The best place on the planet to watch a movie is almost certainly from the center seat in the second-to-last row of the David Keighley Theater at IMAX’s headquarters in Playa Vista, CA. The theater seats 95, all in the shadow of a screen 60 feet wide and 42 feet tall. Twelve channels of sound project from the walls, the ceiling, and the deep recesses of your soul. Everything is black, with deep blue lighting that disappears as soon as any of the six laser projectors starts up. It’s massive and immersive–the only thing missing is the popcorn. There’s no food allowed here.
This is where Tom Cruise sits to review footage from his latest action epic, where Chris Nolan makes sure every soldier in Dunkirk looks exactly the way he should. Then, once filmmakers are happy with what they’ve created, it’s the job of the theater’s namesake–IMAX’s white-haired and suit-wearing chief quality officer–to replicate it perfectly in the more than 1,100 other screens it operates all over the world. Keighley is famous within IMAX for flying to random theaters on the release dates for big movies, to make sure everything’s just right.
For more than 45 years, IMAX has defined the absolute highest end of the movie-going experience by controlling every aspect of that experience, from building cameras to developing laser-projection technology to redesigning the seating arrangements so more people have better views. “Why do filmmakers come back time after time after time?” Keighley asks rhetorically. “Because they know the IMAX version of the movie is probably the best version of the movie.”
In recent months, though, IMAX has set its sights on a new technology: virtual reality. IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond believes VR is much more than a toy for gamers or a living-room furniture piece. He sees it as the future of the movie theater–even the future of movies. It’s just not the present. “Anyone who tells you that VR is ready for prime time in its current form is wrong,” says Gelfond, a stout man in his early 60s. “Wrong!”
But that’s precisely the opportunity. Virtual reality is poised to be the biggest shift in the history of filmmaking. “Everything is new, everything is fresh,” says Joe Russo, the director of movies like Captain America: Winter Soldier and the next Avengers flick. “The execution is different, the impact on the audience is different. Some people are going to take some big swings in it, and those are going to define the direction it takes.” From music to games to blockbuster movies, every aspect of entertainment will be changed by (or competing with) VR. And just as MGM and Warner Bros. made a killing at the dawn of the movie industry, there’s a gold rush happening around the future of frame-free cinema.
Before VR can really hit it big, someone has to build the best cameras, make the best content, find the best ways for people to consume that content, and work out a way to monetize the whole shebang. And that’s IMAX’s thing. As Hollywood begins to brace itself for what some people think will be the most important new storytelling format since movies were invented, IMAX thinks it can lead the way. It’s betting big on proving that.
The New New Thing
IMAX’s newfound obsession with VR didn’t come out of nowhere, exactly. There was no bolt of lightning or creative epiphany. At the beginning of 2016, Gelfond tasked his biz-dev team with finding a handful of new areas the company might be able to extend the IMAX brand. It’s always had high-end connotations–Ford once wanted to make a car called IMAX, and Gelfond shot them down because it wasn’t fancy enough–and Gelfond wondered where else it might be able to go.
Execs came back with lots of ideas. Maybe an IMAX theater combined with a spinning studio? (That one’s happening, by the way.) What about an in-home IMAX experience? (Also happening.) The team also mentioned that virtual reality was getting big, and IMAX might have a play there. Maybe they could buy a VR company, or do something on the tech side. They also thought maybe IMAX could work on location-based VR, bringing the tech out of basements and into the world. That’s when the lightbulb went off. “IMAX means immersiveness, being an active viewer instead of a passive viewer,” Gelfond says. He loves the way the sheer size of an IMAX screen forces your eyes to move around the picture, rather than taking it all in at once. “You’re part of the experience. First person, not third person.” That description also fit VR perfectly.
Right now, the excitement around VR far outweighs the tech’s actual polish. Headsets are way too expensive and not nearly good enough; there’s not enough stuff to watch or do; it’s really, really hard to make good VR. The way Gelfond sees it, there’s a huge opportunity for someone who can solve all these problems at once, and few companies who can do it as well as IMAX. “I just think IMAX has the right brand,” he says. “There aren’t many companies that have expertise in technology, real estate, and relationships with filmmakers and studios.”
So IMAX went all in. The company announced a $50 million fund for VR content, with plans to finance more than 25 experiences over the next three years. It’s also working on other deals with directors and studios. Meanwhile, IMAX has partnered with Google to build a VR camera far better than anything you’d get from a 360-degree ring of GoPros, which it plans to launch in 2018. It’s also working with Acer and Starbreeze on a headset with higher resolution and a wider field of view, to make the viewing experience as immersive as possible.
It’s the location-based stuff that has Gelfond most excited, though. Over the next few years he imagines taking over parts of multiplexes, putting epic VR experiences where otherwise you’d find an empty theater playing a month-old movie. He thinks you’ll go see the year’s Star Wars movie, obviously in IMAX, then–for a few extra bucks–strap on a headset and get to live a bit of the film yourself. “People who go see Star Wars,” he says, “want to fly on the Millennium Falcon. Or they want to see Mission Impossible 5, and then scale the Burj Khalifa.” He’s after the super-fans, who can’t get enough.
And that starts just a few miles away from IMAX’s headquarters, across from the famous Grove shopping center in LA. Behind a signless black facade, in a building that used to be a factory for prop hats, IMAX is building an ultra-high-end VR arcade.
From the minute you step off the busy LA streets and through the door of IMAX’s new VR center, it’s like you’ve entered a different world. The brightly lit white walls angle together as you walk down the hallway, up the stairs, and left around the corner. “We’re trying to squeeze you a little bit, before we gradually open up to you,” says Alan Robles, an experience designer at renowned architecture and design firm Gensler. “This is the first phase of changing your context,” he says, as if the hallway’s a portal to another dimension.
To design the center, Gensler and IMAX borrowed ideas from movie theaters, airports, even spas. The squeezing hallway leads you to a large reception desk, where a smiling employee helps you get set up for your VR journey. To your left, seven tall posters advertise the currently available experiences. Each poster moves subtly, like a photo in a Harry Potter movie–John Wick’s gun smokes, a Walking Dead zombie totters toward you. You can pay $10 to try something, or $25 to try everything. When you buy tickets, you pick a time just like you’re choosing a movie.
After check-in, you head into a lounge with comfy cushions to sit on while you watch a safety video about how to not freak out in VR. The whole entrance is designed to be friendly and comforting, getting you ready for the otherworldly experience you’re about to have. But it’s too bright; everyone agrees the giant LED lamp above the lounge needs to be toned down a bit. Someone makes a note.
Once you’re finished in the lounge and ready for your experience, it’s through a door, down another hallway, and into the space. It feels different in here: You sense the airiness of it, hear the echo of your voice. A tower in the middle of the room rises toward the 35-foot ceilings like a redwood, disappearing into the darkness. Everything is darker, a blue-purple gradient on every wall and floor. The room is divided into 14 cubicles, 12-foot-square pods each lit by low-hanging squares of LED lights. You put your stuff in the locker, strap on a headset, and play. While your friends wait their turn, they can watch you over the chest-high dividers, or see what you see on one of the big screens in the middle of the room. Or maybe they can pick up a tablet and help you play, giving you items or tips in the game. That last one’s not real yet, just an idea Gelfond hopes someone picks up on.
The center has since opened, but when I visit, the giant room is nearly empty, save for a few walls and a lot of hard-hatted workers. The team has set up two cubes inside the lounge space to do demos. I’m ushered into one of them and handed an HTC Vive and two controllers. Over the next 20 minutes, I try a series of cinematic VR experiences that could accompany the next movie you see. In “John Wick: An Eye for an Eye,” I’m trapped on a rooftop in full kill-or-be-killed mode. “Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine” has me defending a ship from invaders. “Gnomes and Goblins,” from director Jon Favreau, is a more relaxing forestscape in which I’m both helping and clearly irritating a bunch of tiny creatures in their natural habitat. All three are thrilling, the John Wick one in particular. You know that feeling, when you get out of an awesome action movie or great thriller, where you just want to drive really fast and maybe get in a fistfight? This is probably the closest legal solution ever devised.
One cubicle over, I try on one of the new Starbreeze StarVR headsets. Like all good IMAX-y things, it’s spectacular. It has an incredibly wide 210-degree field of view, 5K resolution, and an ineffable sense of added presence that you just don’t get from other headsets. It’s also not fully finished yet: there’s some distinct lag in the headset, and the only content I can see is a few short videos. IMAX has plenty of high-res footage it can put into the StarVR, though, and many of its content plans will support the headset as well. But if this particular tech doesn’t catch on? So be it. “I want to be technology agnostic, and I want to be with the best of the time as it evolves,” Gelfond says. He’s careful to say he loves Starbreeze, but he’s more committed to super-high-end VR than to any particular brand or product.
The hardest thing about designing a state-of-the-art virtual reality space is that what constitutes “state of the art” changes about every 45 minutes. The tech, the content, even the form factors are constantly evolving and expanding. So the arena was designed to be as unfixed as possible. A shotgun and wheelchair sit semi-ominously in my cube, perfect props for the Walking Dead experience, but those will come and go depending on what’s playing. (Two super-immersive driving rigs are being tested in a separate space, complete with pedals and steering wheel.) All the underlying tech is stored up in the ceiling, which meant the designers didn’t have to worry about where to put a giant computer they won’t eventually need anyway. Even the walls on every pod can move, in case you need a huge space for a multiplayer game.
It seems odd to be beta-testing an idea by building massively expensive retail locations, but that’s what Gelfond insists he’s doing. He’s almost shockingly clearheaded about the possibility that this first attempt will fail, and maybe the second one will too. “We’re not smart enough to know where this is going to be in one year or 10 years,” he says. The company also has a somewhat spotty history jumping into the early-adopter fray: 3D didn’t take over the world the way IMAX hoped, and the company dabbled with super-immersive headsets in the 90s, through an initiative called the Personal Sound Environment. It didn’t work out.
If everything goes right, IMAX’s VR centers could be the first way an enormous number of people try the new tech. Which is key, because as always with VR, trying is believing. “The first joke that came out of my mouth when I took the headset off,” Russo says of his first VR experience, “was ‘we’re done in the feature business.’ It’s an experience that is very hard to define unless you’ve done it, but it’s transformative.” Like so many others, Russo’s still trying to work out what a two-hour VR experience might look like; right now he loves the idea of pairing the Avengers film with a VR experience right after. He likes the idea of a way to spend a few minutes in one of the scenes, having an experience you can’t get even on the largest screen.
It all sounds promising enough. But if the plan does all go up in flames, Gelfond says, so be it. He’ll find something else to do. But while there’s other arcade-style VR centers in the development, from The Void in Utah to HTC’s planned Viveport spaces, Gelfond is a big believer in the first-mover advantage. By partnering with Google and Starbreeze, making deals with filmmakers, and building these physical spaces to be adaptable, he thinks IMAX is in a strong position no matter where the tech goes.
Then he throws up his hands as if to remind us both that he’s just guessing. That everyone’s just guessing. “It is the Wild West in a way,” he says. “But that kind of makes it fun, doesn’t it?”