Imax Corporation History

Address:
2525 Speakman Drive
Sheridan Science and Technology Park
Mississauga, Ontario L5K 1B1
Canada

Telephone: (905) 403-6500
Fax: (905) 403-6450

Website:
Public Company
Incorporated: 1967 as Imax Systems
Employees: 493
Sales: $190.4 million (1998)
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ Toronto
Ticker Symbol: IMAX
NAIC: 51211 Motion Picture & Video Production; 42141 Photographic Equipment & Supplies Wholesalers; 512131 Motion Picture Theaters, Except Drive-in; 71399 All Other Amusement & Recreation Industries; 33431 Audio & Video Equipment Manufacturing

Company History:

Imax Corporation, founded in 1967 and headquartered in Mississauga, Canada, is the pioneer and leader of giant-screen, large-format film entertainment, as well as the industry leader in the creation and production of high-end rides and attractions. Successful products include IMAX Simulator Rides and IMAX Ridefilm Systems. These breakthrough innovations combine IMAX projection technology with sophisticated motion programming and digital sound to create a truly unique and captivating experience. The following three subsidiaries are fundamental to the activities of Imax: Ridefilm Corporation, which manufactures and produces motion simulation theaters or movie rides; Sonics Associates, a world leader in sound system design and manufacturing, which manufactures headsets for shutter glasses at Imax theaters; and David Keighley Productions, a leader in the field of image quality assurance and laboratory postproduction, based in Los Angeles.

In 1999 there were more than 180 permanent IMAX theaters operating in 24 countries, of which only four in North America were owned and operated by IMAX: Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg in Canada; and Scottsdale, Arizona. The rest are licensed to zoos, aquariums, shopping malls, theme parks, and related venues. A key focus for Imax is the production of high-quality films for the exclusive IMAX theater network. The organization has extensive in-house experience in producing critically acclaimed and broadly appreciated films. By 1999 films produced or distributed included Africa's Elephant Kingdom, Blue Planet, Cosmic Voyage, Destiny in Space, Fires of Kuwait, The Hidden Dimension, The IMAX Nutcracker, Into the Deep, L5: First City in Space, Mission to Mir, Mountain Gorilla, Primiti Too Taa, Race the Wind, The Secret of Life on Earth, Special Effects, Survival Island, Titanica, and T-REX: Back to the Cretaceous, just to name a few.

Young Filmmakers, 1965--67

Founded in 1967 by a group of five filmmakers and inventors who wanted to show off the beauty of the medium, Imax Systems, as it was known then, has since consistently delivered the world's premiere cinematic experiences on huge screens. However, the company had inauspicious beginnings. Independent filmmaker Graeme Ferguson had attended Galt Collegiate Institute in Galt, Ontario, Canada, where he met Robert Kerr and Bill Shaw, and the three men founded a student newspaper together. Ferguson went on to the University of Toronto, where he began making films. One summer, he was selected to be an intern at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), and he went on to become an independent filmmaker, eventually working in New York. In 1965, Ferguson was asked by the Canadian Expo Corporation to do a film for Expo '67 in Montreal, but it had to be produced by a Canadian company. Kerr was at the time serving as mayor of Galt and still managing the printing company he had sold. Ferguson approached him about setting up a film production company. Kerr agreed, and they produced the film Polar Life for Expo '67.

Meanwhile, film producer Roman Kroitor had also been a summer intern at NFB. He began working there full-time after finishing college. In 1965 he suggested the board form a committee to produce a multiple-image, experimental film for the 1967 Expo. Kroitor's concept was selected, and he produced Labyrinth.

Expo '67 proved to be the birthplace of big-screen movie production. Other forerunners in big-screen production were in attendance there, including Colin Low, Kroitor's codirector on Labyrinth; Christopher Chapman; Francis Thomson; and Alexander Hammid, all of whom Ferguson would turn to as Imax Corporation developed.

A New Company, 1967

In 1967 Fuji Bank of Japan asked Kroitor to produce a film for Expo '70, to take place in Osaka, Japan, with partial financing provided by Fuji. Kroitor turned to Ferguson and Kerr to help him do it. Multiscreen Corporation was created, with Ferguson as the president. In order to showcase the new film, the company would have to create new technology for it, including a new camera to shoot images on a film frame ten times larger than the normal 35mm format, new equipment to project those larger frame images onto a six-story-high screen, and other accoutrements such as new lenses, sound equipment, lighting, and seating arrangements.

Norwegian-born inventor Jan Jacobson, located in Copenhagen, designed a new camera to use 65 mm film horizontally, in less than three months. But the projector proved to be a tougher issue to handle. The company acquired a patent for a Rolling Loop projector from Ronald Jones, a machine shopowner in Brisbane, Australia, but it needed to be adapted to handle the larger size film. The partners turned to old friend Bill Kerr. Kerr had gone to work for Ford Motor Company for a few years as an engineer, eventually moving on to CCM, a sporting goods and bicycle manufacturing company. Kerr and Jones worked together via airmail across two continents to develop the projector. Meanwhile, Kroitor moved to Japan, along with Canadian director Donald Brittain and cameraman Georges Dufaux, to work with Asuka Productions to develop the movie they would show. Despite drawbacks, cash flow problems, and bouts of frustration, the projector and film were finished, and Tiger Child played on the big screen at Expo '70, while the audience was carried through the theater continuously on a large rotating platform, each observer viewing the endless film from a different starting point.

In 1971 Ontario Place, a government-sponsored theme park in Toronto, included Cinesphere, a theater showcasing new technology. Ontario Place bought the Expo '70 projector, which was brought back from Japan, refined a bit, and installed in the spring of 1971. That first IMAX projector was still running at Ontario Place at the end of the 20th century. The first film shown there, North of Superior, was produced by the company, which quickly gained a reputation for its projectors and sound systems, as well as for showing educational films created by institutions such as The Kennedy Space Center and Grand Canyon National Park. Over the next decade, the company would not only change its name several times, but change leadership and ownership as well, nevertheless while building more Imax theaters and creating more movies for the medium.

Competition Grows, 1983

In 1983 special effects wizard (2001: A Space Odyssey; Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and director (Brainstorm) Douglas Trumbull, along with restaurant and hotel mogul Robert Brock (Brock Hotels, Park Inns International Inc.), founded Showscan Film Corporation, a competitor of Imax. Showscan revolutionized the industry, releasing a new cinematographic technique in February 1984 that offered three-dimensional picture without viewers having to wear the infamous blue-and-red glasses. Showscan began showing films at 60 frames per second, rather than the normal 24 frames per second. The company built four prototype theaters, including one in Dallas, connected with Brock's Showbiz Pizza Place restaurant outlets, and began showing a movie called New Magic. In August 1990, the company changed its name to Showscan Corporation. Meanwhile, in 1986, Iwerks Entertainment Inc. sprang up in California, reincorporating in Delaware in October 1993 under the same name. A year later, Iwerks acquired Omni Films International Inc. for approximately $19.17 million.

At Expo '90, also held in Osaka, the company unveiled its new 3-D technology, Imax Solido, which gave new life to a medium plagued with terrible 3-D renditions. The film shown there, the first of many to be produced eventually by the company, was Echoes of the Sun, a mostly computer-generated picture coproduced with Japanese company Fujitsu, and shown on a wrap-around screen and viewed with battery-powered goggles. The first 3-D Imax theater was built in Vancouver that year.

New Owners, 1994

In August 1994, competitor Showscan changed its name to Showscan Entertainment Inc. to reflect its more comprehensive focus. That year, WGIM Acquisition Corporation (made up of investment group Wasserstein Perella & Company, owned by Bruce Wasserstein and Joseph Perella, both formerly of First Boston; Cheviot Capital Advisors, led by Bradley J. Wechsler and Richard L. Gelfond; and some private investors such as Douglas Trumbull), bought out IMAX's five original owners and The Trumbull Company Inc. for approximately $100 million. Later that year, the company went public, selling its stock for $13.50 per share.

With the acquisition of Trumbull, Imax also acquired Trumbull subsidiary Ridefilm Theaters, a motion simulator company known for its creation of rides based on movies. Douglas Trumbull was the creative mastermind behind the design of IMAX Ridefilm, described by the company as "the most immersive, dynamic and realistic simulation product available.' The 18-person modular system featured 180-degree, spherically-curved screens; proprietary orthogonal-motion base technology; high-speed, high-resolution projector technology; and six-track DTS sound. The attraction remained unparalleled by the end of the century, leaving Imax as the industry leader over competitors such as Iwerks and Showscan, with more than 20 ride locations throughout the world, including the United States, China, France, Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, Thailand, Norway, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and the Philippines. Entertainment produced on the rides included features such as Asteroid Adventure; Crashendo; Dolphins--The Ride; Fun House Express; In Search of the Obelisk; and ReBoot: The Ride and ReBoot: Journey into Chaos, based on the computer-animated television program of the same name.

Using the most advanced motion picture and special effects technology, IMAX HD Dome and motion simulation, IMAX Simulator Rides revolutionized the attractions industry. In 1997 the company built its first motion simulator theater ride in Thailand, at Major Cineplex's entertainment complex on Sukhumvit Road, near the city of Ekamai. By this time, the company already featured simulator rides in Germany, at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and at Universal Studios in both Los Angeles and Orlando, showing such features as Race for Atlantis, Asteroid Adventure, and Back to the Future--The Ride. Meanwhile, in July 1997, Showscan Entertainment acquired 15 percent of Reality Cinema Pty. Ltd. in Darling Harbour, Sydney, Australia.

Also in 1997, in order to allow more than one theater to open per year, the company hired Toronto-based Young & Wright Design Architects to design a prototype theater which could be duplicated across the country, a move many other companies were preparing as well. Additionally that year, the company was awarded the only Oscar Award given for Scientific and Technical Achievement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Total revenue for 1997 reached $158.5 million.

In January 1998, despite the Asian economic crisis, interest in the entertainment industry in that region of the world was increasing. Early in the year, Imax Corporation entered into an agreement to build a 600-seat IMAX 3D theater in Bangkok, Thailand (the first in that country). The theater was to be operated by Cinema Plus Limited, Imax's Australian licensee, and Major Cineplex Company Limited, a 40-year-old company operating in the areas of entertainment, retail, and real estate, with 75 screens in Thailand.

That March, the company revolutionized three-dimensional cinema again with a new prototype theater, the IMAX 3D SR, located at the Arizona Mills shopping mall in Tempe, Arizona. It was the first of 12 3D screens to be built by the joint venture between IMAX Theater Holdings Inc. of Canada and Ogden Film & Theater Inc. of New York. The addition of the $7 million, 59- by 82-foot screen and 22,000-square-foot theater made the greater Phoenix area the only marketplace supporting two IMAX theaters; the other, a regular IMAX screen, was located in Scottsdale, Arizona, another suburb of Phoenix. Two other 3D screens opened that year in Nyack, New York, and Miami, Florida, marking another milestone for the company: the first time it had featured multiple-screen openings in one year. The new technology offered both two-dimensional, regular movie format, and three-dimensional features requiring the use of a headset and cordless ski-goggle type headsets containing liquid-crystal lenses which worked in sync with the projector lenses.

As of early 1999 there were more than 180 permanent IMAX theaters in 25 countries, with a backlog of more than 75 theater systems scheduled to open in 15 new countries during the next few years. Over 500 million people had seen an IMAX presentation since the medium premiered in 1970, and the company had forged strategic alliances and relationships with some of the most prominent corporations in the world, including The Walt Disney Company, Famous Players Inc. (a subsidiary of Viacom Inc.), and Loews Cineplex Corporation, to name a few. The agreement with Famous Players included building IMAX 3D theaters in ten of Famous Players' new and existing theaters in Canada. For fiscal 1998, total revenue climbed again, reaching $190.4 million, with a net income of $1.8 million.

At the beginning of 1999, the company estimated that more than 65 million people worldwide were expected to attend an IMAX theater during the calendar year, and with more theaters opening around the world, the company moved into the 21st century with lots of potential to continue dominating its niche markets, especially since it signed a deal with Disney subsidiary Buena Vista Pictures for the exclusive giant-screen release of Fantasia 2000, a remake of the classic animated feature.

Principal Subsidiaries: David Keighley Productions 70 MM Inc.; Ridefilm Corporation; Sonics Associates, Inc.

Further Reading:

  • Booth, Cathy, "IMAX Gets Bigger (by Getting Smaller): The Megamovie Company Is Downsizing into Lesser Burgs,' Time, June 29, 1998, p. 48.
  • Carrns, Ann, "Atlanta on Short List for Ridefilm Site,' Atlanta Business Chronicle, October 6, 1995, p. 5A.
  • Creno, Glen, "New Arizona Imax Theater Goes After Mall Crowd,' Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, July 22, 1996, p. 7220185.
  • Dries, Mike, "On Track to 500 Screens, Marcus Theaters Teams with IMAX,' Business Journal-Milwaukee, May 1, 1998, p. 5.
  • Elmer-DeWitt, Philip, "Grab Your Goggles, 3-D is Back! Eye-Popping Realism Gives New Life to an Old Craze,' Time, April 16, 1990, p. 77.
  • Graves, Jacqueline M., "These Movies Are Going to Be Big, Really Big,' Fortune, June 12, 1995, p. 24.
  • Howard, Bob, "San Bernardino, Calif., Officials to Set Policy on Big-Screen Theaters,' Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, May 21, 1996, p. 5210312.
  • Johnson, Ted, and Diane Goldner, "Bigscreens Make Mainstream Breakout Bid,' Variety, January 27, 1997, p. 5.
  • Keating, Peter, Jim Frederick, Susan Scherreik, and Penelope Wang, "Word on the Street,' Money, February 1999, p. 65.
  • La Franco, Robert, "The Biggest Show on Earth: Siegfried & Roy Grab IMAX Riches by Their Tigers' 3-D Tails,' Forbes, September 21, 1998, p. 228.
  • McCollum, Brian, "Myrtle Beach, S.C., Theater Builder Signs Big-Screen Deal with IMAX,' Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, July 7, 1995, p. 7070029.
  • Messinger, Rob, "Large-Screen Cinema Battle Takes Shape in Ontario, Calif.,' Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, April 30, 1996, p. 4300004.
  • Netherton, Martha, Business Journal--Serving Phoenix & the Valley of the Sun, November 21, 1997, p. 1.
  • O'Brien, Tim, "Joint Venture Strengthens Imax's European Presence,' Amusement Business, February 13, 1995, p. 26.
  • Olson, Eric J., "Giant Screens Poised for Big Impact,' Variety, January 4, 1999, p. 9.
  • Ray, Susan, "Giant-Screen Theaters Riding Wave of Increased Interest, Sales,' Amusement Business, September 12, 1994, p. 22.
  • ----, "IMAX, Trumbull Co. Joining Forces,' Amusement Business, January 17, 1994, p. 26.
  • ----, "Leisure Technology: Location Based Entertainment Leads the High-Tech Charge,' Amusement Business, September 12, 1994, p. 17.
  • Russell, John, "Cinemark Considers 24-Screen Theater in Akron, Ohio,' Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, November 4, 1998, p. OKRB9830804.
  • ----, "Imax Expands Its Large-Format Movies into Commercial Theater Complexes,' Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, January 6, 1999, p. OKRB9900607.
  • Serino, Joseph, "'Signature Entertainment' Gaining Ground in Urban Development Field,' Amusement Business, July 8, 1996, p. 26.
  • Smith, Elliot Blair, "California's Edwards Theaters Circuit Has Big Plans for IMAX,' Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, July 8, 1997, p. 708B0971.
  • Tillson, Tamsen, "Imax Beefs up Network with Eye on Hollywood,' Variety, February 23, 1998, p. 30.
  • Turner, Dan, "Iwerks Sues Competitor over Unfair Practices,' Los Angeles Business Journal, March 4, 1996, p. 10.
  • Turnis, Jane, "Cinemark Plans Megaplex, IMAX Theater in Colorado Springs, Colo.,' Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, February 22, 1999, p. OKRB990530AB.
  • Waal, Peter, "The Plot Quickens,' Canadian Business, June 26, 1998, p. 52.
  • Wadley, Jared, "San Bernardino County, Calif., May Get Giant-Screen Theater,' Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, February 21, 1996, p. 2210010.
  • Whitelaw, Kevin, "At the Movies: 3-D Comes to the Giant Screen,' U.S. News & World Report, September 16, 1996, p. 68.
  • Zoltak, James, "Cinema Plus Deal to Give Imax Corp. Presence in Australia, New Zealand,' Amusement Business, January 15, 1996, p. 22.
  • ----, "Imax Lands Five Theater Orders for Hammons Projects,' Amusement Business, July 24, 1995, p. 34.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 28. St. James Press, 1999.