Imax CEO Plans to Double Theaters in China in Five Years

Imax Corp. Chief Executive Richard Gelfond said he plans to more than double the big-screen theater company’s count in China over the next five years as it expands in the fastest-growing film market in the world.

Imax will boost its theaters, which present films in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional formats on large screens with specialized sound systems, to 400 in China from 150 today, Gelfond said.

“I feel like I’ve got the wind at my back,” he said, speaking today at The Year Ahead: 2014, a two-day summit hosted by Bloomberg LP in Chicago. “I’m a huge China bull.”

China passed Japan to become the world’s second-largest film market last year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Box office sales reached $3 billion through Nov. 19, a 43 percent increase from 2012, according to Rentrak Corp.

Imax, which opened its first theater in China in 2001, signed an agreement with its largest partner there, Wanda Cinema Line Corp., in July to open as many as 120 theaters. The total number of theater screens in China has tripled since 2008, to 13,118 last year, according to EntGroup, a Beijing-based research firm.

China’s leaders have a long-term view and outsiders need to work with them on those goals, Gelfond said. Imax, based in Mississauga, Ontario, has begun distributing Chinese-language movies in the country and exporting them to other countries, he said. That illustrates that “we have a stake not just in our small venture but in their broader agenda.”

The Chinese government’s recent decision to let families have more than one child signals future growth as does a recent crackdown on corruption, Gelfond said.

Strong Brand

Having a strong brand is the best way to protect intellectual property in the country, Gelfond said. Consumers, he said, “want to be seen with their Coach bag, not a roach bag. That’s how you protect yourself.” Chinese courts are also recognizing those property rights, as the company successfully sued a competitor that called itself Dmax for trademark infringement, Gelfond said.

U.S. companies looking to do business in China need to treat the country differently than others, Gelfond said. “They consider themselves our equal,” Gelfond said. “The CEO or someone very senior has to establish the relationship. You can’t open a Chinese office and send your head of China.”

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