What's IMAX's biggest hit?

How popular culture gets popular.
Aug. 25 2006 1:31 PM

The Little Documentary That Could

What's IMAX's biggest hit? A schlocky NASA film.

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Documentaries like The Dream Is Alive may not enjoy huge debut weekends, but they also have much longer shelf lives than Hollywood movies. If a DMR release doesn't recoup its costs after a few weeks, it has to be pulled; an IMAX documentary, on the other hand, can be kept in the rotation for months, even years, and gain from word-of-mouth marketing. The IMAX film Bugs!, for example, recently passed the $30 million mark in global ticket sales; it was first released in 2003.

IMAX's attempt to reinvent itself hasn't been going very well. Its stock plummeted 40 percent on Aug. 10, after it came to light that the SEC was investigating whether the company has been fudging its revenues. IMAX then confessed that, despite an intensive eight-month search, it has yet to find a buyer willing to shell out upwards of $550 million for the business.

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The ailing IMAX may want to refocus on what it's always done best. Documentaries can always be peddled as brain-nourishers, to school groups (which get price breaks) as well as families. And docs have a lot of potential in markets such as India and China, where several IMAX theaters are under construction—no matter where or how you were raised, a shark swimming on an IMAX screen is pretty cool. True, running 36-minute NASA propaganda films probably won't convince anyone to spend more than half a billion dollars on your company. But if IMAX wants to pull out of its tailspin, The Dream Is Alive shows a way forward.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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