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Imax prepares to go big for own Hollywood premiere

April 12, 2013|By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times
  • The former Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, shown in 2009, is one of the biggest tourist draws in L.A.
The former Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, shown in 2009, is one of the… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Imax Corp., once a peripheral player in Hollywood, is putting its stamp on the industry's most famous movie theater with plans to open its largest venue at the former Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

The deal, signed but subject to permit approvals from the city, comes three months after Chinese TV maker TCL paid more than $5 million for the naming rights to the historic theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The location now goes by the name TCL Chinese Theatre.

Imax plans to make TCL Chinese Theatre one of its main venues for holding premieres of big-budget action movies. The screen at the new Imax theater will be 94 feet wide and the room will seat 986 people, making it the largest in terms of seating capacity among the more than 730 theaters Imax operates worldwide. It would be the third-largest Imax theater in North America in terms of screen size, only slightly smaller than venues in San Francisco and New York.

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Although Imax has two dozen theaters in Los Angeles County, including at AMC Universal CityWalk, none have been large enough to host premieres, an important source of business for Imax.

"It's been difficult for us to find a large enough location in L.A. to have worldwide premieres," said Richard Gelfond, chief executive of Imax. "This will definitely be one of the most important locations for us in the world."

Once known for its nature documentaries, Imax has evolved into a major player in the exhibition industry, showing about 35 films a year, mainly fan-boy and action movies such as "The Dark Knight Rises" and the coming "Star Trek Into Darkness." The company, which has offices in New York and Toronto, has more than doubled the size of its theater circuit in the last four years, expanding rapidly in overseas markets such as Russia, India and China, where it has relationships with most major exhibitors.

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"It's an acknowledgment of how far we've come from the fringes of Hollywood to the most iconic film location in Hollywood," Gelfond said of the move into TCL Chinese Theatre.

The storied Hollywood Boulevard theater, best known for its giant red Chinese pagoda, 30-foot-tall Chinese dragon and the cement footprints and handprints of famous stars, opened in 1927 and was declared a historic and cultural landmark in 1968. It is one of the most popular tourism draws in L.A. It hosted the Academy Award ceremonies in the 1940s and has hosted numerous high-profile premieres, including "The Wizard of Oz" in 1939 and the recent Warner Bros. release "Gangster Squad."

The Imax theater is expected to open by September. It will feature stadium seating, as well as a new Imax sound system and digital projector, which will later be replaced by a laser projector system that Imax is adding to its circuit. The laser system, expected to be installed next year, uses patents Imax acquired from Kodak and provides brighter images and better color contrast than conventional digital systems.

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Following a model it has used in other venues, Imax will sell its equipment to the owners and receive a percentage of ticket sales.

Owners Donald Kushner and Elie Samaha acquired Grauman's nearly two years ago from Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures' parent Viacom Inc., which in turn acquired the venerable theater after the Mann chain, which owned it for decades, filed for bankruptcy.

"We are following in Sid Grauman's footsteps to ensure that his incredible movie palace is taken into the future as the best place to see a movie," said Alwyn Hight Kushner, president of Chinese Theatres and the daughter of Kushner. "I think it's going to be a game changer for Hollywood as well."

In addition to hosting premieres, Gelfond said, the Imax theater will screen traditional Hollywood fare and may also show Chinese movies, potentially taking advantage of Imax's ties with several Chinese exhibitors, including Dalian Wanda Group, which last year acquired AMC Entertainment, the nation's second-largest theater circuit, for $2.6 billion.

"The Chinese Theatre and Imax are two well-known brands in China and the fact that the theater attracts Chinese tourists is another reason for our interest in this location," he said.


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