The Fight for Imax: How Studios Beg and Barter to Get ‘Mission: Impossible,’ ‘Oppenheimer’ and More Blockbusters on Premium Screens

There’s been a battle brewing between two of Hollywood’s blockbuster talents.

In one corner, Tom Cruise is gearing to take a victory lap from the behemoth success of “Top Gun: Maverick” with a sequel to his other big action franchise, “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.” It’s expected to be one of the biggest movies of the summer when it opens on July 12. In the other corner, Christopher Nolan, one of the few directors so famous that his name alone can draw crowds, is readying to release his highly anticipated “Oppenheimer.” The big-budget drama about the creation of the atomic bomb launches just a week later on July 21.

At the center of the drama is access to Imax, and how the company’s 401 North American screens will be divided between the two box office draws.

Except, in this case, there wasn’t much to negotiate. Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible 7” is only playing on Imax screens for one week, as first reported by Puck, a newsletter that covers the media business, before it has to relinquish all of its showtimes to “Oppenheimer.” That’s despite Cruise making a few calls around town to remind everyone that not even a year ago, “Maverick” earned more than $100 million from Imax alone. By shorting the Imax run of “Dead Reckoning,” he suggests, all involved parties risk losing out on serious coinage.

But long before the oft-delayed “MI” sequel moved to mid-July, Universal had already ironed out a rare agreement for “Oppenehimer” to control Imax’s entire North American footprint for three full weeks. (Directors like Nolan, who use Imax cameras to film their movies, are typically granted a two-week exclusive window.)

“I feel sad in a way we can’t accommodate all of them. I know ‘Mission: Impossible’ is going to be a really big movie,” Imax CEO Rich Gelfond tells Variety. “Nolan has a special place in Imax’s heart because he uses our cameras and promotes us. It’s not a matter of us saying which we can make more money on. I would hope after ‘Oppenheimer’s’ run, we can bring back ‘Mission.’”

There may be more of these fights brewing in the future. Here’s why: Attendance hasn’t rebounded in pandemic times, but the demand to watch certain movies on the biggest and brightest screens, known in the industry as premium large formats (PLF), has grown exponentially. Lest that sound like spin from PLF operators, there are stats to back up the idea that audiences are buying what they’re selling. Moviegoing is down 33% from 2019, but the market share for Imax, one of the art’s more recognizable forms, is up 50% without adding any new screens, according to the company. On a big-budget tentpole, those enhanced viewing experiences can account for as much as 30-40% of overall box office returns even though there are only about 900 PLF screens in the country. As a result, studios have more at stake in the battle for access to the finite number of screens that can generate outsized ticket sales.

To pluck a recent example of Imax’s box office heft, take Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” The animated comic book adventure opened to a mighty $120 million from 4,313 North American locations, and averaged $19,736 per location on standard 2D screens. In contrast, it brought in an average of $25,159 per location on PLF screens; and $34,214 per location on Imax screens.

Those figures defy conventional wisdom that price deters people from going to the movies. Tickets for PLF are significantly more expensive, costing up to $28 in major cities like New York City and Los Angeles compared to $18 for regular 2D seats. And yet, those formats are usually the first to sell out for visual effects-heavy movies like “Oppenheimer” and “Mission: Impossible,” with dazzling graphics, crazy stunts and talent that says – nay, insists – it’s not just the best, but the only, way to experience their films.

So how do studios ensure their movies are playing on as many premium large format screens as possible? They fight over them, of course. For distribution chiefs, who handle the theatrical rollout of a movie, an important part of the job is haggling and calling in favors with movie theater owners to guarantee their upcoming box office draw has more prime showtimes than rival offerings.

Imax operates differently than other PLF operators because it doesn’t take as much input from studios when scheduling showtimes. Studios, of course, set the release dates for their own movies. But when there’s a pileup of blockbusters, like the one-two-three punch of “Indiana Jones,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Oppenheimer” in late June and into July, it’s Imax who gets to dictate which of those it’ll be offering its patrons beyond opening weekend.

That’s not how it works for Dolby, ScreenX, 4DX and essentially any other premium large format. Bargaining for those screens is similar to the standard 2D operation, which is a more flexible arrangement that factors in the popularity of a movie as well as the rapport between exhibitors and studios or filmmakers.

Most movie theaters have at least one auditorium with PLF capabilities, with larger multiplexes housing two or three with those special projectors. After a film’s opening weekend, it typically cedes many, if not most, of its premium screens to whatever movie launches on the following weekend. However, if a film is an outsized success story, it stands a better chance at retaining more of those PLF auditoriums in subsequent weeks. And that’s, of course, assuming the movie has the right scale and scope to get people excited. No offense to “80 for Brady” or “Book Club: The Next Chapter,” but very little about those films require its audience to watch it in 3D. So even if “Oppenheimer” is rolling in to town, the latest “Mission: Impossible” movie will still be available in many theaters with enhanced sound and wider screens in its second, third, and even forth weekend.

This is where negotiations can effectively come into play. Studios can’t outright withhold or promise access to one blockbuster in exchange for another that may be riskier in terms of commercial appeal. But they can certainly remind the exhibitors of past successes in hopes that they will want to reward the studio or creative talent with more screens on future projects. This is where Paramount will get to leverage the enduring appeal of “Top Gun: Maverick” as “Dead Reckoning” makes its way to theaters. Ditto Disney with “Avatar: The Way of Water” as it books “Indiana Jones” and Universal with “Super Mario Bros. Movie” as “Oppenheimer” gears up to release. The problem, some insiders lament, is that exhibitors can have short memories. One executive with knowledge of these conversations says it’s a game of “what have you done for me lately?”

There’s a reason that Imax has more control, and it’s not necessarily its ubiquity in the exhibition space. The company uses a proprietary technology to create a film print that’s specifically designed to fit the aspect ratio of its screens. Alternatively, the rest of the country’s PLF operators can project the same version of a movie that they would play on 2D screens, which the studio’s provide. They don’t need to commission specific prints for their high-definition or XD auditoriums. It gives them more scheduling flexibility compared to Imax, which also can’t pivot as quickly in the event that a movie isn’t selling tickets.

Complicating the matter is that Imax has a vested interest in certain movies like the Marvel installment “Eternals,” Jordan Peele’s “Us” and “Oppenheimer” that use its patented technology. That leaves the company eager to prioritize those films when it comes to deciding who gets its limited screens. Relationships that Imax has fostered with certain directors, like Nolan and Denis Villeneuve (“Dune”), have come to trump the demand for popular franchises and long-running series that would otherwise be hugely important to theater operators.

“In a situation where there’s an unavoidable conflict,” Gelfond says, “we’ll look at a number of factors: how the franchise has performed before, visuals, and our relationship to the filmmaker.”

Nolan, for his part, is known to breathlessly evangelize about the singular of experience of Imax, going as far as branding it “the best film format that was ever invented.” As he promoted 2012’s “The Dark Knight” he told the masses that “it’s the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to, but none have, in my opinion.”

That kind of publicity makes it worth going all in on Nolan, even at the expense of Cruise.

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