‘Godzilla’ and ‘Dune’ Power Imax-Led Premium Screen Boom While Theaters Struggle

Aside from her husband, Christopher Nolan, their children and her mother-in-law, Oscar-winning producer Emma Thomas gave a shout-out to only one other person by name when accepting the Academy Award for best picture for Oppenheimer. “And I want to thank Rich Gelfond at Imax and everyone else at Imax for believing in this movie when it maybe didn’t make much sense to do so,” said Thomas.

For Gelfond, who was in the audience, that moment won’t be forgotten anytime soon and comes as his company witnesses its own atomic explosion, with more moviegoers than ever embracing the Imax and premium large-format (PLF) experience despite an average hefty upcharge of $5 per ticket (in L.A., an Imax seat can run $28). Imax collected a record $1.06 billion in global ticket sales in 2023, led by Nolan’s Oppenheimer.

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As many standard auditoriums remain sparsely populated, Imax, along with a robust offering of other PLF screens that have popped up in the past decade in hopes of emulating Gelfond’s model, is enjoying a post-pandemic boom. But Imax remains the leader and is on a mega winning streak as it expands beyond blockbusters to work with smaller indies. It has collaborated several times with Neon on such docs as the David Bowie film Moonage Daydream, and is doing a new monthly screening program with A24 along with giving a full run to Alex Garland’s Civil War. “It’s a long time coming and is all in service of feeding what is a very powerful audience and a younger audience,” says Neon chief Tom Quinn.

Last year, Imax — which is seeing an increasing demand for its proprietary cameras — saw its record-breaking ticket sales come from 1,700 screens, including 417 domestically, even as overall box office revenue lagged. “When you look at the numbers, Imax gives the whole multiplex a lift, not only because of the people we bring in, but because of the sellouts and people who spill over into other theaters,” says Gelfond.

The Contenders: Rival Premium Large-Format Players

Now there are more than 1,000 premium large-format screens in North America, among them Cinemark Theatres’ XD, Regal Cinemas’ RDX and Canadian giant Cineplex’s UltraAVX. The premium category also includes 4DX, a motion experience designed to enhance what’s on the screen by moving seats and spraying water, among other gimmicks.

The PLF slice of the opening-weekend pie, including Imax, keeps getting bigger across all genres in North America: Oppenheimer (48 percent), Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One (42 percent), Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (37 percent), Fast X (32 percent) and The Little Mermaid (26 percent). As a general rule, Imax still makes up about half the PLF pie domestically, despite having less than half the overall screen count.

Dolby Cinema is praised for its proprietary projection system and sound, along with state-of-the art seating, but is exclusive to AMC in the United States. Since Imax had no room for Barbie, AMC offered exclusive runs. Dolby contributed a healthy 10 percent of the blockbuster’s $182 million opening.

The latest Hollywood tentpole to partake in the premium gold rush was Legendary and Warner Bros.’ Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, which stomped to $80 million domestically and $115.1 million overseas for a far better-than-expected $195.1 million global launch. Talk about an Easter surprise … or maybe not. Imax and other PLF screens made up more than 48 percent of the domestic gross, helping to explain why it did far more than the $45 million to $55 million expected in North America.

Gelfond steers clear of assessing Dolby but isn’t impressed with the rest: “It’s not a coincidence that virtually every PLF has an ‘x’ in their name. It’s an exhibitor’s way of getting a higher ticket price. And a lot of the PLF business exists because Imax seats are sold out. The consumer believes they are a superior technical experience, but they aren’t. The screen is just larger.” Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution Jeff Goldstein is of a different mindset, noting, “What the audience is telling us loudly and clearly is they want all the screens to be premium, whether it’s Imax or private-label PLF or Dolby Cinema.”

How Dune: Part Two Shakes Up the Field

On the opening weekend of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune sequel, studio execs who have access to grosses in real time were mystified when Friday night traffic slowed. Was the movie in trouble? Then they realized what was happening: There were some diehard fans who were willing to skip opening weekend in order to later see the sci-fi epic in Imax. Dune ended up doing just fine on its opening, hitting $82.5 million domestically. But the better news is that it keeps playing and playing, especially in Imax.

To date, Imax has generated $134 million in Dune 2 ticket sales, or more than 21 percent of the film’s running global gross of $627.3 million. That’s a record share that supplants Interstellar, Oppenheimer and Dunkirk — all Nolan films.

The Christopher Nolan Factor

For years, Nolan has used Imax cameras to shoot his movies, including the Dark Knight trilogy. But no one could have ever imagined that a three-hour biographical drama would earn nearly $1 billion at the box office, with nearly $200 million coming from Imax screens. “If I had shown you the treatment for Oppenheimer and told you it was about a physicist who developed the atomic bomb, that wouldn’t necessarily scream out at you as an Imax film, so it’s about how the vision was executed for Imax,” says Gelfond. The entire town is waiting to see whether Nolan will stick with Donna Langley and Universal after Oppenheimer’s box office and Oscar domination, or return to Warners (many are betting on the former). One thing is almost assured: He’ll be using Imax cameras.

Thanks to Swifties, Imax Is No Longer Just for Fanboys

The blockbuster Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour did sizable business, with Imax screens generating $13.1 million globally on opening weekend, a record start for a concert or documentary. That included $11.1 million from 377 Imax screens in North America, an 11.4 percent share. All told, Imax/PLFs represented 26 percent of the concert pic’s opening weekend. Not bad for a movie whose audience was 70 percent female — a typical gender split for many Imax blockbusters is 70 percent male.

Imax Takes a Bigger Bite infographic
Imax Takes a Bigger Bite infographic

A version of this story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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