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IMAX Goes Hollywood - Interview w/ Greg Foster

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Written by: Ryan and Mark Kresser
Date: June 15, 2001

New IMAX® President of Filmed Entertainment Greg Foster brings Hollywood background.

  

Category: Interviews

On March 27, 2001 Greg Foster was announced as IMAX Corporation's new President of Filmed Entertainment.

A seasoned Hollywood executive, Foster spent 15 years at MGM/UA, where he served in various senior management posts including Executive Vice President of Production and Sr. Vice President of Motion Picture Marketing and Research. In 1999, Foster founded uMogul, a financial services company offering retail investors competitive market returns via mutual funds comprised of entertainment industry assets.

Foster will be based at IMAX Corporation's Santa Monica office and will be responsible for overseeing all aspects of the Company's filmed entertainment activities including creative development, production, and business affairs. He will also have a hands-on role in the marketing and distribution of the large-format motion pictures produced under the IMAX® banner.

Ryan and Mark Kresser interviewed Mr. Foster at IMAX Corporation's LA Headquarters.

Q: For better or worse, I think a lot of people out there identify all large format films as IMAX films. Could you briefly clarify what IMAX is as a company and what you guys do?

GF: We are a hardware and software company through the format of large screen. We build, maintain, and operate screens and projection systems. At the same time, it's our job to provide the software that plays on those projection systems and screens in those theaters. Some of the theaters we own, most of the theaters we don't own (IMAX owns and operates about 10 theaters). Some of the theaters are in the institutional market, i.e. museums, science centers and aquariums. Some of the theaters are in the commercial exhibition market, i.e. movie theater chains: there’s a multiplex that let's say has 15 theaters, 14 of them are regular 35-millimeter theaters and one of them could be an IMAX theater.

Both disciplines, both the technology hardware side and the software film side, have to work very closely with each other. Because, for instance, if you sell to or license to-- I'll pick a company, it's arbitrary, AMC Theaters -- an IMAX system in 3D, and yet you don't supply them with a 3D film, that's a problem. And so it is our job to make sure that we're providing programming to the theaters. And that's what the IMAX corporation is about, the same time doing so in a way that is conducive to the characteristics and qualities of our brand, that has the values of a family themed company. We all work to support that brand, which is our greatest asset.

Q: So do you look at the film division as basically trying to fill holes in content and prop up the industry in general for the benefit of the hardware business? Or do you look at the film division as its own potential great profit center?

GF: The film business has to be profitable on its own. It hasn't been in the past. It hasn't had to have been in the past. Frankly it still doesn't have to be. But there is no way that that's how it's gonna be operated, at least under my reign. I could not look at myself in the mirror, and frankly be excited about this job, going to work thinking that I had to make a movie that wasn't gonna make money. This is a publicly traded company, it is a for-profit business. And the model works with IMAX. If the right content is provided, there is no reason at all, whether it be original programming or re-purposed programming, that the movies can't make money. We will make money with our movies, and if we don't, then we will have failed.

Q: Well, that brings me nicely to my next question. You were brought in recently to run the film division. Does this represent a new direction for IMAX in that area, and how does that differ from what IMAX was doing before?

GF: It definitely represents a new direction. The new direction is not pejorative towards the old direction, but it is much more commercially focused. I don't mean just with the commercial theaters; I mean movies that people will see, that will make money. And one of the interesting issues with the business, there's a huge degree of debate inside the business, on the type of programming. So my feeling is that with Discovery Channel, with Animal Planet, with the fact that we've already had wonderful movies made about dolphins and about sharks and about almost every other kind of animal, you have to look for other ways to create programming, other subjects, other topics. And there are plenty of great topics.

And so, IMAX is a company that now will be distributing, making, and facilitating movies in three specific areas: Movies that are very much in the traditional institutional market, that are nature-esque movies. Those movies used to represent 80, 90 percent of what IMAX made; now they'll represent a third of what IMAX makes. The second third will be more mainstream, commercially viable entertainment product, again within the core values of IMAX. We just announced a movie a couple weeks ago called Santa Versus the Snowman, which is a 3D animated holiday film that was created, written, produced and directed by Steve Oedekerk, who did Ace Ventura and Nutty Professor and Nothing To Lose and created the Jimmy Neutron character for Nickelodeon. That very much fits into that category.

And then there are the re-purposed films, very much like what Disney did with Fantasia 2000 and what they're doing with Beauty and the Beast. So there are three types of movies.

I'm saying this facetiously, but IMAX used to make three different types of movies… they were bear movies, dolphin movies and seal movies.

Q: And Space movies!

GF: And space movies, exactly. Although interestingly, Space Station 3D very much fits in the middle (entertainment) category. The music will be very hip, the dialogue will be very interesting, it's in 3D. While it will absolutely have an institutional support to it, it's a cool movie. It's not your father's space movie.

Q: How time consuming and costly is it to take a Hollywood film and repurpose that into an IMAX film so it's perfectly clear on the full giant screen?

GF: Well, it's probably about 25 to 30 weeks to do it suit-to-nuts and give yourself a little cushion. It's never been done with live action before. The technology has just been created so you can. So because it's never been done and is about to begin, you gotta give yourself a little bit extra room, because there will be mistakes, it's inevitable. But it can be done. We have an incredible group of people in the technology re-purposing field.

In terms of cost, I don't really think it's appropriate to throw out the numbers for it, but it's more than a dollar and less than five-million. It will become less and less and less expensive all the way through. But the economics of re-purposing work. And there are several reasons why.

One, you're not creating a spec project. We know Beauty and the Beast is a good movie. To go out and film a studio movie, 45 million dollars is the average budget, and 20 to 25 million dollars is the average marketing and distribution cost. So you've spent 60, 70 million dollars, and you have no idea if the movie's gonna be any good or not. We know Beauty and the Beast is good. Pick a movie. Star Wars, if we're gonna repurpose Star Wars, we know that's a good movie. And by the way, you don't have to pay for the new movie, because it's already done.

Second of all, the re-purposing part of it will cost some amount of money, but, you know, a fraction of what it would cost to make a movie. IMAX films play in a universe of 250 theaters, give or take, worldwide. Maybe you'd release a movie in a hundred to a hundred and quarter of them at the most. Print costs are way too expensive in the IMAX format, where everyone's working on bringing those down.

But let's say you went into a hundred theaters, you'd have to have a real local focus in terms of the marketing of those films. You couldn't spend anywhere near what you spend opening and distributing an average Hollywood movie. And I think the most important thing is to take a movie that is an A-title library product -- Fantasia, Beauty and the Beast, Star Wars -- and reissue it in a way that makes it an event. It differentiates reissues. And then lastly, beside the fact that you can make money off the large format release alone, it also serves very much as a commercial, a marketing commercial, for selling an entirely new generation of fans on DVDs, consumer products, videos, etcetera. So it's a good business.

Q: In light of all that, and the fact that a lot of commercial theaters out there are already showing somewhat blown-up versions of Gladiator and Matrix, etc., aren't George Lucas and people like that going to want to have a Star Wars version that's IMAX just because it's the biggest and best? What if some of these new blow-ups aren’t family friendly?

GF: The IMAX Corporation will only get involved with films in a re-purposed format that fit the brand connotations that IMAX currently has. You will not see, for instance, an R-rated movie. I'll give you an example. I think The Godfather is an absolutely spectacular movie. But to re-purpose it under the current brand name of IMAX is a disconnect. Now maybe one day there can be, just like Disney has Disney and Touchstone, maybe one day there can be another company that's affiliated with our company that has a separate position, separate target audience, that can re-purpose and release those movies. But the IMAX name can't.

Q: So if someone were to do that independently right now, would there be resistance from the theaters to playing that? Or do you think they'd just snap it right up? And would IMAX object to that?

GF: You mean a movie that, that wasn't conducive to the IMAX brand?

Q: Right.

GF: Well, first of all, I think it would be almost impossible – unless you just had zillions and zillions of dollars – it would be very, very difficult to do it right now without IMAX. First of all, from the proprietary technology point of view – which by the way we're very comfortable sharing with people that we want to be in business with.

Q: So what about 3D? You mentioned that the 3D theaters are in need of product.

GF: We're doing something about it. Space Station is a 3D movie. Santa Versus the Snowman is a 3D movie. There is a really quality filmmaker who we're in conversations with who would love us to come in and help him with a 3D film. It is our interest, it is our intent, to supply a steady stream of 3D product. However, our 3D product will be organic to the IMAX format, as opposed to being a gimmick to exploit 3D. We don't wanna make a 3D movie just so we can say we made a 3D movie. It will need to be a movie that is specifically and carefully designed to not only fit the format but to fit the 3D system.

Q: What about the digital future. I guess that means both the camera side and the projector side. Would you wanna venture any kinda time-frame on the switch to these technologies?

GF: Yeah, the sooner the better. The sooner the better. I think it behooves all of us, for convenience reasons, for economic reasons, for flexibility reasons. We have, again, a big group of technology folks working on that, and it is in all of our best interests that that happens sooner rather than later.

Q: IMAX is distributing the recent concert film All Access (starring big-name artists like Santana, Sheryl Crow, Sting, Moby, Macy Gray, Kid Rock and more). NSync just released a Big Movie, and there is a country music project called TWANG in the works. Do you see concert films as something that will be a major part of Big Movies in the future?

GF: I sure thought so. And I would like them to be, because I think it's an interesting format for concert films. Unfortunately, All Access has not performed so far the way we wish it had. That doesn't mean that it won't in the future, 'cause there are longer release windows in this world than the 35 world. But we're gonna need to do a pretty thorough internal analysis, and we talk about it every day and we're in the process of actually doing it in a really detailed way, of how All Access could've been more successful.

Q: I liked all the bands in All Access, but some people venture to say it was too wide a mix of bands.

GF: I think there are a hundred different excuses. Too many (groups); too wide (a difference in groups); you can't really get into one specific group because by the time you are, you're off onto another one. Or maybe the title isn't clear enough, which also came up. Or the songs aren't popular anymore or are overused. I don't particularly know if any of those excuses are accurate. But we're gonna find out.

It’s a lot like some of the nature topics that we were talking about earlier: there will always be those movies in IMAX, there always should be, they're critical and important… for example I saw a film at the LFCA on bears, and I said to myself in the middle of the movie I can't wait to take our three boys to see that movie. We have an 11-year-old, an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old. I can't wait to show them that movie. There'll always be those movies in the marketplace. There will probably always be concert movies in the marketplace. But again, we have to figure out how to make them (concert films) economically viable, or that won’t be the case.

Q: There has been a lot in the press about IMAX Corporation’s financial woes. What do you think about the state of the business?

GF: It is a good time to be in this business. And sometimes people in the business have a hard time recognizing that because there have been so many challenges. But the fact of the matter is, the format is a pretty cool format.

For example, I don't think a lot of people woke up this morning and said, “I'm really in the mood to see Studio A's movie tonight." You know. "I'm gonna make my decision based on the fact that this movie was produced by this studio." That doesn't happen.

But there are thousands of people a day who wake up and say, "Let's go catch an IMAX movie." That means something. And we are now exposing what that means to a whole different group of filmmakers. Because of my background and because of my 15 years at a studio, there'll be a new group of filmmakers from the 35 world now coming into the IMAX world. And I think that the fans out there will be very excited about some of the new product that we'll be announcing.

You know, some of the movies that have come out in our industry over the last couple years haven't been that great. Don’t get me wrong – there have been a lot of incredible IMAX movies. Everest is a movie I had nothing to do with and I have a poster of it in my office 'cause I think it is such a cool movie. Before I had anything to do with IMAX, I loved that movie. And we're gonna continue to try and make and facilitate movies like that, that are about something, that are exciting.

But it hasn't been the best couple years in terms of movies. And I think that there are a lot of really exciting ones coming out over the next year or two. Santa and the Snowman is a perfect example. Again, it will retain the core values of IMAX, but it will perhaps be a little bit hipper – still educational in a lot of ways, but bridging the gap a little bit more perhaps between entertainment and education.

I think whether you're a baseball player or an executive or a moviemaker, like anything else, you go through a slump. And hopefully, we're on a good track now.

Q: Coming from the mainstream, what would you tell a consumer who hasn't really seen an IMAX film is so special about them?

GF: It is the most immersive experience in moviegoing. It is completely enveloping. I'm not gonna quote numbers, but the experience from a sensory point of view -- size, sound, visual -- is X factor greater than the 35 experience. One of the taglines of our company is the IMAX experience. And that's not by coincidence; it is a better moviegoing experience than a 35mm film. And all of the IMAX movies are about something. Which is getting rare these days, in the 35mm world.

Q: In a long-term sense, do you see giant screen films as the future of movies? Or is it always gonna be kind of a really cool novelty?

GF: I think it will absolutely be, more a part of the mainstream. If we build the industry properly, it will not be something that someone only thinks about doing on a vacation or once a year, when it's a Sunday afternoon and rainy and there's nothing else to do, and you've got the kids and they're cranky and they wanna go somewhere. It will be much more of a mind-set of doing this on a frequent basis. Probably not every week, but maybe every month. And that's where I see it going.

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