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The 2024 box office is terrible. But Imax's big-screen appeal is a bright spot

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The 2024 box office is terrible. But Imax's big-screen appeal is a bright spot

When Warner Bros. film executive Jeff Goldstein saw the huge sand dunes and expansive desert vistas of Denis Villeneuve’s first “Dune” movie, he thought to himself, “This was made for Imax.”

Same went for the sandworm sequences of the sequel, “Dune: Part Two,” a box office hit for the studio earlier this year that pulled in nearly 24% of its domestic box office revenue from Imax. The dystopian wasteland of this weekend’s big action tent pole, “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” brings yet more fodder for the big screen format.

Imax’s giant screens are expected to account for a greater-than-typical share of the George Miller-directed prequel’s box office sales. (The film is tracking to gross more than $40 million domestically for the four-day weekend opening, according to analysts.)

“It immerses you, so you’re there,” said Goldstein, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures. “Audiences look at Imax as something special.”

As studios and exhibitors bemoan audiences’ slow return to movie theaters since the pandemic, Imax has been one of the few bright spots. This year’s box office is down 20% compared to last year, when pictures like “Fast X,” “Barbie” and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” propelled ticket sales, and yet studios are clamoring to get onto Imax screens.

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Audience behavior has now changed, and getting people out of their houses and back into theaters requires something special they can’t get at home. That put Imax in a fortuitous spot.

The 57-year-old Canadian company, which operates out of Playa Vista, is coming off one of its best years, with Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” helping to fuel overall global box office revenue — marking Imax’s second-highest grossing year in its history. Films shown on Imax are reaping bigger box office numbers, helped in part by higher ticket prices, and that’s a powerful allure for studios and filmmakers.

Next year, 13 Hollywood movies slated for release will be shot on Imax digital cameras or film, beating a previous record logged in 2021 when seven so-called filmed for Imax movies came out.

The company hopes its brand awareness eventually looms so large that viewers come to its screens first.

“Instead of saying, ‘What’s happening at the movies?,’ I want them to say, ‘What’s happening at Imax?’” said Imax Corp. Chief Executive Rich Gelfond.

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For Imax’s part, its financial performance in the first fiscal quarter of 2024 beat expectations. The company’s net income totaled $3.3 million for the three-month period that ended March 31, up 33% from the previous year, though revenue decreased by about 9%, to $79.1 million. Shares of Imax are up about 10.9% so far this year.

“While there are exceptions like ‘Barbie,’ it is very, very difficult to be a blockbuster without being in Imax,” said Greg Foster, a former Imax Entertainment chief executive who now runs an entertainment consulting business.

Imax’s current mainstream success is what Gelfond and his business partners envisioned when they acquired the company in 1994. At the time, Imax was essentially a museum staple, albeit one that allowed viewers to immerse themselves in the latest nature film or science documentary.

The company adjusted its screens and sound systems to fit in commercial multiplex theaters, allowing its business to grow rapidly while limiting costs (Imax does not own theaters itself, but instead supplies its screening technology to cinema chains). Imax also developed technology to convert movies to Imax’s format to make it more economically attractive for filmmakers and benefited from the advent of digital film, which made it more cost effective.

By 2019, the company had seen year-over-year global box office growth for several years and expanded its global market share to spread its box office almost evenly among North America, China and the rest of the world.

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Like its movie theater owner customers, Imax was hit hard by COVID-19 business shutdowns. But because the company has few assets and little debt, it was insulated in part from the financial fallout that the rest of the industry faced. The company used the time to update its technology, including a new laser projection system and sound system, worked on its marketing and leaned more into local language films, Gelfond said.

Now in a post-pandemic world, moviegoers want something premium and special for their time, and they’re willing to pay for it. That’s a bonus for Imax and so-called premium large-format screens operated by the theater chains.

“In an industry that is constantly re-evaluating its present and its future in terms of competing with new media and bringing back audiences, it’s Imax that has been at the heart of the conversation when we talk about sectors of the industry that have recovered,” said Shawn Robbins, founder of analysis site Box Office Theory. “It’s been a way for studios to have reliability in an often volatile theatrical market.”

Walt Disney Co. has leaned hard into Imax and other premium large formats.

Its marketing campaign for “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” released earlier this month, prominently featured the Imax logo on billboards, bus stop signs and other advertisements. During opening weekend, 41% of the movie’s domestic box office came from premium large-format screenings, 13% of which was Imax, Disney said. Typically, a blockbuster that hasn’t been filmed on Imax cameras, like “Apes,” would do about 10% at the box office, Gelfond said.

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As an industry, “we need to give audiences a terrific experience every time they go to see a movie,” said Tony Chambers, executive vice president and head of theatrical distribution for Walt Disney Studios. “Going to see a movie in premium large formats helps drive engagement and helps drive frequency.”

From 2022 to 2023, premium large formats made up 19% of Disney’s total domestic business; just before the pandemic, that total was 15%. Some of that came from 3-D screens, which have tapered off in popularity.

The company saw box office success with James Cameron’s 2022 sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which brought in $1.6 billion in revenue from premium large formats out of a total of $2.32 billion (About 11% of which came from Imax). Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” last year brought in 31% of its box office revenue from premium large formats.

Especially since the pandemic, there’s now more competition for people’s time and attention from streaming and social media, making it crucial for studios to give audiences a good reason to leave their couches.

“We need a way to cut through some of the clutter and make it clear to people that you cannot wait, you need to see this on the big screen,” Chambers said. “One of the ways to do that, from a marketing perspective, is to lean heavily into the premium large format.”

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For a lot of people, he said, that means Imax. In fact, Imax executives bristle when people lump them with the other so-called PLFs, which include Dolby Cinema and ScreenX.

Imax box office makes up 13% of Warner Bros. overall domestic business, compared to an industry wide 5% to 7%, according to the studio. Industry wide, opening weekends are typically 10% to 12% Imax. But some are a bigger draw. The Imax share of “Dune: Part Two’s” domestic box office was 22%.

“It’s this whole notion of how do you hit critical mass,” Goldstein said. “Imax will help you get to critical mass faster.”

Imax’s future hinges on continued growth, especially internationally. As of 2023, the company had 1,772 screens across the globe, including its institutional theaters and museum screens, up slightly from the previous year.

The company also plans to expand, particularly into markets that it thinks are under-served, such as Australia and Japan.

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“It has massive growth potential globally, and it’s certainly not at saturation in most of its global markets at this point,” said Alicia Reese, media and entertainment analyst at Wedbush Securities. “They should trade at a higher multiple given their growth potential.”

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After a pandemic strike, nurses union must pay Riverside hospital millions in damages

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After a pandemic strike, nurses union must pay Riverside hospital millions in damages

The union representing nurses at Riverside Community Hospital has been ordered to pay more than $6 million to the hospital for the fallout from a 2020 strike.

The unusual financial penalty was imposed by an arbitrator who found the 10-day work stoppage during the pandemic violated the terms of the labor agreement signed by HCA Healthcare, which operates the hospital, and Service Employees International Union Local 121RN. The $6.26-million fine, the arbitrator determined, was necessary to compensate the hospital for the cost of replacing workers who walked off the job during the strike, according to a statement released Wednesday.

Nurses walked off the job in June 2020 in an effort to force the hospital to increase staffing and improve safety as COVID-19 infections surged, the union said at the time. But hospital officials argued that because nurses also voiced complaints about shortages of personal protective equipment, the reasons for the strike were too expansive to be allowed under the collective bargaining agreement the two sides had signed.

“Our contract was clear, and the union showed reckless disregard for its members and the Riverside community by calling the strike,” said Jackie Van Blaricum, president of HCA Healthcare’s Far West Division, who was the hospital’s chief executive during the strike. “We applaud the arbitrator’s decision.”

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SEIU 121RN Executive Director Rosanna Mendez objected to the arbitrator’s findings, saying nurses were permitted under their contract to go on strike. She called the arbitrator’s decision “absurd and outrageous.”

“It is absolutely shocking that an arbitrator would expect nurses to not talk about safety issues,” Mendez said, adding that the union was exploring its options to contest the arbitrator’s decision.

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Supreme Court rejects California man's attempt to trademark Trump T-shirts

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Supreme Court rejects California man's attempt to trademark Trump T-shirts

The Supreme Court on Thursday turned down a California attorney’s bid to trademark the phrase “Trump Too Small” for his exclusive use on T-shirts.

The justices said trademark law forbids the use of a living person’s name, including former President Trump.

The vote was 9-0.

Trump was not a party to the case of Vidal vs. Elster, but in the past he objected when businesses and others tried to make use of his name.

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Concord, Calif., attorney Steve Elster said he was amused in 2016 when Republican presidential candidates exchanged comments about the size of Trump’s hands during a debate. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whom Trump had mocked as “Little Marco,” asked Trump to hold up his hands, which he did. “You know what they say about guys with small hands,” Rubio said.

After Trump won the election, Elster decided to sell T-shirts with the phrase “Trump Too Small,” which he said was meant to criticize Trump’s lack of accomplishments on civil rights, the environment and other issues.

Legally he was free to do so, but the U.S. Patent and Copyright Office denied his request to trademark the phrase for his exclusive use.

When he appealed the denial, he won a ruling from a federal appeals court which said his “Trump Too Small” slogan was political commentary protected by the 1st Amendment.

The Biden administration’s Solicitor Gen. Elizabeth Prelogar appealed and urged the Supreme Court to reject the trademark request.

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She acknowledged that Elster had a free-speech right to mock the former president, but argued he did not have the right to “assert property rights in another person’s name.”

“For more than 75 years, Congress has directed the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to refuse the registration of trademarks that use the name of a particular living individual without his written consent,” she said.

Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said Thursday: “Elster contends that this prohibition violates his 1st Amendment right to free speech. We hold that it does not,”

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Elon Musk blasts Apple's OpenAI deal over alleged privacy issues. Does he have a point?

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Elon Musk blasts Apple's OpenAI deal over alleged privacy issues. Does he have a point?

When Apple holds its annual Worldwide Developers Conference, its software announcements typically elicit cheers and excitement from tech enthusiasts.

But there was one notable exception this year — Elon Musk.

The Tesla and SpaceX chief executive threatened to ban all Apple devices from his companies, alleging a new partnership between Apple and Microsoft-backed startup OpenAI could pose security risks. As part of its new operating system update, Apple said users who ask Siri a question could opt in for Siri to pull additional information from ChatGPT.

“Apple has no clue what’s actually going on once they hand your data over to OpenAI,” Musk wrote on X. “They’re selling you down the river.”

The partnership allows Siri to ask iPhone, Mac and iPad users if the digital assistant can surface answers from OpenAI’s ChatGPT to help address a question. The new feature, which will be available on certain Apple devices, is part of the company’s operating system update due later this year.

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“If Apple integrates OpenAI at the OS level, then Apple devices will be banned at my companies,” Musk wrote on X. “That is an unacceptable security violation.”

Representatives for Musk and Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

In a keynote presentation at its developers conference on Monday, Apple said ChatGPT would be free for iPhone, Mac and iPad users. Under the partnership, Apple device users would not need to set up a ChatGPT account to use it with Siri.

“Privacy protections are built in for users who access ChatGPT — their IP addresses are obscured, and OpenAI won’t store requests,” Apple said on its website. “ChatGPT’s data-use policies apply for users who choose to connect their account.”

Many of Apple’s AI models and features, which the company collectively calls “Apple Intelligence,” run on the device itself, but some inquiries will require information to be sent through the cloud. Apple said that data is not stored or made accessible to Apple and that independent experts can inspect the code that runs on the servers to verify this.

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Apple Intelligence will be available for certain models of Apple devices, such as the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max and iPad and Mac with M1 and later.

So does Musk have a point? Technology and security experts who spoke to The Times offered mixed opinions.

Some pushed back on Musk’s assertion that Apple’s OpenAI deal poses security risks, citing a lack of evidence.

“Like a lot of things that Elon Musk says, it’s not based upon any kind of technical reality now, it’s really just based upon his political beliefs,” said Alex Stamos, chief trust officer at Mountain View, Calif.-based cybersecurity company SentinelOne. “There’s no real factual basis for what he said.”

Stamos, who is also a computer science lecturer at Stanford University and a former chief security officer at Facebook, said he was impressed with Apple’s data protection efforts, adding, “They’re promising a level of transparency that nobody’s really ever provided.

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“It’s hard to totally prove at this point, but what they’ve laid out is about the best you could do to provide this level of AI services running on people’s private data while protecting their privacy,” Stamos said.

“To do the things that people have become accustomed to from ChatGPT, you just can’t do that on phones yet,” Stamos added. “We’re years away from being able to run those kinds of models on something that fits in your pocket and doesn’t burn a hole in your jeans from the amount of power it burns.”

Musk has been critical of OpenAI. He sued the company in February for breach of contract and fiduciary duty, alleging it had shifted its focus from an agreement to develop artificial general intelligence “for the benefit of humanity, not for a for-profit company seeking to maximize shareholder profits.” On Tuesday, Musk, who was a co-founder of and investor in OpenAI, withdrew his lawsuit. Musk’s San Francisco company, xAI, is a competitor to OpenAI in the fast-growing field of artificial intelligence.

Musk has taken aim at Apple in the past, calling it a “Tesla graveyard,” because, according to him, Apple had hired people that Tesla had fired. “If you don’t make it at Tesla, you go work at Apple,” Musk said in an interview with German newspaper Handelsblatt in 2015. “I’m not kidding.”

Still, Rayid Ghani, a machine learning and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said that, at a high level, he thinks the concerns Musk raised about the OpenAI-Apple partnership should be raised.

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While Apple said that OpenAI is not storing Siri requests, “I don’t think we should just take that at face value,” Ghani said. “I think we need to ask for evidence of that. How does Apple ensure that processes are there in place? What is the recourse if it doesn’t happen? Who’s liable, Apple or OpenAI, and how do we deal with issues?”

Some industry observers also have raised questions about the option for Apple users who have a ChatGPT account to link it with their iPhone, and what information is collected by OpenAI in that case.

“We have to be careful with that one — linking your account on your mobile phone is a big deal,” said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. “I personally would not link until there is a lot more clarity about what happens to the data.”

OpenAI pointed to a statement on its website that says, “Users can also choose to connect their ChatGPT account, which means their data preferences will apply under ChatGPT’s policies.” The company declined further comment.

Under OpenAI’s privacy policy, the company says it collects personal information that is included in the input, file uploads or feedback when account holders use its service. ChatGPT has a way for users to opt out of having their inquiries used to train AI models.

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As the use of AI becomes more entwined with people’s lives, industry observers say that it will be crucial to provide transparency for customers and test the trustworthiness of the AI tools.

“We’re going to have to understand something about AI. It’s going to be a lot like plumbing. It’s going to be built into our devices and our lives everywhere,” Dixon said. “The AI is going to have to be trustworthy and we’re going to need to be able to test that trustworthiness.”

Night Archiving Supervisor Valerie Hood contributed to this report.

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