The boldest move yet to fill more movie theaters: Screen TV shows

Hollywood’s release calendar for this year is full of potential blockbusters like “Wonder Woman” and a new “Pirates of the Caribbean.” But in the first week of September, the biggest new release at theaters might not be a movie at all, but a TV show.  

That’s because Imax Corp., the giant movie screen company, recently partnered with Marvel Television and ABC Television to make the upcoming superhero series “Inhumans,” set to hit the cinema weeks before it appears on TV. 

It’s the boldest move yet to blur the already fuzzy lines between films for the big screen and shows for the small screen. TV is enjoying a surge in critical prestige and has taken over some of the cultural cachet that used to be reserved for the movies. More than ever, shows like HBO’s “Westworld” and Netflix’s “The Crown” feature big stars and look more like expensive movies than run-of-the-mill shows. 

“Production values are fabulous on the small screen right now, so they translate to the large screen,” said Ted Mundorff, chief executive of Landmark Theatres. “If you want to see ‘Game of Thrones’ on the big screen, that’s pretty awesome.” 

The push for more TV at the multiplex comes at a time when both industries face growing challenges when competing for audience’s attention in an age of burgeoning at-home entertainment options.

Television companies are looking for ways to build hype for their new shows and make them stand out amid a glut of high-quality original programs. This year there could be as many as 500 scripted shows on TV and streaming services, compared with about 300 in 2015, according to estimates from the cable network FX.

Theater owners, meanwhile, are eager to fill seats during slow periods including the autumn months, and hoping to diversify their businesses as the box office becomes increasingly unpredictable. Imax, in particular, relies almost entirely on big spectacle films from the major studios and is sensitive to such gaps in the release schedule. The only potential blockbuster opening in early September when “Inhumans” debuts is Warner Bros.’s horror remake “It.” 

Imax could not say how many of its 1,200 theaters will play “Inhumans,” but it is expected to push for a worldwide release. 

“The push Imax is making with Marvel for ‘Inhumans’ … is indicative of a need to push out to content beyond movies,” said Benjamin Mogil, an entertainment industry analyst with the financial services firm Stifel. 

Theater owners have for several years played alternative programming such as opera, soccer, professional basketball and concerts to fill seats during the middle of the week when auditoriums tend to go empty. Those efforts have expanded to include entertainment as diverse as competitive video gaming and major news events.

Now executives at big theater chains expect more TV shows to enjoy the theatrical treatment, after the success of past efforts to bring popular small-screen programming to the multiplex. Episodes of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and BBC’s “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock” have all recently appeared in cinemas to big crowds.

Imax in early 2015 showed the last two episodes of the fourth season of “Game of Thrones,” and featured a teaser for the upcoming season. The theatrical run resulted in nearly $2 million in ticket sales from 205 theaters, even though the episodes had already aired and were available on HBO’s streaming service.

AMC Entertainment even partnered with CNN last year to bring the network’s television election night coverage to the big screen, with separate theaters for “blue” and “red” voters.   

“We think there’s more to come,” Elizabeth Frank, chief content and programming officer for AMC, now the biggest U.S. theater chain after acquiring  Carmike Cinemas. “There’s a lot of TV content to work with.”  

TV shows — especially ones with rabid fan bases — have been a boon to specialty screening company Fathom Events. Fathom’s first “Doctor Who” event in 2013 was one of its biggest-sellers, drawing more than 300,000 fans, said company CEO John Rubey. The company hosted another “Doctor Who” event for the new episode “The Return of Doctor Mysterioso” on Dec. 27 and last Thursday. It will also show the premiere of the upcoming Disney Junior series “Mickey and the Roadster Racers” in January. 

“It enables people to come together and celebrate the content with people who are as excited about it as they are,” Rubey said.

That’s the kind of fanboy and fangirl communal buzz that Imax, Marvel and ABC are hoping will boost “Inhumans,” about a race of beings with superpowers and a complicated multi-generational history. The first two episodes will screen in Imax theaters in an 80-minute format for two weeks at the beginning of September, and then air on ABC later in the month.

ABC and Marvel are hoping the theatrical experience will help create a wave of excitement around its debut that will propel the new show once it airs — a strategy known in entertainment industry-speak as “eventizing.” The network will also increase the global reach of the show by tapping into the dozens of international countries where Imax operates. 

Although Marvel’s movie studio has regularly delivered blockbusters, its television division has been less consistent with the hits. While “Daredevil” and “Luke Cage” got attention at Netflix, ABC canceled “Agent Carter” in May. And “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has never been the ratings bonanza the network hoped for. Imax’s theatrical prowess may improve the chances of “Inhumans.” 

“The cachet of Imax should help them stay above the fray,” said Eric Wold, an entertainment industry analyst with B. Riley. 

As part of the deal, Imax is investing in the Marvel-ABC series, allowing it to not only share in movie ticket sales but also any television and other ancillary revenues from the show.

Financial terms were not disclosed. Representatives of ABC and Marvel declined to comment for this story.  

Imax has been working on its TV strategy for about a year, Chief Executive Richard Gelfond said. The company first brought the idea to Creative Artists Agency, which found a handful of projects to consider from different filmmakers. After discussions for three different shows, Imax ultimately decided on “Inhumans” to kick off the experiment.  

Preproduction for “Inhumans” is underway and filming is expected to begin in March or April.

Gelfond said Imax is in talks with other networks and filmmakers but wouldn’t say which ones. If the “Inhumans” strategy pays off, Imax could end up doing something similar with up to three TV shows a year, he said.

“A lot of high-priced talent has migrated to TV,” Gelfond said. “This is an attempt to bridge that talent back to movie theaters.”

ryan.faughnder@latimes.com

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder

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