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IMAX’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Success Opens Doors for Hollywood

(Updated) The $1.5 million that HBO’s hit series generated in limited run augers well for giant screen chain, the TV biz, movie theaters and consumers

The not-all-that spectacular $1.5 million in grosses that HBO’s hit cable TV series “Game of Thrones” generated this weekend in a special run at 205 selected IMAX movie theaters doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Film, TV and media experts are convinced that success with even such a limited run has the potential to expand the TV-to-big screen pipeline wider than ever, and in new directions.

“This is an opportunity for us,” IMAX Entertainment President Greg Foster told TheWrap this week, hours before “Thrones” rolled out. “It’s an experiment. If it works, certainly it could lead to other opportunities for us.” He didn’t say it, but those opportunities extend to movie theater chains and independents, the TV industry, alternative content specialists and consumers, as well.  And on Sunday, Foster declared the experiment a success

The “Thrones” screenings, set up through Warner Bros., averaged $7,300 per screen. “American Sniper,” which played on the remaining 165 IMAX screens, averaged $8,805. Between the two, IMAX brought in tidy $3 million. That’s pretty good, but no one got rich and that wasn’t the intent.

It was all about those “opportunities” that Foster discussed, which can be considered in play now.

The high-profile leap of “Thrones” from living-room screens to IMAX’s giant state-of-the-art screens makes clear to TV viewers that a new communal platform is available. That had special appeal for the most rabid “Thrones” fans, who were able to cheer and jeer their heroes alongside scores of like-minded followers of the often brutal and sexy medieval fantasy.

Whether the exhibition, TV and special event sectors can find ways to cash in and are as sold on the idea of getting together as those fans remains to be seen. But it’s hard to imagine that the teams behind TV shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Homeland” wouldn’t love the same giant-screen treatment, and Foster said that he was getting inquires even before the weekend.

“There aren’t a lot of TV shows that pack the cinematic punch that ‘Game of Thrones’ does,” Foster said, “and that’s why it was a natural for us.” The IMAX presentations featured the final two episodes from the Season 4 , along with a preview clip for its upcoming season shot with IMAX film.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who created “Game of Thrones” for HBO, told Foster that they loved the remastered episodes and the clip previewing the upcoming season, which begins April 12.

“It’s in our DNA to take on a project only when we know it can be commercially viable and that we can enhance it and make it better,” Foster said.

The formula is working very well of late. The company’s stock has surged as it heads into a year packed with giant screen-friendly blockbusters, boosted by wins on some recent programming gambles. IMAX went all in on Christopher Nolan’s space epic “Interstellar” and “American Sniper,” and both delivered consistent sell-outs.

“Our core is blockbuster studio titles, and that isn’t changing,” Foster said. But IMAX has found itself lacking the action and superhero films best-suited to its giant screens during the handful of weekends the studios don’t roll them out. Super Bowl weekend is one of them, along with the end of August, the weekend after Easter and the first week in December.

For movie theaters, offerings like top boxing matches and UFC fighting, rock concerts and cult favorites like “Sharknado” provide a way to build attendance during weekday and off-season lulls. They could also be a hedge for the future, as film releases increasingly migrate online.

Hit TV shows and their built-in fan bases have appeal, but it’s a tricky issue for exhibitors, who are fiercely protective of their exclusive “windows” for first-run films and their relationships with the major movie studios.

“There is nothing like the theatrical release for a big Hollywood movie, and anyone who tells you different is wrong,” Bud Mayo, president of the alternative programming and distribution unit at Carmike Cinemas, told TheWrap. “But it’s great to have some options and fill those empty seats, as long as it doesn’t interfere with regular operations and we get paid.”

Mayo’s 200-theater chain was recently absorbed by Carmike Cinemas, in part so that the fourth-largest U.S. theater chain could capitalize on the DigiNext founder’s expertise in alternative programming, drawn from his pioneering commitment.

“Sharing the power of the big screen is what it’s all about,” Mayo said. “Being with hundreds of other people and laughing and cheering along with them can really be really fun and a great experience, and it isn’t limited to movies.”

He didn’t think that TV shows were necessarily the ticket, while admitting the thought of having commercial breaks in which to move popcorn, candy and soda appealed.

“Maybe for a big, one-off event type show, like an ‘American Idol’ finale or something like that would work,” Mayo said. “But we find that what works best is content that’s seen as an event or really special and targets a particular group, especially seniors and empty-nesters, who are free during slack times.”

That thinking was in line with that of Kymberli Frueh-Owens, vice-president of programming at Fathom Events, the leading U.S. alternative programming firm. Fathom is owned by the AMC, Cinemark and Regal Entertainment theater chains.

“Our No. 1 goal is to create amazing events for consumers, and give them a sense of community,” she told TheWrap. “We look for programming that brings the tribe together.”

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They did that with theater runs of “Dr. Who” episodes, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the British TV hit in November 2013. “Sharknado” was another big score, even though it screened after it had been showing several times on the SyFy Network. Concerts from One Direction and the Grateful Dead were also among Fathom’s most popular offerings last year, along with its Metropolitan Opera shows.

Fathom has broadened its offerings with UFC ultimate fighting, niche sports, child-rearing guides and regionally targeted shows like cheerleading competitions. And it might even get into content production at some point, as video-on-demand firms like Netflix and Amazon have recently, Frueh-Owens said.

But she emphasized that the special event and premium programming is designed to augment not replace studio fare as movie theaters’ bread and butter.

“Some of our most popular offerings have been classic films like ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’,” she said. “And we’re just getting into red-carpet coverage of some of the major premieres.”

This weekend’s grosses from the “Thrones” run may not have turned heads, particularly outside of the industry and creative community. But to Hollywood, they made clear that the kingdom of Westeros in “Thrones” isn’t the only realm in which change is brewing.