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IMAX to Open First European Virtual-Reality Center in Manchester, England

IMAX chief Richard L. Gelfond plans to open six VR pilot centers worldwide in the coming months

IMAX’s first virtual-reality entertainment center in Europe will open in Manchester, in northern England, by the end of the year, the company announced Tuesday. The pilot IMAX VR center will be housed in Manchester’s Printworks multiplex as part of a deal with the site’s owner, European exhibitor Odeon and UCI Cinemas Group.

The center will deliver “immersive, multi-dimensional VR experiences, including entertainment content and games,” IMAX said. In an interview with Variety, CEO Richard L. Gelfond said Manchester was chosen over London because it was more “typical” of the British market. The “premium interactive content experiences” to be offered at the pilot center are expected to range between 5 and 15 minutes in length. Tickets will cost around £8-£10 ($9.85-$12.31).

The center will have a modular design – proprietary to IMAX – that will consist of several “pods” to allow multiple users to play at the same time. The pods will be big enough to allow users to roam around and interact with the virtual environment. Gelfond said he wanted the experience to be “social,” with customers able to watch their friends while they waited for their turn. Acer and Starbreeze will supply the headset-mounted display (HMD) technology.

IMAX’s first VR center, in Los Angeles, is due to open in the next couple of weeks, and will initially serve as a showroom before opening to the public later this year. Additional test facilities will open in China, Japan, the U.S., the Middle East and Western Europe in the coming months. The company plans to use the six pilot locations “to test overall customer experience, pricing models and the types of content featured,” IMAX said in a statement. “If successful, the intent is to roll out the concept globally to select multiplexes as well as commercial locations such as shopping centers and tourist destinations.”

Gelfond told Variety that the initial testing phase at the six sites would last around six months. “One of the reasons we are doing the pilots all over the world is, before we decide to aggressively put capital in and aggressively move ahead, to see what the customer appetite is,” he said. “We want to iron out the bugs.”

Gelfond said that although there were some similarities between IMAX’s investment in VR and the early days of the company when it had to invest heavily in large-screen technology before content for those screen started to flow more easily, it was different in that the Hollywood studios were keen to invest in VR, irrespective of IMAX.

He pointed to Sony’s recent announcement of a VR slate deal, and said other studios were in the process of putting their own slate deals together. Some of the gaming companies are also creating VR content. “We are at a period of time where that is happening organically, but…we are also aware that it is going to take more than organic efforts, and we are working with some filmmakers and studios about possibly helping that to develop quicker,” he said.

Film distributors and exhibitors see location-based VR as an additional source of revenue at a time when DVD sales have all but disappeared, and gaming, the Internet and mobile are offering ever-more enticing alternatives to movie-going.

In IMAX’s early days, the company “was an interloper, a disruptor,” Gelfond said. “With VR, both studios and exhibitors see this as a significant ancillary revenue stream. They are looking at ways to monetize their content across different platforms.”

He said that the financing model for Hollywood content could be similar to that for theatrical movies, with the studios taking 50% of the proceeds for creating the content, and the exhibitor and operator taking the rest.

Gelfond said that the VR experiences would be complementary to the movie-going experience rather than an alternative. He cited the example, as yet unrealized, of a VR version of the scene in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” in which Tom Cruise climbs up the Burj Khalifa tower. VR users could do the same while their friends could be firing down on them from above.

In the case of 3-D movies, it took James Cameron’s “Avatar” to ignite the public’s enthusiasm for the medium, and Gelfond said he was looking forward to seeing what leading filmmakers would do with VR. He noted that Michael Bay is creating a VR Experience for “Transformers: The Last Knight” and the Russo brothers were doing the same for “Avengers: Infinity War.”

Eventually, IMAX also plans to distribute content produced by the studio-caliber VR camera it is developing with Google.

Gelfond underscored the need for the technology to last. “I’m not really interested in putting the IMAX brand and resources into a fad, so we want to really make something that is sustainable.”

He added: “There are a lot of reasons to go slow and not be a first mover in VR, but given IMAX’s experience in technology, the power of our brand, our relationships with studios and exhibitors, I thought that if anybody was going to go first it should be us, but I have no pretense – we don’t have all the answers. I think it is going to evolve in its own way and I just hope we are part of the right way.”

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