Jan 25, 2024 - Business

Axios Finish Line: Lead like IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond

Photo illustration of Richard Gelfond surrounded by quotation marks and abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: IMAX

Rich Gelfond is the 68-year-old CEO of IMAX — best known for designing theater projection systems for some of the largest video resolution formats in the world. The company also manufactures digital and film camera equipment.

Why he matters: Gelfond, a former lawyer and investment banker, bought IMAX with a partner in 1994.

  • Over the past nearly 30 years as co-CEO and then CEO, he has steered the company through several crises, including near-bankruptcy, and has grown IMAX from a museum-focused service with 110 locations to about 1,700 theaters globally.
  • And while box offices continue to struggle to rebound, the IMAX format has been driving an increasing share of growth.

Hope King talked with Gelfond at his office in Manhattan in December. Here's Part 1 of their interview.

1. Christopher Nolan has been arguably the highest-profile champion for the IMAX film format (his "Oppenheimer" drove IMAX to a near-record year). Who's the next director that you see taking up the mantle?

  • Denis Villeneuve, director of "Dune"; Jordan Peele, director of "Nope"; Cary Joji Fukunaga, director of the 25th Bond title "No Time to Die"; Todd Phillips, director of the "Joker" series, as well as Hoyte van Hoytema, a cinematographer who worked with Peele and collaborates frequently with Nolan.

2. What was the first IMAX film you ever watched?

  • "To Fly" during Presidents Day weekend in 1993.
  • When Gelfond got back to work, there was a booklet on his desk pitching the sale of the company.
  • "It was like some kind of karma in the world."

3. You often cite "It's never as good as it looks, or as bad as it seems" as your motto. How does that describe your leadership style?

  • "I try and be levelheaded … because it's very easy to lose perspective," he said.
  • When "Oppenheimer" soared at the box office, he reined in the company's exuberance by reminding the team that they had "a lot of movies," and that "it's a long year."
  • When other movies flopped or when the company's stock was 55 cents, he had to stand up in front of "employees looking like they were going to a funeral" and say, "Tomorrow's another day."

4. How much of IMAX is Richard, and how much of IMAX is going to be IMAX after Richard? (The average tenure of public company CEOs is about 7 years.)

  • "I've thought a lot about that question. … I think our brand is so well known [globally] that I think IMAX will do just fine and probably really great after I'm no longer here."

5. Why haven't you left?

  • "I have a mission and I haven't fulfilled it. … I'm [also] intensely loyal to the people who work for me here. And they're intensely loyal to me. At some level, and maybe I'm crazy, I would think it would be a betrayal to leave before we accomplished our mission."
  • His dream for IMAX — which he sees as "a platform for awe-inspiring content" — has been for people to "wake up and say, 'I'm not doing anything today. I want to go to the IMAX theater — what's going on there?'" rather than, "Oh, Dune 2 is out — I want to go see it in IMAX."

🎞️ 1 fun thing: Where do you sit in the Lincoln Square IMAX?

  • "In the back row, in the center of the theater" because it's more convenient to get to during public screenings.
  • Gelfond also agreed with Hope, though, that the center of theater, two-thirds back from the screen "is probably the ideal seat."
  • "When we first bought the company, and I looked at rough cuts of movies, I'd walk around the theater [during the movie] to look at it from different perspectives, just to see if it worked as well from different seats."

Subscribe to Axios Closer to read Part 2 of the interview.

This story is from an Axios Finish Line interview series on leadership. ... More from the series: Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev ... Brooks Brothers CEO Ken Ohashi ... Recent Walgreens CEO Roz Brewer ... Accenture CEO Julie Sweet.

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