As global exhibitors look to capitalize on the public’s appetite for four-quadrant blockbusters, many have turned to premium formats as a way to juice premium fees. Riding this wave of upmarket investment, France’s ICE Theaters has nearly doubled its international reach, opening immersive cinemas across three continents this year alone.

The reach should soon extend even further now that ICE Theaters and India’s PVR Cinemas have finalized a deal to open three premium rooms over the next 12 months.

This international focus has been a fairly recent development, as ICE Theaters – the export arm of Gallic exhibitor CGR Cinemas – only started rolling out its premium format onto the world stage just three years ago. Developed in-house and field-tested in France, the company’s premium Immersive Cinema Experience (ICE) is a proprietary design that outfits a row of LED panels on both sides of an auditorium and fills them with bespoke visuals extending the action onscreen. (“It’s like surround sound but for light,” is how an ICE exec describes it.) The theaters are also equipped with Dolby Atmos sound, Laser 4K projection, and either half-or-full recliner seats.

In 2019, the French company began exporting its premium model (offered through revenue share, 0% rate financing, or by a pure sale of equipment to the tune of $525,000) as part of a package that includes both goods and services. “We send all our equipment, and that’s quite a bit,” says ICE Theaters senior VP sales and strategy Guillaume Thomine Desmazures. “Each panel can measure up to [14 x 4 feet]. You have six of them per side, plus the immersive satellite speakers, plus spotlights, plus a light rack. But we also offer construction assistance and graphic guideline [tailored to each unique auditorium].”

After an understandable lull in 2020 and 2021, ICE Theaters has seen a substantial uptick in activity over the past six months. The company began the year with upscale rooms in France, Saudi Arabia and the U.S., and has since expanded into Estonia and Spain; it has also signed clients in Indonesia, Thailand and additional American markets.

If this new rush of interest coincided with the calendar releases of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which would score 178,300 admissions in ICE theaters in France, and of “Top Gun: Maverick,” which scored a 281% occupancy rate compared to CGR Cinema’s standard auditoriums, much of the new business could be traced to a single time and place.

“There really was a before and an after with CinemaCon,” Thomine Desmazures says of this past April’s exhibitor trade conference. “Over three days we were nine people at the booth and none of us had a moment’s free time. We had to generate proposals to address 14 territories, and we haven’t stopped since then. We’ve been sending proposals, designing auditoriums, and receiving hundreds of drawings of theaters all around the globe. We had to split our teams to ensure we could do two visits at once.”

Thomine Desmazures and team will next head to India, where ICE Theaters just signed a partnership with PVR Cinemas, a publicly traded exhibition chain that boasts more than 800 screens. Under the deal finalized at CineEurope, ICE and PVR will open three new immersive venues in Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore, leaving the door open for more to come.

“PVR Cinemas really believes that our format is best suited for Bollywood content,” says Thomine Desmazures. “You very rarely find a static shot in a Bollywood film. The camera is always traveling towards or away from the action; there’s so much movement, so many colors, and a lot of music. When you combine those elements into an ICE Theater, the results are really promising.”

Entering these new markets, ICE Theaters will move beyond Hollywood’s reach. Up until now, the company’s team of graphic artists would encode 25 – 30 big studio releases each year, always working from a complex in the west of France known as “the bunker.” They’ll continue with that level of output, with projects like “Black Adam,” “Thor: Love and Thunder” and “Minions: Rise of Gru” coming up next, while at the same time doubling or even tripling their workload, especially as the brand moves into markets like India and Japan, where homegrown blockbusters generate nearly 80% of box office revenue.

“We will definitely have to scale up, but we’re not afraid of the challenge,” says Thomine Desmazures. “First we’re going to grow our content team in order to absorb and deliver more local titles, hiring another team of graphic designers training them quickly. Then we’ll need to grow the sales force and customer support in every single territory where we’ll have a presence. With this latest ramp up of screens, we’ll have to start growing the company to sustain each territory with account managers, dedicated content teams, and people that speak the same language.”

“We have the tools and capacity to do all that,” Thomine Desmazures continues. “But we’ll definitely need more people!”