Imax launches film fund to produce more documentaries

Imax launches film fund to produce more documentaries
Marine biologist and naturalist Iliana Ortega in the Sea of Cortes with a giant manta ray for a scene in the Imax film "Ocean Oasis." (Summerhays Films)

Imax is going back to its roots.

No, the Canadian company isn't retreating from Hollywood, where it is known more for its big screen releases of such movies as "Godzilla" than films about bears and seals.

But the theater technology company is expanding its historic commitment to producing nature and educational documentaries.

Imax, which has offices in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, announced Wednesday that it was creating a fund of up to $50 million to co-finance as many as 10 original large-format films. The films would include familiar topics like space and ocean exploration as well as educational subjects, such as transportation and globalization.

Currently, Imax produces about one nature documentary every 18 months for museums, science centers and aquariums. With the new fund, Imax will be able to produce two documentaries a year.

The documentaries will be screened in museums and other traditional Imax venues, but could also be released theatrically in commercial theaters Imax operates.

The films would include a broader array of educational documentaries, not only on familiar subjects like wildlife and oceans, but also on such topics as transportation and globalization. Imax also is partnering with noted filmmakers to bring a more innovative approach to its documentaries, which are widely viewed by school children.

Among the noted filmmakers Imax is working with are Werner Herzog, who is expected to direct a documentary about volcanoes; and Terrence Malick, whose "Voyage of Time" film Imax will release in 2016.

"Our movies are going to have more edge to them," Greg Foster, chief executive of Imax Entertainment, said in an interview. "In the past our documentaries have been a little too traditional. The world has changed, kids are changing and technology is changing and we need to hip it up a bit and make it a little more accessible to school groups in a way that makes learning more entertaining."

The Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal benefit society, has committed an initial investment of $25 million to the Imax Original Film Fund,  the company said.

"The Knights of Columbus is pleased to partner with Imax in this fund, both as a financial investment and as an investment in future generations through the creation of family-friendly entertainment," said Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson.

Imax will contribute $9 million over five years to the fund, with the remainder financed through corporate debt. Ultimately, the plan is to use box office proceeds from the documentaries to make the fund self-sufficient.

"The strong support of Knights of Columbus in establishing the Fund will ensure that we are able to deliver a sustainable flow of the highest-quality large-format documentaries -- exclusive to Imax theaters," said Robert Lister, Imax's chief business development officer.

Lister added that creating a "steady flow of the best new educational content will offer our institutional customers a huge competitive advantage that will serve as a catalyst for future growth."