When director Christopher Nolan began shooting “The Dark Knight,” the man behind the latest big-screen installment of the Batman story unwittingly handed Imax Corp. a new business model - and probably the biggest box-office take the company has ever seen.
Known in Hollywood for his willingness to experiment, Mr. Nolan rented an Imax camera for “the money shots,” his words to Imax executives for the big sweeping scenes involving the Gotham skyline, which was played by downtown Chicago. After picking up the camera for one or two of those shots, Mr. Nolan - who spent his childhood going to nature documentaries in Imax theaters - forgot to put it down. By the time shooting wrapped, more than 30 minutes of the 152-minute film had been shot using the giant-screen Imax format.
Although Imax has been exhibiting Hollywood fare on its screens for years, the July 18 release of “The Dark Knight” is the first time one has been shot with the firm’s special cameras rather than having been converted from a regular print.
“What Chris discovered along the way was that not only the things that seemed obvious looked good, but a lot of the close-ups and a lot of the more intimate scenes also worked,” said Richard Gelfond, one of two co-chief executives running Imax, in a recent interview.
Imax should be considering refunding Mr. Nolan’s rental fee for the camera. The movie’s popularity, fueled by public interest surrounding the death of co-star Heath Ledger, smashed box-office records in its first weekend, taking in $158 million across North America.
Imax has pulled in $8 million for itself, a modest number by comparison but a record opening weekend for the company. It has shown the giant-screen version on 94 of its theaters, pulling in an average of $85,000 per venue so far, and the company expects the film to break its previous box-office record of $38 million for “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” That film, however, was simply enlarged somewhat for the Imax screen, which changes the picture quality.
Imax is coming off a bumpy few years marked by struggling ticket sales and multiple earnings restatements, and last summer it overstated revenue between 2002 and 2005. Now Imax finds itself filling theaters well in advance.
In Chicago, “The Dark Knight” is sold out for the week, the company said.
Mr. Gelfond said Imax is in talks with several other directors who want to duplicate Mr. Nolan’s model, in which scenes are shot for the oversized Imax screens and then shrunk for regular theaters.
“A number of directors have really responded favorably to what Chris has done,” Mr. Gelfond said. “We’re only having preliminary discussions, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in 2009, someone else tries what Chris has done.”
He would not discuss which studios have approached Imax in the wake of “The Dark Knight” but mentioned it is likely Imax will have another, similar film delivered in 2009, given the discussions under way.
Because there are two formats, when the movie reaches the scenes shot with the Imax camera, the picture enlarges to Imax size, then returns to the standard dimensions of a movie-theater screen afterward. Mr. Gelfond said it is plausible an entire Hollywood movie will be shot using the technology, particularly as the company shifts to digital cameras later this year, eliminating the cost of film.
Warner Bros. hasn’t said how much the Imax shots increased the cost of the movie, but its budget of $180 million was slightly above the norm for such big-budget action movies. Much of the higher expense from shooting on Imax cameras involves lighting the shots differently, which pushes up production costs.
This is the first time a Hollywood movie has premiered on an Imax screen rather than holding the traditional red carpet at a standard theater. “I think the impact for us has probably exceeded our box office,” Mr. Gelfond said.
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