Richard Gelfond’s Incredible Journey

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You never know where a Stony Brook education may take you.

BY CAROL R. RICHARDS

Richard GelfondRichard Gelfond ’76, CEO of IMAX Corp., travels all over the world introducing audiences to the IMAX® experience. And he sends his company’s expensive cameras and equipment to remote places like Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar to film “the weirdest animals you’ve ever seen.”

Gelfond’s latest IMAX movie, Island of Lemurs: Madagascar 3D, was set in motion when the longtime chair of the Stony Brook Foundation invited Stony Brook Anthropology Professor Patricia Wright to the premiere of an earlier IMAX film, Born To Be Wild. There, Wright met director David Douglas and producer Drew Fellman and told them about her work with lemurs, the endangered primates of Madagascar. The rest is soon to be film history.

When Gelfond graduated from Stony Brook, making movies was the last thing on his mind. He went off to law school at Northwestern University and began a career that took him into law, investment banking and a host of entrepreneurial activities, including buying and selling companies. In 1994, when he and business partner Brad Wechsler bought IMAX in a leveraged buyout, they figured they’d hire a CEO to run it or they’d sell it after several years. They took it public a few months later. As Gelfond told the Harvard Business Review this past summer, “I discovered I liked running this business, so I stayed.”

IMAX is a Canadian company that makes films using proprietary cutting-edge cameras, lenses and sound systems. IMAX films are projected onto huge, curved screens in specially designed theaters, providing audiences with a sense of deep immersion into the movie. When 3D is added, as with Avatar a few years back, and Island of Lemurs: Madagascar, which opens in April, the experience can be overwhelming.

IMAX 3D

His company also converts Hollywood blockbusters to the format invented by IMAX. It was this decision—to expand the company from one that specialized in nature films for museums and theme parks, to one that delivers popular hits converted to IMAX format and shown in multiplexes—that helped IMAX become a financial blockbuster itself.

Gelfond ticks off his projects in the pipeline. “We are doing a documentary about the South Pacific narrated by Cate Blanchett. Director Michael Bay is shooting the next Transformers with IMAX cameras. We’ve got French director, Luc Besson, shooting with IMAX cameras.”

How did a kid from a modest family home in Plainview, Long Island, who was shining shoes at age 8 to earn money, get to the top of his field? Gelfond said, “I put myself through college. My parents didn’t have any money and I couldn’t have afforded to go to a private school at that point. Without an excellent school like Stony Brook, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Gelfond had a lively student career at Stony Brook. He majored in political science, was an editor on The Statesman, was the first student elected to the Stony Brook Council, and won a prestigious student award that allowed him to be a speaker at his poli sci departmental graduation.

AND he finished in three years. AND he worked 25 hours a week for Newsday, covering high school sports, where he met a young Howard Schneider, who was just beginning his climb up the ladder to Newsday’s editorship, and is now dean of Stony Brook’s School of Journalism. “When I first came to Stony Brook [as dean]I was surprised to find that one of the major figures was the same kid who was collecting ball scores in Newsday’s Lake Ronkonkoma office. Actually, I was pleased. We recognized each other immediately,” said Schneider.

Back in the mid-’70s, when he arrived at Stony Brook, Gelfond found it to be “still kind of a startup university. Thinking outside of the box was rewarded.”

He admires that kind of flexibility and has applied it to his own life experiences. For example, he and his former partner bought IMAX with the thought that they could break the company out of its documentary model. However, it wasn’t easy to move IMAX out of the nature niche.

“It took us a long time to figure out the technology and business model to do that,” Gelfond said. “Ironically, I think our vision was a little naïve, we didn’t really understand all the obstacles. But I think sometimes people’s accomplishments are based on the fact that they don’t fully understand the risk they take. They take them where other people wouldn’t have.”

Richard Gelfond Academy Award

One of the obstacles was Hollywood tradition. “The movie industry is an interconnected system of studios, directors and theaters that has evolved over 100 years,” he told the Harvard Business Review. “As newcomers, we spent years trying and failing to persuade the industry to adapt to our model.” Hollywood didn’t want to use the superior IMAX cameras, but Gelfond, who admits he “doesn’t take the word ‘no’ seriously,” adjusted IMAX’s strategy to fit Hollywood’s way of doing business. In other words, the company figured out how to technologically convert Hollywood films to IMAX format.

He’s still experimenting with new technology. Sending the actual reels of IMAX film to theaters is costly. Each print costs $30,000 and requires a forklift to move to the projection room. But when digital projectors are used, costs plummet. Each hard drive costs $150. The problem is that digital projectors aren’t powerful enough to light some of the largest IMAX screens, so Gelfond hopes to roll out more powerful laser projectors next year.

Patricia Wright, the anthropologist considered the world’s top expert on lemurs, has a major role in the upcoming IMAX film. Wright has devoted much of her life to studying lemurs and saving them from extinction. They exist only in Madagascar and are related to monkeys and humans. “We are all primates—lemurs, monkeys, apes, humans,” she explained.
Wright hopes that the movie will raise public awareness of the need to save these appealing furry creatures as their habitat in the trees is systematically destroyed by progress, with less than 10 percent of Madagascar remaining forested. Any increase in tourism will help raise the local standard of living because half of the entrance fee paid to Ranomafana National Park goes back to the villages. Wright is sure the public will respond because, “This movie will steal their hearts.”

She said: “The amazing thing about Gelfond was that he really cared about the science.” Gelfond learned a lesson about getting the science right early in his career at IMAX. Back then, IMAX tried to make a commercially popular movie about dinosaurs. It was T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous. But, he said, the science museums hated it because it wasn’t scientifically accurate—“they said the dinosaurs had too many fingers”—while mainstream theaters found it blah—“they’d have been happier if the dinosaurs had eaten some people.”

The fact is, science and technology—solid science and technology—underlie the success of IMAX. Its cameras, lenses and projectors are all constructed upon sophisticated algorithms, which takes us back to Stony Brook.

Gelfond explained: “There is a connection with Stony Brook, but it comes more from being on the Stony Brook Foundation board, and having been on the board of Brookhaven National Laboratory for 10 years. There is no question that my involvement at Stony Brook and at Brookhaven contributed a great deal to my scientific curiosity and literacy. It definitely stimulated a passion and a thought process that was helpful in my management role at IMAX. My involvement at Stony Brook always kept my scientific curiosity up and my knowledge current. That definitely went back to my day job at IMAX.”

Rich and Peggy Gelfond

As for the future, Gelfond has been working very closely with President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. to re-envision Stony Brook as a top 20 research university. “There’s a clear message that we want to be one of the best public institutions in the world,” Gelfond said. “Under Dr. Stanley’s leadership there is a lot of focus on terrific ideas. The gifts of Jim and Marilyn Simons and the Simons Foundation, along with the state allowing [predictable tuition increases], will enable it to become a reality.”

Given his success in a glamorous field, Gelfond could have immersed totally in glory and glitz. Instead, he is often spotted walking on the campus. It’s not nostalgia that brings him and his wife Peggy Bonapace (also an alum) back to campus—it’s the desire to give back. For Gelfond, the Stony Brook experience “is something that I really want to repay.”

He continued, “I strongly believe in the concept of a meritocracy. There needs to be public education focused on excellence. My dedication to Stony Brook has been consistent with a focus on quality. I feel that the role of Stony Brook is as a platform to constantly push us to make sure that those who don’t have the resources have access to the highest level of education possible.”

Highlights:

  • When Richard Gelfond joined IMAX in March 1994 as Vice Chairman there were 110 theaters in 19 countries. When he became co-CEO in May 1996, IMAX had 134 theaters in 21 countries. Currently, IMAX has 767 theaters in 54 countries.
  • In 1997, he accepted an Academy Award on behalf of IMAX for Scientific and Technical Achievement.
  • In 2010, Gelfond was named to Vanity Fair’s “New Establishment 100,” listed among several top CEOs, including Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs.
  • He is a member of the board of directors of the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank that promotes constructive leadership and engagement in international affairs.
  • Gelfond is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
  • He served as the Chairman of the Columbia Shuttle Memorial Trust Steering Committee, established in cooperation with NASA to support the families of the crew of the STS-107 mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
  • In 2004, Stony Brook awarded Gelfond an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters for his contributions that helped to further research and environmental studies at the University.
  • Gelfond was recognized as the 2012 Environmental Champion by the New York League of Conservation Voters for his commitment to a variety of environmental causes—most notably the study of mercury poisoning via The Gelfond Fund for Mercury Research and Outreach at Stony Brook University.
  • In October 2013, Gelfond was honored by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations for his contributions to strengthening diplomatic ties between the United States and China.

QUOTES:
I think sometimes people’s accomplishments are based on the fact that they don’t fully understand the risk they take. They take them where other people wouldn’t have.
Instead of innovating for the sake of innovation, ask yourself what real business problem are you solving?

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