Imax CEO on Bringing Premium VR Experiences, Second Giant Screen to Theaters

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"[You would] put on VR glasses and you would fly the Millennium Falcon or see how many stormtroopers you can shoot," Richard Gelfond said at an investors conference.

Imax CEO Richard Gelfond is bullish about virtual reality, and has no idea whether Google, Facebook, Microsoft or other players will prevail in introducing the VR experience to consumers in the home.

It just won't be Imax. The exec on Tuesday told an investors conference the giant-screen exhibitor is targeting location-based VR outside the home, in partnership with Google and Starbreeze.

The aim is to bring a premium, cinema-like VR experience to the local multiplex and other out-of-home destinations. Speaking at the J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in Boston in a session that was webcast, Gelfond said a moviegoer may see Star Wars, for example, at the multiplex. Then, after the film ends, they may pay for a premium VR experience around the Star Wars IP in the same complex.

"You'd go to a different place in the multiplex and put on VR glasses and you would fly the Millennium Falcon or see how many stormtroopers you can shoot," he explained.

Gelfond told investors that pacting with Google to capture VR footage with a cinema-quality camera and using Starbreeze's headset technology with 210-degree full peripheral vision should ensure Imax's eventual location-based VR experience is like nothing available in the home.

The Imax CEO also told investors he has cold feet on rolling out two of his giant screens in a single multiplex to meet peak demand for Hollywood tentpoles, especially on opening weekends when theaters often sell out. "That's been somewhat of a debate internally. I personally don't think that's the direction we're going to go," Gelfond said.

He added Imax should instead offer exhibitors an exclusive market zone in which to operate, and hopefully see screens added at new locations, rather than see a second Imax screen installed in the same complex. "I worry that during the peak blockbuster seasons, they'll do very well, but at other times of the year [the second screens] won't do as well," Gelfond told investors.

Imax and Canadian exhibitor Cinemas Guzzo tested the second-screen concept in Montreal’s Mega-Plex Marche Central 18 complex. Gelfond expressed concern that a second screen might be smaller in size than the first giant screen, creating a "first-class and then a second-class experience."

And exhibitors indicating interest in a second screen in a complex want to play non-Imax content. Said Gelfond, "Is it really worth it to mess around with your brand, and confuse consumers? At the moment, I don't think so."