie markets in the world— comes as coronavirus restrictions ease across the United States. IMAX (IMAX) is one theater chain that's anxious to reap the benefits of the economic recovery. The company smashed earnings expectations in Q4 — driven by strong box office performances across Asia.

As COVID-19 restrictions gradually relax and more people get vaccinated, some still don't feel entirely comfortable going back to theaters. However, IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond had a different take.

"What we're seeing is that it's safe to go to the theaters and people feel that way. They're not only coming back, but they're coming back in record numbers," Gelfond told Yahoo Finance — citing how IMAX was up 45% vs. 2019 during its opening weekend on Chinese New Year.

In addition, Gelfond added that the Japanese film "Demon Slayer" brought in $27 million for the company — the largest IMAX release in Japan of all time.

SHENZHEN, CHINA - FEBRUARY 13: Customers wait to enter the screening hall of a movie theatre on the second day of the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Ox
SHENZHEN, CHINA - FEBRUARY 13: Customers wait to enter the screening hall of a movie theatre on the second day of the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Ox

It's an encouraging sign when it comes to pent-up demand in the United States. Gelfond singled out expected hits like "Black Widow," "Dune," "No Time to Die," and "Top Gun: Maverick" — all films that were pushed into 2021 from last year — as strong blockbusters to aid theaters' return.

"It looks like one of the strongest slates we've ever seen," he said — adding he's confident that U.S. consumers will see a "traditional blockbuster season this summer."

Still, the U.S. recovery has some time to go, with movie delays and reopening limitations still plaguing the industry. Yet "in other parts of the world, when real movies have all opened up and the cinemas have been opened up, the traffic has been phenomenal," Gelfond added.

Streaming vs. Theaters

Amid the coronavirus, studios have had to get creative with film rollouts — often choosing to bypass theaters and opt for streamers.

So will the threat posed by the streaming boom hinder the theatrical comeback? Gelfond doesn't seem to think so.

Premium video-on-demand options and films sent to streaming were "great responses to a global pandemic, but once the pandemic is over, and we've seen this in other parts of the world, people are screaming to come back to movies and studios realize that," he said.

In December, Warner Bros. (T) shocked the media landscape by announcing plans to air all of its 2021 movies on HBO Max — the same day the films hit theaters.

But Gelfond pointed out that even Warner Bros."will have a different strategy" post-pandemic, comparing "Wonder Woman: 1984's" streaming performance to the original film's massive $800M+ global box office run.

"The theatrical window really builds great demand for [movies] and helps publicize the property. Skipping those windows and going just to the streaming window does not provide a fraction of the economics of the original model," he continued.

"I don't think what worked for a pandemic is going to be the right result when the world has opened up," he concluded.

Alexandra is a Producer & Entertainment Correspondent at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @alliecanal8193

Read more: