Imax Corp., unable to find Canadians willing to buy into its world-renowned giant-screen film technology, has been sold to a group of U.S. investors.
The Toronto-based company has thrilled audiences with movies that explored the remains of the Titanic, celebrated Canada's geographic grandeur, flew over the oil well fires in Kuwait and blew up rock icon Mick Jagger to six stories tall. But while patrons flocked to Imax theaters, investors steered clear.In a deal said to be worth about $100 million, U.S. businessmen Bradley Wechsler and Richard Gelfond acquired control of the company, backed by a fund associated with Wasserstein Perella & Co., the New York-based leveraged buyout specialist.
Wechsler and Gelfond are the sole principals of Cheviot Capital Advisors, a private U.S. investment company with interests in radio, film financing, manufacturing and venture capital.
"This is not a typical LBO with excessive leverage," said Town-send Ziebold, a director of Wasserstein Perella. "We should be able to foster further alliances and joint ventures that should bring additional capital and business opportunities to the company."
For years, Imax has searched in vain for a partner with deep pockets to finance its expansion. Late Friday, the company said it had finally found one.
The Imax transaction includes the purchase of Trumbull Co., and its Ridefilm Theaters unit, of Lennox, Mass., founded by special-effects wizard and film maker Douglas Trumbull, who designed effects in the movies "Blade Runner" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Trumbull's motion-simulator business, which created "Back to the Future - The Ride" for Universal Studios theme parks, will become a wholly owned U.S. subsidiary of Imax.
Although Imax is the undisputed leader in 70-millimeter film technology, when it comes to rides, the company trails its chief competitor, Iwerks Entertainment Inc. of Burbank, Calif., which built the "Days of Thunder" ride for theme parks owned by Paramount Communications Inc. of New York.
Imax's new owners believe the combination of giant-screen theaters, motion-simulator rides and other attractions will be an antidote to the proposed 500-channel universe of home entertainment.
"We think with all the changes in in-home entertainment, the public will demand higher-quality destination entertainment," Gelfond said in an interview. "Imax is part of the answer to that demand."
Gelfond said the new owners have "overcapitalized the company, which means there's not only enough to do the acquisition but to grow the business with an aggressive business plan."
The plan is to further develop Imax's core business - most of its screens are in museums and science centers - while expanding into commercial theaters, motion-simulator attractions and other out-of-home destination entertainment.
Trumbull predicts a big market for high-technology entertainment centers that could combine an Imax theater, a motion-simulator ride and other interactive and virtual-reality attractions.
In a news release, Robert Kerr, Imax's president, chief executive officer and co-founder, said the company's five existing shareholders signed a share purchase agreement with WGIM Acquisition Corp., a Canadian company formed by the two U.S. businessmen.
The transaction is subject to review under the Canada Investment Act, confirmed Peter Casky, director of Investment Review in the federal Department of Industry.
The buyers have already made a commitment to keep Imax in Toronto.
"There's no question the business will remain in Canada," Gelfond said. "Its people are unique and cannot be replicated anywhere else. We don't operate other businesses so there is no business to consolidate it with. We're buying the people and facility as much as anything."