Can IMAX Save "The Mortal Instruments"?

It's hard to get a read on Wednesday's release of Sony's (NYSE: SNE  ) The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Will it be a late summer blockbuster? Will it be a costly flop? The movie could go either way, but it certainly seems as if it will fall on one extreme or the other.

We know what Sony wants to convey. An unusual spot features the young actors as themselves making a crowded mall appearance. "Join the phenomenon," goes the pitch. Show a massive crowd displaying signs of frenzied fandom for the largely obscure stars, and the swagger could be contagious. 

Sony has such high hopes for the release that it has already approved a second movie based on the popular urban fantasy book series. Cassandra Clare's five-book series, with a sixth book due out next year, offers many of the elements -- including monsters, teen angst, and supernatural whimsy -- that helped propel Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Twilight to multi-release success.

The book series hasn't gained that kind of acclaim, but Sony's aiming high. The movie is even getting the super-sized IMAX (NYSE: IMAX  ) treatment.  

Investing in remastering the movie to screen on IMAX's larger-than-life projection systems doesn't come cheap, but it's also no guarantee of success. Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger were available as premium screenings on IMAX, and neither movie has cracked $100 million in domestic box-office receipts. 

Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) conceded earlier this month that it may have to take a charge of as much as $190 million to write off The Lone Ranger as a flop. To be fair, its IMAX release was limited to select international markets. It wasn't screened domestically. But it serves as a cruel reminder that you can remaster a movie for IMAX, but that doesn't mean the audiences will come. 

Still, this isn't a problem for IMAX. As it expands its installations, more studios are hopping on board. IMAX no longer lives and dies by the handful of movies made available as premium experiences. For every Cloud Atlas or A Good Day to Die Hard, there are more than enough blockbusters to keep the platform viable. In fact, before Pacific Rim, none of the four summer season releases put out before that through IMAX grossed less than $197 million in domestic ticket sales across all exhibitors.

In a few days it will be The Mortal Instruments hoping that IMAX is an instrument of immortality, but it will have to earn that success.

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