Virtual Cineplex: Canada’s leading circuit unveils a new entertainment reality

Cinemas Features

“At Cineplex, we are looking to diversify our business, to become less reliant on the movie product and be seen more as an entertainment destination for Canadians.”

Sarah Van Lange, director of communications for the leading circuit of 163 theatres with 75 million guests per year, is talking about “branching off” into initiatives such as The Rec Room, introduced on these very pages one year ago, Cineplex VIP and event-cinema offerings, eSports, as well as Playdium game centers and plans to bring “Top Golf” to the country. “Canadians can look forward to more and more of these types of announcements and initiatives down the road.”

Just in time to ring in the holiday season, Cineplex announced two major additions to its Scotiabank flagship multiplexes in Toronto and Ottawa, leading the way to what is arguably the hottest trend in entertainment: virtual reality (VR). Within a short three weeks of each other, Nov. 17 and Dec. 7, to be exact, the proudly Canadian exhibitor unveiled VR experiences that were designed by two longstanding Canadian partners, IMAX and D-BOX.

In 2009, making them one of the earliest adopters, Cineplex began deploying D-BOX motion technology, which is now in use at 88 auditoriums across the circuit, including many premium offerings with the newest D-BOX recliner models. Similarly, IMAX and Cineplex can look back on a partnership that jointly built 24 auditoriums across the country, including downtown Toronto.

Located in the heart of Toronto’s Entertainment District, the IMAX VR Centre at Scotiabank Theatre features the latest and greatest technologies that allow visitors to step into other worlds. At its unveiling, Mark Welton, president of IMAX Theatres, noted: “Together, we look forward to ushering in the next evolution of immersive entertainment and bringing the highly social and interactive IMAX VR experience to audiences in Toronto.” (For a detailed roundup of all things IMAX VR, please read our exclusive Q &A with Rob Lister, chief development officer at IMAX Corp., on the following pages.)

A few weeks later, Claude Mc Master, president and chief executive officer of D-BOX, talked about putting their successful motion-seat technology at the service of VR storytelling at Ottawa’s Scotiabank Theatre. “We are extremely proud of this new venture and cannot wait for people to see just how immersive the D-BOX VR Cinematic Experience is… We have created a groundbreaking attraction the whole family can enjoy.” To live up to its name and cinema location, D-BOX in fact selected “Raising a Rukus,” a 12-minute adventure created by The Virtual Reality Company to showcase its movable offerings.

According to D-BOX, this animated VR motion picture experience is the first-ever in-lobby attraction offering “the rich storytelling traditions of cinema” while being “creatively amplified” by immersive powers of virtual reality and D-BOX motion technology. “Our system is not a typical motion ride,” explains Michel Paquette, VP of marketing at D-BOX Technologies. “It is actually a unique experience that enhances the overall journey of moviegoers, both with a strong cinematic story and within a cinematic VR environment thanks to 360-degree visual and audio. D-BOX helps to bring the sense of immersion to a new level.”

On a purely physical level as well, D-BOX VR is all about the DNA of cinema. Paquette mentions sitting down comfortably and securely, watching entertainment for all ages, and driven by ease of use in operations. “Cinema DNA is all about storytelling. Good storytelling is the main reason why people go to movie theatres and D-BOX Cinematic VR continues along that line.” Just like D-BOX motion seats have been doing for many major films, one might add.

“Today, VR is still in the novelty stage,” Paquette observes. “Nonetheless, cinemas are very keen on finding new ways of presenting these stories. Our cinema-friendly proposal is appealing to many exhibitors. We see a great opportunity for many more of those projects in the near term.”

Feedback from customers and those tasked with assisting them has been positive as well, he has observed. “It is quite surprising to see how exciting content can create connections amongst people. Moreover, D-BOX is proving that VR can be monetized in the cinematic environment.”

Yet, one could say that virtual reality is really all about an individual experience. “I am a big fan of virtual reality, personally, and its ability to put yourself into the movies,” Cineplex’s Van Lange concurs. Recalling her first ride in the Batmobile at the IMAX VR Centre, “That is what that one was certainly able to do…it was pretty amazing. I tend to gravitate towards the more social experiences. That complements what is going on upstairs at Scotiabank Theatre as well, because going to the movies is an inherently social experience.”

Bringing up multiplayer options of VR engagement such as Star Trek Bridge Crew, Van Lange believes “that our guests right now are also gravitating towards the more social virtual reality experiences as well.” Although she and three others players who assumed specific roles on the flight deck “did not succeed in our assigned tasks,” she chuckles, the experience was awesome entertainment.

Another social aspect of the IMAX VR Centre is that friends can watch you from the back while you are roaming around with the virtual gear. “There’s a rather embarrassing video that was taken of me while I was driving the Batmobile,” Van Lange confesses. “As you are driving, you are hitting things, or running up over ramps. One of my colleagues caught me hooting and hollering about, but that is also part of the fun of virtual reality, you know?”

Ten individual IMAX VR spaces were created on the ground-floor level of Scotiabank Theatre. Advances in mobile and online ticketing allowed for fewer ticket-selling stations and their relocation to the auditorium-level floor. Just as the VR action coincides with showtimes for the theatre, Van Lange explains that by “working with some of the leading filmmakers and content creators, much of the IMAX content in the VR Centre downstairs actually mirrors and complements the content upstairs in our movie theatres.” Case in point, the Batmobile ride was part of the “League of Legends” experience that Cineplex was able to premiere alongside the launch of Justice League.

Operationally as well, there is more of that upstairs-downstairs dynamic going on. “A number of the staff from the theatre actually volunteered to just transition down and have their role in the IMAX VR Centre.” Special training, Van Lange continues, includes proper handling and thorough cleaning of the equipment after each play, teaching guests how to use the gear and making sure that all is safe and sound.

An equally careful strategy is in place for taking the next steps into such virtual territory. Part of the plan for more VR at Cineplex is gaining experience with the D-BOX and IMAX offerings along with those of two other VR vendors that are operating at The Rec Room destinations: “Ctrl V” at West Edmonton Mall and at South Edmonton Commons; and “The Void” at Toronto Roundhouse. “While it is certainly burgeoning, the market for virtual reality right now is in its infancy still,” Van Lange explains. “We are testing and learning, seeing where our guests naturally gravitate to. In the theatre business, we find guests vote at the box office with the types of movies that they like. So, we are taking a similar approach here by letting our guests tell us which one or which ones of the VR options they like the best.”