IMAX VR May End Before It Takes Off As Company Closes Two Centers

IMAX VR was supposed to change the face of cinema. When IMAX opened its ground-breaking virtual reality centers in several cities around the world last year, the film community was abuzz with excitement. Would this change movie-going as we know it? Could we finally live our dreams of fighting alongside John Wick?

A year later, it seems like the answer is: probably not. IMAX has closed down two of its VR centers in New York and Shanghai, leaving the future of IMAX VR in question.

When /Film's Peter Sciretta got a glimpse of one of the handful of IMAX VR centers last year, the future of the new technology looked bright. Sure, there were a few kinks to iron out, but for the most part, this initiative seemed like a bold new way to get people off their couches. However, a year after IMAX opened its VR centers in Los Angeles, New York, Shanghai, and Toronto, Variety reports that the company has been forced to shutter one of its two centers in New York, and another in Shanghai earlier this summer.

IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond revealed that the company struggled to find a foothold with VR. "The consumer reaction was extremely positive, but the numbers just weren't there," he said during the company's Q1 2018 earnings call. Of the seven centers to open, only one was able to meet the company's financial expectations, Gelfond said.

These poor results could result in IMAX shuttering the other five centers as well, IMAX CFO Patrick S. McClymont suggested during the call:

"Regarding our VR and home theater ventures, in order to continue to focus on reducing costs from new business, we expect to reach a decision on these initiatives during the next few months."

A spokesperson confirmed McClymont's statement, elaborating that the VR centers were always intended as a "pilot program" to test whether VR would be a viable option for IMAX, which has struggled with dwindling audiences. "As we've said since launch, this is a pilot program for us to test whether VR centers in multiplexes is a viable business that could be launched worldwide," a spokesperson told Variety. "We're still in the review process."

But it's likely that if IMAX VR had taken off, this hand-waving of "pilot programs" probably wouldn't have taken place. It's unfortunate then, since VR has been growing in popularity recently, that IMAX wasn't able to tap into the phenomenon.  Last summer, the company's chief business development officer Rob Liste said that IMAX VR was "off to a promising start" and had outlined plans to expand the five centers to 10, but it looks like that won't happen. But maybe newfangled technology like VR or 4DX isn't the answer to getting audiences excited again. Maybe it's just good movies.