It all started at CinemaCon, two years ago to be exact. Jocelyn Bouyssy, CEO of France’s CGR Cinemas, one of the country’s leading exhibition circuits, was making the rounds of the trade show floor and private meeting rooms where the industry’s most prominent technology vendors displayed their latest offerings. One such presentation, a demo of Philips LightVibes—a unique visual-media system delivering ambient video and surround lighting effects to viewers’ peripheral field of vision—held his attention. There was something there, thought Bouyssy, who had set out to develop a premium format with a sustainable business model that would work for smaller auditoriums of 150 to 200 seats. It would have to offer a truly premium experience for the moviegoer—spectacular, yes, but also cozy enough to be welcoming in a theater’s smaller rooms. The LightVibes solution had that potential, Bouyssy thought, particularly when complemented by other premium offerings in the way of sound and image technology. By September 2016, the idea had turned into a reality: CGR made the decision to launch ICE (Immersive Cinema Experience), an exclusive proprietary premium format combining the visual impact of LightVibes, Christie laser projection, Dolby Atmos sound, and reserved premium seating that respects strict stadium-seating guidelines.
As often happens at CGR, the lead time between the idea and the execution was quite short. The first ICE auditorium was unveiled on December 14, 2016, with the French premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Although the film itself had not been encoded (and therefore was not screened) in the LightVibes format, CGR was nevertheless able to test out the appeal of its new premium concept by enabling the LightVibes technology during the film’s pre-show. The experience generated significant buzz on social media: a mix of excitement from the audience by what they saw, and frustration that the full ICE experience with LightVibes was limited to the pre-show. “We had a tough time,” Bouyssy says of the initial rollout. “But it was a defining moment for us; it confirmed there was clearly an appetite for this new experience.”
CGR Cinemas immediately decided to add three more ICE auditoriums in other locations. The circuit also began to engage studios and filmmakers to convince them to embrace their new premium format. By summer 2017, CGR emerged with their biggest catch for their fledgling ICE offering: Luc Besson. Venerated by French audiences, Besson was in the final stages of bringing Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to theaters—a film that wound up being the third highest grossing of the year in France. With Besson’s blessing, CGR developed a version of Valerian using LightVibes. Demand for LightVibes–enabled screenings at CGR was so high that the circuit even added temporary LightVibes installations in select auditoriums.
According to Bouyssy, CGR Cinemas managed to claim 20 percent of Valerian’s market share—a significant increase from the 9 to 12 percent of the French box office it usually represents. Valerian screenings were sold out five times a day for seven consecutive weeks in the circuit’s ICE auditoriums, despite a €15 ticket price—almost twice as much as the standard admission. CGR had found its proprietary premium format.
The Valerian results accelerated discussions with the major studios, most of whom accepted releasing ICE versions of some of their upcoming titles. Sony went up first with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, followed by Fox with Maze Runner: The Death Cure, and, most recently, Universal’s Pacific Rim: Uprising and Disney Nature’s Blue. “This is a spectacular format for spectacular movies,” adds Bouyssy, who admits that not all ICE titles have been a hit with audiences. “Our only disappointments have been with some successful French comedies that proved not to be suited for this experience.”
As part of the circuit’s efforts to generate further adoption of the ICE experience from the major studios, CGR undertook the responsibility to create LightVibes DCPs themselves in a dedicated auditorium at its headquarters in La Rochelle. As of today, CGR operates 15 ICE auditoriums and plans to add 10 more by the end of the year. They have even licensed the ICE concept to an independent French cinema outside its circuit.
Much like CJ 4DPLEX, the exhibition technology and innovation arm of South Korean exhibition giant CJ CGV, CGR is opening its ICE technology to other exhibitors. ICE will have a presence at CinemaCon 2018, with CGR looking to meet with studios, exhibitors, and installation companies as part of a planned expansion beyond the French circuit. As part of its partnership with Philips, CGR can expand the ICE format in other countries with new partners. The circuit’s ambition for the concept doesn’t end there; Bouyssy admits he’ll be arriving in Las Vegas with a goal in mind. “We want to open the first ICE auditorium in the United States in Los Angeles,” he says. “We are ready to do our part and work as an active partner to make that happen, and having a presence at CinemaCon is the first step. As with any new innovation in the cinema, seeing is believing!”