IMAX-imizer: Passepartout honoree Phil Groves plays a giant role in movie hits

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Canadian-born but impacting globally, IMAX is one of the industry’s greatest facilitators of the immersive film experience. Much more than its storied giant screen, this hugely successful innovator in entertainment technology combines proprietary software, architecture and equipment to create unique experiences by enhancing the Hollywood studios’ big-budget films and IMAX’s highly touted docs.

But IMAX’s global push and presence is also dependent upon the highly trafficked venues that are the facilitators. Orchestrating so much that happens between the distributors (the studios and entities worldwide) and exhibitors (major chains and other theatres the world over) is Phil Groves, senior VP, IMAX Corporation, and executive VP of global distribution, IMAX Entertainment. Or, going informal, a top IMAX MAXimizer.

CinemaCon is recognizing Groves this year with its "Passepartout Award,” presented annually to an industry executive who demonstrates dedication and commitment to the international marketplace. Groves says he became all the more thrilled with this recognition when he was made more aware of CinemaCon’s past Passepartout recipients, meaning “the “incredible company I’m in.” (Past awardees include Disney’s David Kornblum, Fox’s Craig Dehmel, Warner Bros.’ Erlina Surharjono and Richard Fox, and Universal’s Jack Ledwith.)

From IMAX’s West Coast headquarters in Playa Vista (L.A.’s “Silicon Beach,” he proudly adds), Groves wears global distribution stripes that mean, like so many studio superheroes in so many IMAX presentations, that his oversight covers the whole planet, including North America, where it all began for IMAX many decades ago. (IMAX has other headquarters in New York and Toronto and a handful of satellite offices overseas.)He reports to Greg Foster, senior executive VP, IMAX Corporation, and CEO, IMAX Entertainment.

Groves notes that “distribution duties are the majority of my role because, as IMAX is both a software and hardware business, we partner with both studios and exhibitors. My main purpose is to get as many of the studio movies we have into as many of our theatres worldwide. So it’s usually a three-way relationship, with IMAX primarily balancing the other interests of studios and exhibitors.”

Groves has eyes across a vast IMAX realm: The company has, as of Dec. 31, 2015, 1,061 IMAX theatres (943 commercial multiplexes, 19 commercial destinations and 99 institutions, mainly museums) in 67 countries. And the domain grows: FJI just reported that IMAX Corp. subsidiary IMAX China, which now trades on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, plans to install 100 additional screens this year throughout China. (This jump, of course, reflects China’s well-reported record-setting box-office boom of the last few years that has continued into 2016; the country’s economic boom that preceded continues less as a fact of reality than as a subject of speculation and much conversation.)

Groves, who joined IMAX in September 2003, previously spent over 20 years at Loews Cineplex, where he rose to VP of film, after earlier work on the buying side at Cineplex Odeon and General Cinema. Additionally, he notched career points as a screenwriter, storyboard artist, graphic designer and illustrator.

During his IMAX tenure, h ehas successfully brought IMAX’s slate of Hollywood blockbuster event films to IMAX screens throughout the world, beginning with the first day-and-date release of an IMAX DMR title, Matrix Revolutions. Additionally, he helps guide the development of IMAX’s original film content (often IMAX’s legacy nature and outer space-themed docs shown in museum facilities and some select multiplexes).

With those stars high above, the docs also leverage more earthly stars, which has helped Groves increase the reach of these films to more multiplex and institutional IMAX screens worldwide. Titles include Deep Sea 3D (narrated by Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet), Hubble 3D (narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio), To the Artic (narrated by Meryl Streep), and more recently Island of Lemurs: Madagascar (narrated by Morgan Freeman).

When suggested to Groves that IMAX in many consumer minds usually triggers a knee-jerk reaction of “Giant-screen presentation!” he responds with emphasis that “we also bring the sharper image and better sound and more, which owes so much to our DMR.”

This is the revolutionary IMAX DMR® process, which is the company’s proprietary enhancement process for the IMAX films. (The letters stand for Digital Re-Mastering, so the acronym DRM rather than DMR is more intuitive; it seems that “digital rights management” might have appropriated the letters sooner.)

These DMR-enhanced films are primarily, but certainly not exclusively, the studios’ big-budget event films,which, like the docs, are the ideal beneficiaries of the process.When presented in IMAX theatres, they are significantly better than what’s playing down the hall, not just because of the larger screens.

The DMR-treated product is completely transformed to enhance sound and visuals. This process requires IMAX spending hours, weeks or months, whether on location in editing rooms with directors and technical teams planning the shots, during remixing of the sound, adjusting saturation, contrast or brightness, and attending to hundreds of other details in virtually every frame.

Groves, often on site to assure smooth sailing of the enhancement, indicates that the process could be described for us civilians as a customizing of a completed film for the IMAX auditorium presentation. Together, DMR and IMAX theatre design and architecture, working with such strong product, are what make IMAX one of the most important and successful theatrical distribution platforms worldwide for major event films.

In addition to his grasp of the technology and amenities that make IMAX tick, Groves’  impressive film-buyer background assures that he knows what makes an IMAX release sock.

He describes what immediately impacts him as ripe for IMAX treatment: “It’s what audiences haven’t seen before and a subject that screams out for IMAX. The sweet spot is when these converge, which happens in the studio blockbusters, certainly sci-fi and anything set in space and whatever calls for the big-screen experience.”

IMAX 3D is, of course, a major draw for filmgoers, although grumblings persist that 3D images not “IMAXed” just aren’t bright enough. Asked what gives IMAX 3D that extra brightness oomph, Groves responds: “We throw more light onto the screen than usual, so our images are better, brighter as 3D.”

IMAX has long been interested in the development of original films, often nature-themed docs. Groves offers IMAX’s soon-to-arrive A Beautiful Planet, an exploration of Earth and beyond “with its sequences from the International Space Station that can suggest to viewers what it’s like looking at Earth while going 17,000 miles per hour.” Jennifer Lawrence serves as narrator.

Beyond the sparkling stars who narrate, IMAX enlivens its docs another way: “We go more granular by adding an emotional facet, as we’re looking to make these more provocative by stoking the imagination of moviegoers,” Groves explains.

But, these days especially, even if you’ve got it, ya really gotta flaunt it. So another IMAX “big” is its view of branding. Thus, when a film like The Revenant is available in IMAX, the film is promoted as The Revenant: The IMAX Experience (appropriate titles also get the tag IMAX 3D Experience).

Groves explains the branding as “so important to the marketing, a reminder to people of what they’re watching, that they are watching an enhanced version in our format, meaning it’s better in both sight and sound.”

He continues: “And the studios too know that having IMAX identified with a film is a way of telegraphing that it’s not just another movie; they know that when we’re involved, the media get another way of talking about the film. And for consumers, it’s like giving them a ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval’ for the presentation. Exhibitors realize IMAX is a great asset in a multiplex where [the enhancement] is especially attractive to the core moviegoing audience. And this is for two or three-week runs and with a film like Star Wars: The Force Awakens even longer.”

Regarding industry newbies to IMAX, Groves observes that the most intense interest comes from the relatively young or newer-to-the-party exhibitors, film entities and territories. “They arrive with an open mind, as they want to break new ground. China, for instance, is exploding. IMAX in China is very hot and will exceed North America maybe this year or next year for sure. We’ve grown along with the Chinese market. As multiplexes grew in China, IMAX was right there and consumers saw that.” (This embrace coincided with the middle class growing and signs of China being an economic giant.)

In addition to China, Groves cites India for its growth potential. “India is interesting, as it’s an interesting challenge for both us and Hollywood because Bollywood reigns there. We’ve already done a few Bollywood films to seed the market [by putting them through the DMR process]. As for China, we’re doing that with some local Chinese movies. Another big market for us is the Russian movies.”

Beyond studio films, Groves notes that IMAX’s original docs work well because they “cross all cultural and national boundaries…and they are broad in their capture of a subject.”  Emphasizing that it’s a changing world in which IMAX flourishes, Groves notes that “even Romania has a space program.”

But what is germane to Groves’ distribution role is “the difference in our theatres served; they are largely multiplexes. For our documentaries, we go into select multiplex locations but have a lot of installations in the subset of museums that are the institutional settings we’ve traditionally been serving.”

Besides so many territories, Groves’ work at IMAX puts him in touch with a number of teams, whether working with distribution teams at the studios or on event films that are taking advantage of the IMAX DMR process.

The talks he has with studios, Groves explains, can run across the whole cycle of filmmaking. “Certain directors want to use the IMAX camera, so we’ll be talking to them when they are in pre-production or into production. And then there’s the post stage, and with the movie already in the can we’re ready to help run the completed film through the DMR process.”

As IMAX impressively continues its growth, Groves shares some ideas regarding how theatre owners might help increase traffic to these giant screens, beyond the familiar calls for cleaner spaces, better amenities, etc. “Sharing,” in fact, is key here. “The more exhibitors share with their customers about how IMAX provides a better experience, and it’s not just our bigger screens, the more it helps all of us,” he declares. “And the more clearly they convey this is so important for us and the theatres and the studios and audiences. Exhibitors need only be more aggressive in putting our materials to work, whether print materials, video, special content for websites, monitors in lobbies. The more they do this, the more we’ll all benefit.”

It’s been reported that the studios will be releasing this year about 30 features with production budgets in excess of $100 million, up from the 22 last year. Asked about how many IMAX might be involved in, Groves answers, “Probably almost all. Last year we were involved in 14 out of the top 15. We are in the blockbuster business.”

Currently, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has already boosted IMAX shares and other films like The Revenant, Kung Fu Panda 3, Deadpool, Zootopia and Batman v Superman, all IMAX-enhanced, are also doing the victory dance on balance sheets. Looking ahead in 2016, IMAX will have studio mega-productions like Captain America: Civil War, Independence Day Resurgence and the new all-female Ghostbusters on screens.

When Groves joined IMAX back in 2003, he also joined boss Greg Foster as his head of distribution and partner. Says Foster about Groves, “Phil is the ying to my yang. He’s hard-working, detailed, and someone available 24 hours a day to help me pick titles and make IMAX Entertainment a better company.”

The praise continues: “Phil’s primary role is in seeing the big picture. He knows the incremental value of what IMAX brings to the marketplace. He is the interface with our exhibitor partners, making sure they know where our head is at any given time. He’s also the one who has my ear and trust—he’ll bust me when I need a reality check and support a decision that may be challenging in the short term but the right one in the long term.

“Phil has true values and they drive his decision-making and the mood of our office. He’s also respected by our studio and exhibitor partners, and in a world where mistrust is front and center, he’s one of the few who has credibility amongst all of our constituents.”

And, in a new world inundated with data big, small, meta and digital, Foster offers some analog data about Groves that goes right to the human and emotional core of understanding audiences: “Phil identifies with our fans and is very much one himself.”

As IMAX continues as vigorous as ever after decades to enable the big screen’s most immersive experiences, Groves reveals it is also looking at the virtual-reality business. “We are absolutely exploring VR. I’m not directly involved but have a strong interest, and I share with our team that is investigating.”

This latest stretch for Groves is further proof of his immense curiosity about the evolving film business and why he finds his time at IMAX so “thrilling and a lot of fun.” He characterizes his company as “great and unique and with a format that has allowed and continues to allow me to be in so many facets of the industry and get involved along the whole chain, from developing through working with the biggest and best exhibitors in the world.”

That’s a reality that sounds even better than virtual.