Who Does Regal Love More – RealD or Imax?

By Patrick von Sychowski | May 11, 2009 9:07 am PDT

If the US exhibition industry was a comic strip, Regal Cinemas would be Archie and 3D rivals RealD and Imax would be Betty and Veronica. Things seem to be coming to a head between the three with the opening of Regal’s latest multiplex Thornton Place Stadium 14 & IMAX – to give it its full and proper name – and with a shot across the bows from Veronica, sorry, Imax about just how fabulously rich her offerings are.

First the details on the opening of the state-of-the-art Thornton:

Regal Thornton Place Stadium 14 will feature a new IMAX® theatre utilizing a specially-designed screen that is slightly curved and moved forward to immerse the audience. The IMAX Experience® is further enhanced by a crystal-clear digital surround sound system. Regal’s IMAX theatre will also offer IMAX 3D® when filmmakers choose to integrate 3D images into their movies. Future IMAX releases include: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (6/24) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (7/15).

The new theatre is modern in every way, equipped with RealD® 3D to provide true-to-life 3D. RealD is a new generation of digital 3D, giving moviegoers a stunningly realistic movie experience that engages the imagination, activates the senses and invites the audience not only to watch a film, but also step inside the story. Upcoming Digital 3D movies include: Disney-Pixar’s Up (5/29), Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (7/1) and Disney’s G-Force (7/24).

‘Immerse the audience’ and ‘step inside the story’, OK, so Regal has both systems on the go. No major surprise there. But RealD and Imax do not see themselves as equals and do not just want to co-exist peacefully. This was made clear in an e-mail that went out from Imax today, headlined ‘Star Trek IMAX breaks record with $8.3 mil opening weekend in U.S.‘, which amounts to 11 per cent of the total box office (see Weekend BO story below).

Imax then goes on to quote from the Regal Cinemas public earnings conference call, where Regal’s CEO Mike Campbell, took a  question from an analyst on whether Veronica was cutest or Betty prettiest:

Matthew Harrigan  – Wunderlich Securities – Analyst

Good morning. Thanks for taking my question. Two questions. One, there’s a pretty profound asymmetry even if you adjust for the size of the auditoriums on the 3-D results for IMAX versus REAL D. Have you given any thought to re-balancing that or is it just more a matter of educating the consumer on REAL D? I heard there are some people actually think that some of the quality in 3-D with REAL D is better than with IMAX, but it doesn’t seem to have quite the marketing cachet.

Michael Campbell  – Regal Entertainment Group – Chairman and CEO

As far as the Real D versus the IMAX experience, IMAX is a powerful brand and it’s not just the visuals and the size of the screen. It’s a–it’s got the best sound system in the world according to most people. So we’re seeing that when we run REAL D versus 2-D, the Real D screens show a multiple of two to three times the attendance that you’re getting out of a 2-D screen while the IMAX will run five to six times. So we view this actually as a very viable market going forward, where IMAX remains at the top of the food chain. It’s long-established as a powerful brand, attaches a higher premium. Real D 3-D is somewhere between IMAX and 2-D. And we think that it gives the customer maximum flexibility in choosing. [emphasis added]

So Regal loves Imax twice as much as it loves RealD? Or at least its audience does. Imax want to have us believe that. Regal has 52 screens contracted with Imax, but has committed with RealD for 1,500 screens. So the date count seems to go in favour of Betty. Moreover, if you read the above quote early, what Regal is saying is that RealD lacks the brand awareness that Imax has been building up over several decades. But that could of course change.

But could it be that neither of the two will end up the real winner? Archie-ologist will remember that Issue #320 saw the introduction of Cheryl Blossom, a redhead from Pembroke, England, introduced to compete with Betty and Veronica for Archie. Who might 3D cinemas Cherry Blossom be? Why, none other than UK-born American-relocated Dolby Laboratories. With studios threatening to no longer pay for RealD’s disposable (now recyclable) eyewear, the Dolby3D system with its re-usable glasses (and high gain, instead of silver screen) is becoming more and more appealing.

Not that Regal is likely to break it off with RealD for its 1,500 dates and while Imax is likely to continue to occupy a high end niche, the race for the attention of the cinema is definitely heating up and getting interesting. We don’t expect a cat fight, but we are awaiting RealD’s retaliation keenly.

Patrick von Sychowski
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