Imax Entertainment's Greg Foster Talks VR Theater Plans, 2016 Box-Office Prospects

Issue 40 BIZ Exec Suite Greg Foster - H 2013
Annie Tritt

Issue 40 BIZ Exec Suite Greg Foster - H 2013

"We'll have pilot [VR] locations open at end of the year," the Imax exec told investors as the giant screen exhibitor diversifies its Hollywood movie offering.

Imax could soon have you flying the Millennium Falcon or bringing down the Death Star within a virtual reality experience at the local multiplex or mall.

That's the vision laid out Wednesday by Imax entertainment boss Greg Foster for investors as he offered examples of possible cinema-like VR experiences the giant screen exhibitor is set to roll out at the local multiplex by the end of 2016.

Speaking at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference in Los Angeles in a session that was webcast, Foster said a moviegoer will be able to put on VR glasses and view immersive Star Wars experiences in the same complex they view Star Wars: Episode VIII, as an example.

"These are six- to nine-minute content stories, fully separate, and you buy that ticket as well or buy it bundled with the Imax movie presentation of Star Wars," he explained. The first Imax VR location is set to be Los Angeles, with further sites expected to be in China, where the giant-screen exhibitor is expanding its presence with local partners.

"We'll have pilot (VR) locations open by the end of the year, and grow them as fast as we can," Foster said.

Imax earlier announced it had partnered with Starbreeze to develop the headset technology with 210-degree full peripheral vision. The VR experiences are part of a bid by Imax to diversify in a fast-changing exhibition business. 

Foster told investors the first third of 2016 was "spectacular" for Hollywood box office, on par with a record 2015 take at the local multiplex. But momentum was lost after Marvel and Disney's Captain America: Civil War release, the top-grossing film of the summer.

"Other than the animated movies, we definitely hit a wall post-Captain America. The last four months have not exactly been what we want them to be," Foster reported.

He said upcoming 2016 tentpoles having difficulty "sparking" with audiences before their release, cord-cutting, and moviegoers rejecting midlevel movies in the $75 million budget range also factored into the current doldrums.

"There's been some singles and doubles, but there hasn't been any home runs in three or four months. That's just the reality of it," Foster said. Upcoming release titles he's placing bets on include Marvel's Doctor Strange, which features footage "optimized" for Imax, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the Harry Potter franchise spinoff set for a Thanksgiving release.

"That's a J.K. Rowling piece, a Warner Bros. piece, and they've proven they can do that as well as anyone," Foster said. And he voiced optimism about 2017 box office prospects. "If you look at 2017, the slate looks very robust," he insisted.