Multifaceted Movie Center: CJ CGV introduces Cultureplex concept to United States

Cinemas Features

"Cultureplex." I first heard the word and became fascinated with the concept at a CinemaCon 2016 presentation offered by Yongseok Jang, executive VP and head of strategy planning at Korean media giant CJ Corp., whose theatre division CJ CGV operates 2,877 screens in seven countries. The general idea is to create an immersive experience from the moment patrons step through the front doors to their enjoyment of CJ CGV’s innovative movie presentations.

Less than one year later, there’s now a Cultureplex within driving distance of this Californian. The flagship U.S. CGV Cinemas opened in Buena Park on Jan. 27 at the brand-new The Source OC shopping center. Just off the 91 Freeway and next to City Hall, the generous space sharply contrasts with the CGV Cinemas in the U.S., a three-screen satellite location on top of H Mart in Koreatown in congested Los Angeles. With eight auditoriums and 1,183 seats, CGV Cinemas Buena Park anchors 400,000 square feet of “multi-experiential entertainment space, providing a unique fusion of world-class shopping, dining and entertainment,” according to The Source, the property owned by two Korean brothers. Only the stylish [in - sit] coffee house and Yoshihara Ramen restaurant were open when I visited; the Great Khan Mongolia Grill and La Huasteca Mexican restaurant would debut a few weeks later. The most intriguing future offering was OOAK-Vegetarian Fusion Kitchen, which I am told is a successful brand in China. I plan to come back just for that.

Cameron Cobb, general manager of theatre operations, gave me a tour of the theatre complex, the first in America to feature both CGV’s multi-sensory 4DX concept and its panoramic ScreenX. Fifty Shades Darker was playing with Korean subtitles, while the Korean hit The King and the Vietnamese movie Saigon Bodyguards were showing with English subtitles. I spent ten minutes watching The Lego Batman Movie in 4DX with Korean subtitles.

Interestingly, the architectural theme of this Korea-owned multiplex is a German train station, Cobb explained. But the distinct brick walls, concrete floor, black columns, high ceiling fixtures and some of the furniture are common elements throughout all 376 CGV locations worldwide. The style creates a warm but slightly muted, casual but sophisticated and elegant atmosphere. As CJ CGV Americas’ CEO Mark Shaw describes it, "A CGV theatre is a place where people from all generations can converge to relax, hang out and step away from the world from the moment they come through our doors.”

The cinema’s Popcorn Factory was open with a choice of three flavors: onion, caramel and regular. The bar was open, but the kitchen was not. The customers that Valentine’s Day were primarily younger and older couples.

Diverse Clientele at the Cultureplex

Two weeks later, I had a chance to meet with Paul S. Richardson, chief operating officer of CJ CGV Americas, at his L.A. office on Wilshire Boulevard. Richardson was formerly the head of Sundance Cinemas and was hired in January.

“As we look for new theatre sites,” he explained, “we are focusing on excellent locations that, like Buena Park, lie in the center of a donut where multiple different communities can have access to Cultureplex—an immersive and premium experience for everyone that goes above and beyond what moviegoers typically see.”

There is a large Asian population surrounding Buena Park, with a "Korean population mostly to the east, Chinese population mostly to the west, and Vietnamese population to the south. There is also a Hispanic community, so it is really a mix," he noted.

How is a Cultureplex different from an "entertainment destination", a popular industry term? Richardson feels "the cultural aspect is on the film-buying side”—the CGV Cinemas Buena Park will feature both “Hollywood films and the best Asian films,” with subtitles in Korean, Mandarin and Vietnamese, as well as in English. Some films can have different subtitles for different showtimes.

"Film buying is all about relationships," Richardson states, expressing confidence in his buying teams, with some buyers specializing in Hollywood films and some in Asian films. He calls it “a hybrid."

How to mix the two? Richardson's solution is a seasonal approach. “During May, June and Thanksgiving and Christmas it is going be heavily Hollywood titles, when they put out their big guns. Then we are going to offset that in other times of the year with more Asian films. It will be an even flow."

When the kitchen opens, Richardson promises it will offer "not just fried food. We will have an Asian influence." Along with a broad menu, the theatre will offer beer, wine and cocktails. Food will be picked up by the customers; there will be no waiters.

Offering a peek at CGV Americas’ roadmap, Richardson said, "In a perfect world, we would like to have about 100 screens in five years." Buena Park is the model. "With its nice sizes of screens, a mix of different theatre sizes, a big 4DX screen and a big ScreenX screen, a big snack bar and beautiful lobby—this is the formula that we are going to take across the country." He even envisions another CGV Cinemas in California. "Of course, California is a great market. We are actively looking on both coasts, [places] with obvious Asian communities, and in the middle of the country too." Mostly, he says, it is a matter of finding the right location, with the right landlord, adequate parking and a supportive environment with restaurants, bookstores and similar enticements.

"We are a new theatre, and new theatres always take some time to be established. Because moviegoing is a habit. Where you go to see a movie is a habit. You go to the movie theatre you are used to going to. And to change people's habits, you have to give them a better experience.” The still-in-progress shopping center is another challenge, requiring “intensive marketing and grassroots, as well as the normal theatre marketing. Word of mouth is the way we are going to be successful. I really want people to try it. If they try it, they will see something that is very classy and a little bit different.”

The Technology of the Cultureplex

4DX and ScreenX are two key components of CGV Cinemas’ Cultureplex concept and immersive cinema experience.

ScreenXis a 270-degree, multi-projection system for cinemas. ScreenX takes advantage of the two side walls in a regular theatre. It requires no additional screens and no specific requirements for the walls. So the theatre can play other non-ScreenX films in their everyday schedule. However, it does require installation of four to six digital laser projectors (depending on the size of the auditorium) on each of the side walls to project the so-called "wing images" that make up the 270-degree viewing experience. The ultra-bright light of the laser projectors turns the walls into screens. The projectors can be any brand and the installation effort is minimal, the company claims. In demos, you can see the wing images go beyond where you sit all the way to the back of the theatre, making you feel like you are almost boxed in by and immersed in the moving images.

Brandon Choi, COO of CJ 4DPLEX Americas, responsible for 4DX and ScreenX in the American and Latin markets, explained the seemingly highly technical yet creative process of making the "wing images.” Typically, these supplementary images appear for one-third of the movie, requiring two months in postproduction for the ScreenX team to work with the filmmakers. The moving images on the center screen, meaning the storytelling, are not altered.

ScreenX has been utilized for least five Korean films and at least five Chinese films. The first feature made for ScreenX and 4DX, We Kill Death, will be released sometime this year, Richardson reveals. Developed by CJ CGV in 2012, ScreenX is currently available at 107 screens around the world.

4DX,developed by sister company CJ 4DPLEX in 2009, features motion seats and environmental effects such as wind, rain, snow, fog and lightning. It is currently available in 370 theatres across 44 countries. The 4DX titles for CGV Buena Park are streaming in: Resident Evil: The Final Chapter was available on opening weekend, followed by The Lego Batman Movie and the mega U.S.-China co-production The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon and directed by Zhang Yimou.

4DX does not lack fans. China alone already has over 60 4DX auditoriums with eight or nine exhibitors including the giant Wanda chain. And the worldwide audience for its water, wind and motion effects is growing. "The beauty of 4DX and ScreenX is that it provides audiences with more format choices," Choi observes.

At the end of my visit to CGV Buena Park, I said "Kamsa-hamnida” (“Thank you”) to Cobb, who is half Chinese and half black, and his largely Korean staff, using the only phrase I had learned from my Korean hairdresser. Isn't it true that every one of us is a mini-cultureplex in the worldwide cultureplex?