Now Showing In Imax: Money!

The giant-screen technology will even bag an Oscar

Humongous screens. 3-D effects. And, of course, the special glasses. They were all the rage in the '50s. Since then, multiplex screens have shrunk almost to the size of TV sets. As for 3-D and glasses, well, forget about it.

Not any more. Toronto-based Imax Corp. has improved on the old technologies, built theaters with screens up to eight stories high, and even equipped some with electronic goggles and personalized sound systems that produce an extraordinarily realistic 3-D experience. On Mar. 24, Imax will receive this year's sole Academy Award for Scientific & Technical Achievement. And two Imax films have also been nominated for Oscars.

BOLDLY GOING? Now, Imax, which has attracted 510 million people to more than 100 films since 1970 (mostly 2-D), has plans as big as its new screens. It wants to at least double its network of 149 theaters within five years. And it's negotiating with several Hollywood studios, including Paramount Pictures Corp., which is interested in producing a Star Trek film in Imax 3-D. "We're on the verge of a breakthrough" that will make Imax "the principal medium for spectacular films," predicts Graeme Ferguson, the filmmaker who helped found the company in 1967.

Ferguson and two partners initially had trouble getting the idea off the ground. Problem was, as a private company, Imax was "severely undercapitalized," Ferguson admits. In 1993, he and his partners put it up for sale. The winning bidders were a pair of New York entrepreneurs who met while working at Drexel Burnham Lambert: Bradley J. Wechsler, now 45, and Richard L. Gelfond, 41. They teamed with buyout firm Wasserstein Perella & Co. to acquire Imax for $100 million in March, 1994, and then took it public that June.

Now, Wechsler says he is talking with every "major studio about working in the Imax format." While some moguls remain skeptical, "Brad's probably right that with a real motion picture, he could do tremendous business," says Universal Studios CEO Frank J. Biondi Jr. Indeed, Star Wars creator George Lucas recently predicted that "you're going to see more people making movies for those [Imax] screens."

Indeed, Imax is now seen as a hot prospect. In 1996, earnings quadrupled, to $15.4 million, as sales surged 47%, to a record $130 million. That has helped power the stock to $35, up from a low of $7 in early 1995. For Wasserstein, which acquired its current 39% stake at little more than $2 a share, "this is probably the most successful deal we've ever done," says Managing Director Marc Utay.

Wechsler and Gelfond, who now serve as co-CEOs, are an unusual team. While intensely driven, "by Hollywood standards, they are low-ego," says one of Imax' institutional investors. That has helped them convince Sony Corp., for instance, to partner with them both in launching commercial theaters and making Imax movies. "It's been a home run for us in a variety of ways," says Mitchell Cannold, president of Sony New Technologies. Since the Sony Imax Theater near Manhattan's Lincoln Center opened in late 1994, it has often "been the highest-grossing screen in the U.S.," marvels Lawrence J. Ruisi, president of Sony Retail Entertainment.

Though the big studios have shied away from Imax because of the limited number of theaters, that's now changing. Sony, which made the first two films in Imax 3-D, now "has a dozen new projects in development," says Cannold. Wechsler says evolving digital technology will soon give Imax the ability to produce versions of films such as Twister and Independence Day.

Imax faces some competitors, but it's clearly the leader. And measured against the potential, Imax "has just barely scratched the surface," says former Home Box Office chairman Michael J. Fuchs, an Imax director. It has taken 30 years, but it looks like the really big screen is here to stay.