Imax Towers Above the Rest

The image of Willy Wonka, played by Johnny Depp, towers above movie viewers on an eight-story high screen as he greets five children who have found golden tickets. This ticket admits them to a fantasy world where chocolate is made from a giant river whose murmurs emit first from one side of the movie theater and then from the other, regulated by a sophisticated sound system. The cost of this pleasure at an Imax theater is double that at a regular theater, but this has not deterred viewers. In the United States, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" opened at Imax theaters on July 15. They have accounted for 7 percent of the film's revenues so far - even though it has been screened at just 66 Imax theaters, compared to 3,790 conventional movie theaters.

Imax systems have been in use for several years now. Instead of nature movie viewers wearing bizarre 3D glasses, Imax seats are now being filled by fans who want to see the latest hit on a giant screen, to feel a part of the action. "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Spiderman 2," "The Lion King" and "Batman" have all been converted using DMR technology, making it possible to project them on an Imax screen that is 10 times larger than a regular movie screen.

While conventional movie theater chains are plagued by the worry of falling attendance figures, DMR technology helps Imax theaters keep viewers coming back. The annual number of Imax viewers worldwide has topped the 800 million mark, at the more than 250 theaters owned by the company.

Imax is seen in the industry as one of two trends that will lead the movie theater business in the future. The second is the megaplex, an entertainment center based on a multiple movie theater complex, such as Cinema City in Ramat Hasharon. Imax has committed to convert six-eight movies to its giant format every year, and to continue to draw viewers to its theaters with this innovative technology.

Arriving in Israel

In May 2004, Israel joined the 36 other countries that have Imax theaters when an Imax opened in Eilat, thanks to an investment of $11 million by four American Jewish partners: Bennett Kaplan, Peter Israelson, Moshe Strauss and Herbert Seif.

Kaplan became an Imax franchisee quite by chance. His original vision was to operate a multimedia enterprise in Jerusalem that would show visiting Jews the Western Wall and the greatness of Jerusalem.

"Americans who come to Israel, to the Western Wall, are disappointed," he says.

"In America, everything is big," continues Kaplan. "You go to the Grand Canyon, and it is really grand. For years, Jews talk about the Western Wall, and when they come here they see a wall that is not very high, divided into a men's and a women's section. On one of my visits to the Wall, I was approached by a tourist who asked me where the Wall was, which made me think of the idea of preparing a multimedia presentation that would explain how important the Wall is and would enhance the experience."

Kaplan joined forces with Israelson, but plans to locate their enterprise near the Wall were stymied when traffic arrangements around the Old City were changed, making access to the Wall more difficult and the whole idea less feasible.

Israelson accepted a job with Imax studios and joined up with Kaplan again when Imax's CEO asked him if he knew someone who could be the company's franchisee here. Needless to say, he recalled his earlier project with Kaplan.

For years, Kaplan has been dividing his time between Israel and the U.S., and although his children attend Israeli schools, most of his business affairs are still in the U.S. and he speaks only English. He is Orthodox, so his Imax theater in Eilat does not operate on Shabbat. A lawyer by training, Kaplan is spending his spare time writing a book on the nature of happiness.

Room for more on top

He is confident about the future of Imax in Israel and feels there is room for six more such operations here. The Imax complex in Eilat houses four theaters. Kaplan's vision is to have Imax theaters in Haifa, Jerusalem, Be'er Sheva and in three locations in the Dan region, possibly as part of very large theater complexes.

Kaplan proposes to realize this dream through a merger with the Globus group, one of the two big Israeli movie distribution companies and owner of the country's largest cinema chain. Epic Entertainment, the company created by Kaplan and his partners, is in advanced negotiations with Globus regarding a merger that would give Epic about 35 percent of the merged company, with Globus owning the remaining 65 percent. For the purpose of the merger, they are valuing Epic at $37 million.