Why Early IMAX Runs for ‘Everest’ and ‘The Walk’ Could Be Hollywood Game-Changers

If buzz from the 500-theater run on giant screens fuels bigger wide openings for the Universal and Sony films, the strategy may catch on

Universal is rolling out the 3D mountain-climbing epic “Everest” in an exclusive 500-theater IMAX run starting Friday in hopes that the giant screens will showcase the film’s spectacular vistas, and then generate an avalanche of positive word of mouth.

Sony will employ a similar strategy later this month with “The Walk,” a release which also promises to be a visual stunner as it tells the story of famed tightrope walker Philip Petit, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. If the studios succeed in building buzz they otherwise wouldn’t have received, and the strategy leads to more lucrative wide debuts, analysts and distribution executives told TheWrap it could change the way movie are rolled out.

The early “Everest” IMAX run includes 365 domestic sites and about 135 international locations, as well as some premium large-format screens. It should put the film’s best foot forward, which is what distributor Universal is banking on. The bet seems to make sense for the visual spectacular that tells the dramatic tale of a 1996 disaster in which eight climbers died.

“It’s a really smart way for both studios to get strong buzz and maximize their films’ potential, instead of just putting it out there on 3,000 screens and crossing your fingers,” BoxOffice.com senior analyst Phil Contrino told TheWrap. “It shows a lot of confidence in both of these movies.”

The-Walk-Movie-2015-Zemeckis-JGL“Everest” is at 82 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes and, with its suitability for the IMAX format, should do just fine at the box office. Tracking has it in the mid-teen to $20 million when it begins its wide release on Sept. 25. On Tuesday, Universal executives didn’t want to discuss distribution approaches, but it was clear they felt that this was the right strategy for this film at this time.

The odds seem stacked in their favor. The snowbound tragedy was the basis of the hugely popular 1997 book “Into Thin Air,” and the story was also told in a 1998 documentary, also called “Everest,” that took in $128 million and remains IMAX’s highest-grossing documentary.

John Krakauer, who wrote that bestseller, was a journalist covering an expedition heading up the mountain when another expedition, heading down from the summit, was trapped by a massive blizzard. In the new movie, Jake Gyllenhaal plays the leader of one expedition and Jason Clarke plays the other. Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington fill out the cast, with Baltsar Kormakur directing from a script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy,

Those are all top-tier actors, but none are well-known enough to open a movie on their own, and Kormakur (“Two Guns”) isn’t a household name. That leaves the film and a couple of stars who didn’t make the titles — Mount Everest and Mother Nature — to make its own case with audiences. Universal is betting that the buzz will be positive, and that the IMAX run will amplify it.

“It’s perfect for a movie that has real ‘playability’ but doesn’t have comparable ‘marketability’ going for it,” said one rival studio executive.

MissionImpossible4It’s virtually unprecedented, though Paramount employed a similar scheme with “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, ” which went on to become a major hit in 2011. That, however, was a five-day IMAX run for a sequel in an already popular franchise that arrived during the crowded Christmas corridor.

The strategy also could benefit theater owners and solve an ongoing problem for IMAX, Exhibitor Relations senior analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap.

“I’m sure the exhibitors love it, since it minimizes the competition, or at least spreads it out,” he said. “If Universal hadn’t gone this route and rolled it out this week, even limited, it probably would have cut into the ‘Black Mass’ audience.”

“And it’s a good thing for IMAX because it helps them deal with those down periods when there aren’t any action films or blockbusters,” Bock added.

Exhibitors who don’t have IMAX or PLF screens clearly won’t be keen on the plan, however. And before it becomes a standard, Bock believes the risk will have to be mitigated, or it will become a very high-stakes game for studios.

“Can you imagine trying to open a movie with so-so reviews, along with a bunch of bad buzz from an early giant-screen run, on 3,000 screens the following week?”