IMAX is looking to leverage its vast variety of theatrical distribution platforms to provide patrons family-oriented fare with premium, location-based virtual reality experiences.
The entertainment technology corporation, which has had a litany of touchpoints across the industry and the movie-going experience for nearly 50 years, is looking to add immersive options for consumers.
IMAX finalized the first phase of a $50 million VR fund last November that was geared toward financing content experiences from high profile filmmakers and creators for VR platforms—most notably for its IMAX VR Centres, which are currently in an experimental pilot phase across different parts of the world.
IMAX is trying to discover whether VR will be a viable business category and a vital part of their brand’s evolution in the future. A wider global rollout will be in store should the pilot plan succeed.
Rob Lister, IMAX’s chief business development and chief legal officer, joined AListDaily for a video interview to offer details on the company’s primary learnings so far from VR.
On IMAX’s VR strategy and consumer insights . . .
“One of the most exciting things we’re working on as a company right now is our brand new VR initiative. Even though we’re only in the pilot phase, we’re really excited about the promise of the platform. We spend a lot of our time putting together content and technology deals and building out our actual first center in Los Angeles. The focus for us during this pilot phase is to gather as many learnings as possible, so we’re studying what the consumer preferences are when it comes to content. We’re studying price elasticity, what the right price points are and how to work for throughput. These are generally 8-to-12-minute experiences, so we’re looking at how to move people through in a really effective way. What we’ve learned, to our pleasure so far, is that the demographic that’s interested in VR is pretty broad. We’ve seen birthday parties for a bunch of 35-year-old men and then birthday parties for a bunch of 10-year-old girls. To me, that represents that we’re reaching a wide audience, and that’s one learning we’re most happy about.”
On IMAX’s approach to content and experiences . . .
“Because of IMAX’s place in the ecosystem, a lot of people have been asking us, ‘What does this mean for the future of entertainment—cinematic entertainment in particular?’ We’re hoping to break what, so far, has become a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue in VR. There’s not quite a big enough network out there to justify a lot of big IP being created by the studios, and there aren’t enough big IPs to justify a large network. We at IMAX think we can help solve that. We have such good relationships with the studios. Our content fund invests in AAA IP and movie-studio content. Our hope is that we can help create and build a real pipeline of high-end movie content that makes its way into the VR space, which to us will lift everybody’s boats because more people would be interested in seeing IP that typically goes along with the big movie blockbuster marketing budgets.”
On IMAX’s vision to scale . . .
“IMAX’s approach is to broaden the marketing. Again, we’re still in this pilot stage where we’re trying to learn as much we can about VR before deciding if this a new business worth fully getting into, and invest heavily, and scale globally. But at this stage, our thinking and strategy is that if we do roll this out, it would be mainly through our multiplex partners around the world. [As of this March, there were 1,226 IMAX theaters in 75 countries.] Multiplexes are in situations now where they’d like to have more utilization of their auditoriums and their lobby space. They’d like to reach millennials at a greater pace than they are right now. Millennials have so many content choices on so many different platforms. We’re really confident that regardless if you’re in a big city in the United States, or a smaller market in China or somewhere in western Europe, there is a multiplex operator out there looking to attract a broader audience—particularity a younger audience, that will find this new medium of entertainment interesting enough to make a destination-based decision and trip. That would be great for us in a new business and great for our exhibitor partners, too.”
On how VR impacts marketing and advertising . . .
“A lot of people in the industry have been focused on how VR is the next great immersive entertainment platform. But there are just as many people focused on how it’s the next great media platform—period. That includes not just entertainment, but things like advertising and product marketing. You hear a lot about how retail itself can be revolutionized—VR giving you the ability to see a virtual fashion show where you’re watching different people wearing the same types of clothes, or different colors and sizes. Or even virtual shopping for furniture . . . allowing you to shop and experience different brands without leaving your house.”
On IMAX’s marketing strategy . . .
“We’ve been asked a lot about our marketing strategy and it’s in such an early stage. We have experts in house who are able to attack just that right balance. So, we’re kind of working on understanding the local marketing end of having a center operating in The Grove in the middle of Beverly Hills, California and how to reach local consumers and local businesses versus the broader marketing that would come along with a big tentpole release of a VR piece. That’s an area that we know well because marketing budgets come along with the types of blockbusters that IMAX does cinematically. We plan to work with the studios to leverage that same marketing campaign for a big piece of content.”
On the immediate future of IMAX’s VR efforts . . .
“We’re excited about being able to use our relationships with exhibitors, studios and technical partners to really try to advance the industry forward. Earlier this year we signed a three-picture deal with Warner Bros. for three big tentpole pieces of IP content—Justice League, Aquaman and a to-be-determined release in 2019. They will be big VR releases—the kind that we’re envisioning people will be attracted to with the IMAX brand and want to see. We’re very excited about that. We’re very excited to be rolling out our next few pilots in New York, Shanghai, Tokyo and the United Kingdom and seeing how other markets respond to IMAX VR. Hopefully, it’ll be as positive as they have in Los Angeles. We’re also still working with Google on a groundbreaking cinema VR camera. We hope we can give it to our filmmaking partners and convince the industry to use and create the next generation of VR content. We’ve accomplished a lot in the past year, and I think the next year is going to be just as event-filled.”