Behind the ‘Jesus Is King’ Film That Brought Together Kanye West and Imax

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“There’s something really fun and magical about capturing that experience,” Imax Entertainment President Megan Colligan tells TheWrap


Megan Colligan, president of Imax Entertainment, had no idea what to expect when she took her sons to Calabasas this summer at the behest of Kanye West and his manager for one of the rapper’s vaunted and, until recently, very exclusive Sunday services. She had been told by a friend who had been that it was beautiful — a spectacle that she should consider for Imax. Kanye felt the same way. “We were reached out to at the end of May. I got the phone call from Damien, who is Kanye’s manager. And he was really interested in figuring out a way to bring Sunday service to people everywhere, and had been thinking about kind of how to scale it,” Colligan told TheWrap. “So I went on Sunday, and I took my whole family because I was like, ‘I don’t know what this is gonna be.’ It was so lovely and so nice.” Kanye West’s “Jesus is King” — part concert film, part art instillation, part documentary short– premiered Oct. 25 on 440 Imax screens around the world, coinciding with the release of his new album of the same name. West has since held versions of his iconic Sunday services at Coachella, Howard University and The Forum in L.A., but even then, Colligan said, there’s a level of exclusivity. The film, a 31-minute performance by West and his choir in artist James Turrell’s Roden Crater, is set in Arizona’s Painted Desert. Directed by renown photographer Nick Knight, “Jesus is King” earned a little more than $1 million at box offices worldwide — not all screens it played on were dedicated solely to “Jesus is King” — but to hear Knight and Colligan talk about it, bringing the film and experience to Imax was about more than box office receipts. As Colligan recounts her initial conversation with Kanye: “He was like, the way I would typically do this would be we’d tour; I’d go to Madison Square Garden, and we’d sell tickets for like $80. But I don’t want to do that. I just want to bring it to people in a really simple way, for like a movie ticket price. I don’t want to get complicated… And that’s how it started. It was really that simple.”   Colligan described the partnership with West and Knight as dynamic and an exciting project for her and Imax, which has become known as the place to see spectacles. While Imax does gargantuan box office films well — CEO Rich Gelfond has credited “Avenger: Endgame” with helping to deliver the company’s best box office year — Colligan said she wants to experiment with the kinds of event films Imax showcases. Knight would agree that if West is creating art with something to say, it should be an event and people should listen. For what it’s worth, the “Jesus is King” album became West’s ninth consecutive No. 1 album in its second weekend of release. The proliferation of streaming services doesn’t require going to the movie theater; however, Knight and Imax seem hopeful that films like “Jesus is King” can help tip the scale. “I think Imax is trying to change how people consider cinema, how people consider cinematic experience,” Knight said. “The cinema is suffering, like many other art forms, because of the revolution that’s happened through the advent of the internet. I would say it’s an entirely good revolution. But I think that what Imax is proposing is actually looking for a different understanding of cinema, and I think we need to look for a different understanding of cinema at the moment.” All is true, but Imax does still have shareholders to answer to. Luckily for Colligan and the premium film exhibitor, its box office is often buoyed by outsized blockbusters, which frees it up to take risks on art and artists like West and Knight. In the same weekend that “Jesus is King” debuted, for example, Imax was devoting most of its screens to what ended up being the No. 1 movie of the weekend, “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.” Last week, Imax reported improved year-over-year earnings for the third quarter and revenue that increased to $86.4 million. “This isn’t something we’re going to do every single week. But I think being creative in this space is important,” Colligan said. “The idea otherwise is like only if you’re making $150 million Marvel movies do you get to make an Imax movie, which is just a crazy notion because then you only end up with one kind of thing.” It was obvious to Knight from very early on that “Jesus is King” needed to be on Imax. The film is, as he put it, an art film on the biggest scale, but one that’s meant to make the audience think. “It’s what I say about photography all the time is that the first role of a photograph is to capture someone’s attention. The second role of a photograph is to start to tell a story. But a great photograph would allow the viewer to finish that story themselves,” Knight said. “And that’s a little bit the approach we tried to do with ‘Jesus is King,’ is not to tell you everything, not to just blast you full of sort of fast camera moves and just try to entertain you.”
Knight and West have been frequent collaborators since 2012. Much like Colligan, Knight attended a Sunday service in Calabasas earlier this year at West’s invitation. “When he said he wanted to film it in the Roden Crater, James Turrell’s incredible piece of art, it was obviously something for any image maker, any filmmaker — you could tell straight away that this was a real honor to be asked to do,” Knight said. “And then to have Kanye’s amazing 50-piece choir in that location, it was quite obvious that this needed something slightly bigger done with it, something more sort of long lasting.” When West first asked Colligan for her help bringing it to the big screen, they agreed to plan on live streaming the performance into roughly 30 or 40 theaters. But that was before he actually saw Turrell’s Roden Crater. It became a much larger endeavor after West did a walkthrough. “When he saw it, he was just blown away. He called and said, this is so beautiful. I’m just awestruck about how gorgeous this is. We need to film this quick. Everyone needs to see this,” Colligan recounted. So plans for a 30- to 40-screen live stream release were scratched and the Imax team hustled to film it that weekend. West, who comes across as somewhat of a perfectionist, already had a strong visual sense of how everything would look, Colligan said. “He storyboarded the whole thing, he and Nick, and they just really had a very strong visual sense of it,” she said. “There’s something really fun and magical about capturing that experience and just really being able to hear the choir and capturing the joy everyone was feeling and making sure that was captured. I was really interested in that piece of it.” Earlier this year Imax worked with Paul Thomas Anderson and Thom Yorke to premiere their 15-minute musical Netflix short “Anima,” probably the closest recent comparison to “Jesus is King.” Colligan wasted no time in saying Imax will definitely continue to look for artists and musicians to work with on similar projects in the future. There are conversations going on, Colligan said, but no definitive projects are in the works. She has ideas, though. “I’m actually a bit of a hip hop person. I have three boys and so hip hop radio is sort of a standard thing. I also just like the energy, you know?” Colligan said. “I would love Kendrick Lamar to do something like super insane. He’s an amazing live performer, but he’s also actually so… he’s such a minimalist in so many ways, so I don’t know even know what that would be.” We tossed around the idea of a Barry Jenkins directed Kendrick Lamar spoken word visual album of sorts. “I keep bugging [Barry Jenkins] but he’s been doing ‘Underground Railroad’ forever and apparently is doing it forever it’s like the longest shoot ever,” she said. “But I keep kind of checking in to ask if he’s done yet which he’s never done he’s not going to be done for forever. But it’d be so fun like I can’t wait for the day when Barry Jenkins can go shoot something, anything, like what do you want to do? Go do something fun.”