Imax has always been about maximizing the theatrical experience, and the company plans on pushing its boundaries with new technology and products, even if it takes the brand outside the auditorium.
“It could be things like new sound systems, it could be virtual reality,” says ImaxEntertainment CEO Greg Foster. “It could be taking some aspect of theatrical experience and applying it to Blu-ray or streaming, making the quality of the experience better.”
Last year, the company made its first foray into virtual reality with six Imax VR Centers — two in New York and one each in Los Angeles, Shanghai, Toronto and Manchester, England — featuring multiple “pods” (a proprietary Imax design) that can be adapted for a variety of immersive content experiences, both single- and multi-user.
They’re serving as a pilot program to test different types of content, pricing models (e.g., whether to charge by length or type of experience) and overall customer satisfaction.
The effort is supported by a $50 million fund, launched in November 2016 by Imax and outside investors including Acer, CAA and China Media Capital, to finance at least 25 interactive VR experiences over the ensuing three years. It’s also partnered with Warner Bros. to co-finance and produce three experiences based on the studio’s tentpole releases, the first of which, “Justice League: An Imax VR Exclusive,” debuted in November.
If the experiment proves successful, the plan is to launch a series of VR centers around the globe at multiplexes, shopping centers and tourist destinations, but so far the results have been mixed.
“The one in Los Angeles across from the Grove [shopping mall] is making very good revenue, but others are behind the revenue numbers that we need to roll it out in a significant way,” says Imax CEO Richard Gelfond.
The company has considered streaming live events, but “the key is that we don’t want to do it as a one-off thing,” says Gelfond. “There are a lot of marketing costs and fixed costs, so if you do it, it has to be something that can be a series.”
According to chief quality guru David Keighley, the company is also exploring the potential for using video walls similar to Samsung’s Cinema LED Screen in its theaters.
Although he sees great potential in the technology, there are kinks to be worked out, such as excessive brightness. But, Keighley says, “If we bring out LED walls, they’ll be the best walls in the business.”