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Op-ed: Will the viewers go to the cinema once more? You have already got, says IMAX CEO

Hollywood has always captured the fascination of the American public. However, with Covid-19 targeting global companies, it has the wrong reasons.

Despite the encouraging news of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, with people finally believing the end of the pandemic may be in sight, there is still much speculation about the deaths of moviegoers.

Many experts believe the theater industry will be affected by the long-standing effects of the pandemic on their business and consumer behavior. Studio releases keep being pushed back. Viewers believe that consumers will forever be satisfied with streaming content at home because it is easy, relatively safe, and convenient.

The bottom line is that a global industry that has been at the center of culture for a century, grossing a record $ 42.5 billion at the box office in 2019, will be wiped out in just a few months.

"Really?"

As a resident of New York, I am unsure when we will get back to normal. And I can't blame the media and investors here and my industry friends in Los Angeles, whose own experiences are shaped by the same uncertainty that I feel every day.

But I also run IMAX, which gives me a different perspective than most of the others – a real "front row seat" for what is happening in the rest of the world. We enable the best possible creation and distribution of great films on the largest screens in all four corners of the world in 82 countries and territories.

And when people ask me if audiences are really going to return to the cinema, my answer is simple: they already have it.

Where the virus has been handled with real public health discipline – places like Japan, South Korea, China, and all of Asia – the audience returns safe and enthusiastic. These are countries with tech-savvy consumers who have walked back to the theaters and avoided the isolation of in-home entertainment in order to enjoy a movie-theater experience together again.

This is not a forecast. These are facts.

Earlier this month, China outperformed North America in the aggregate for the first time – a krona the Middle Kingdom is unlikely to give up before the end of the year. China's thriving network of multiplexes has generated around $ 2 billion in box office worldwide to date.

While the country has returned to normal in many ways – even masks are no longer required in most indoor spaces – most mainland Chinese are still unable to travel abroad and are turning to the cinema about fleeing.

Weekly IMAX tickets sold at the Chinese box office have fully risen to the levels of the second half of 2019 despite persistent capacity constraints, which have only recently been increased to 75%, and a few Hollywood movie releases, which typically account for more than a third overall Chinese box office recovered.

The biggest global blockbuster of the year doesn't come from Hollywood, but from China. The war epic "The Eight Hundred" – the first Chinese film to be shot entirely with IMAX cameras – has grossed more than $ 370 million at the box office and is one of the ten best releases of all time at the Chinese box office.

And yes, these are real numbers. We at IMAX have the receipts to prove it.

In Japan, the manga sensation "Demon Slayer: Mugen Train" opened a whopping 44 million US dollars – the best opening weekend in Japan to date was blown out of the water – and exceeded 100 million US dollars in just two weeks.

The New York Times reported that a Tokyo theater scheduled 42 screenings of the film in a single day to meet unprecedented audience demand from 7:00 a.m. to well past midnight. And a Japanese economy minister described it as "a spectacular achievement for the world of culture and entertainment when they struggle with the coronavirus".

Back in July, the South Korean zombie hit "Peninsula" was the first international film to go nowhere when the cinemas reopened. It hit an opening weekend of $ 21 million on its way to nearly $ 40 million in Asia, Europe, and even the United States.

From Japan to Russia, local film industries are capitalizing on the shortage of Hollywood films – showing the world the scope and extent of their ambitions and how many of their blockbuster productions now rival the best of Hollywood.

And they are greeted by a large audience eager to leave their couches and perhaps the reality of a rough year behind.

There will of course be some changes, especially here in North America.

Streaming and window strategies will continue to evolve. Streamers will continue to delve into blockbuster filmmaking and seek new franchises with filmmakers and creatives looking to see their work on the big screen. In a world of shortened windows, a potential new content pipeline is emerging that theater owners should embrace.

Many North American theater owners are facing restructuring that would be difficult. But in the end, less debt and a smaller, more focused, and more productive number of multiplexes could be a good thing.

The theater industry needs to embrace change instead of trying to run away from it.

But we also have to stand behind the magic of the shared experience of seeing a film on the big screen. The biggest blockbuster films have been shown in cinemas. Streaming – with its many advantages – cannot replace the cultural and commercial impact of a theatrical release.

And think about it. In the relentless news cycle of 2020, don't turn off your phone, sit in a darkened theater, let go of your worries and immerse yourself in the incomparable sight and sound of a movie that is sounding great right now?

From our global perspective, it is clear that rumors of moviegoers deaths are exaggerated. And our mission at IMAX continues: to bring consumers the best movies with the best entertainment experience they can get anywhere.

Next week or next year, you can be sure – we'll see you in the cinema.

– Richard Gelfond is the managing director of IMAX.

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