CINEMACON 2016: Passepartout Award – Phil Groves, IMAX
Interview with Phil Groves, Executive Vice President Global Distribution, IMAX
What was your first job in this industry?
I began in the humble position of ticket taker and usher at the Beverly Theater on Beverly Drive just north of Wilshire, which doesn’t exist anymore, and that led to my becoming the assistant manager at the Abco Theater, which is now an iPic on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood. It was a General Cinema theater at the time, just like the Beverly Theater. When I went over there, it was the second week of the very first Star Wars movie in 1977.
I had other creative projects I was working on: storyboarding, some writing—that kind of thing. I wanted a regular office job, so I took a job as receptionist and growth collector at General Cinema in their offices at Beverly Hills. From there I went to their financial department in accounts payable and held that position for about a year or so, then was promoted into film buying—I think that was in ’81. I worked at General Cinema for a number of years, and then went over to Cineplex Odeon in 1987. I worked there until the Loews acquisition, when it became Loews Cineplex Entertainment in ’98. While I worked there buying for the western half of the U.S., I was also assigned the Magic Johnson theaters, which was sort of a circuit within a circuit. When one of my colleagues went on maternity leave, they handed over the IMAX theaters for me to take care of. It was while I was taking care of those IMAX screens that I learned the business and saw the potential beyond what the business was at that stage of the game, and IMAX was likewise coming to the conclusion that there was a much bigger game to be played with the IMAX format. My involvement with the IMAX screens for Loews Cineplex led to a relationship and contact with Greg Foster, who runs the film entertainment business for IMAX. I was brought over to run their worldwide distribution in the fall of 2003, and I’ve been here ever since.
What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen at IMAX since you first began working with the company?
When I joined I oversaw the release of the first day and date DMR for a feature-length movie, Matrix Revolutions. It was the first time that the IMAX version of the movie release was simultaneous with the broad release of the film. There was a special release of Apollo 13 about a year before that. There was a Star Wars Episode II rerelease in IMAX, followed by Matrix Reloaded, which opened up on the IMAX screens three weeks off the break. So, you can see the sort of slow ascent and buildup to what became the norm for IMAX, which was to be a part of the day and date release. The first full 12 months I was with IMAX we had maybe three or four titles, and probably the biggest difference between now and then was that a DMR title would open up on maybe 50 screens worldwide, whereas this past release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens went out on about 950 screens. And the three or four movies we did a year when I first started has turned into 45 or more worldwide. There was exponential growth on all fronts.
How has your role at IMAX evolved?
At the beginning it was, and still is, a relatively small company, considering the size of its brand. When I came over I was immediately involved in international and domestic distribution; I worked with the studios as well as all of our exhibitor partners. The biggest change between now and then is more scale than anything else. When I joined IMAX I wore many hats. I was also involved in development, and also helped the other departments of IMAX—I got involved in every facet of the business and technology, in the sense of how that new technology would fit into the paradigm of the new theatrical distribution business. When we first began, Warner Bros. was really our prime studio relationship with occasional experimentation, for lack of a better word, from the other studios. Over time the analysis that we did, and the analysis that studios did on their own, began to prove that there was in fact something to this business, where incremental attendance and box office was a consequence of the marriage of the IMAX technology and these amazing tentpole movies.
When did you begin to notice that studios and audiences embraced the IMAX brand, to the point of singling out the format when buying a ticket at the box office?
From the studio standpoint, they realized there was a benefit at the box office. There’s also a benefit with the filmmakers, who are quite taken by the IMAX format. A number of them have also used the IMAX camera in the production of their films. Christopher Nolan is among our biggest advocates on that count. Then, when it comes to the exhibitors, they perceived an ongoing pressure from other forms of entertainment, and so the question they began to ask themselves more and more over time was how can they further differentiate their experience in their theaters versus the home experience, where you have increasingly large flat-screen televisions coming into the marketplace? And IMAX became one of the answers they pursued. For consumers, we know that many of them are the fanboys and fangirls that make up the core IMAX audience; they’re big into technology, they understand it, and their experiences are formed by their earliest moviegoing outings—an IMAX documentary in a museum setting. So they would make the connection between their fond recollections of that experience and the feature films that they are most passionate about.
The growth of IMAX has coincided with the growth of international markets. What’s your take on the international growth of your business?
The international markets are where the greatest growth opportunity exists for the IMAX format. There are markets that were maybe not so mature when we began shopping ourselves around to the exhibitors and to the community, and the markets that were least developed were the ones where we got in with the exhibitors and became part of their growth story. China is probably the most extreme illustration of this phenomenon. Today they have close to 32,000 screens in China, and we’ve been growing right alongside that.
Looking at Europe, I would say the U.K. and the Netherlands are among the strongest markets and where we’ve seen some great growth. We’re starting to make headway in territories like Austria and Germany. We have a great presence in France. We’re finding IMAX screens are going up in African nations, which are markets that offer great potential for growth, and hopefully over time those markets will show some great improvement. Our presence in Korea and Japan is fantastic. We do really well in Hong Kong. Taiwan is also a really good market for us. The IMAX screen has connected incredibly well with the moviegoers in those countries; we’re in about 65 countries these days. We’re in the likeliest of places and sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. We recently opened up a theater in Angola, and we’re doing really well with that.
What’s next for IMAX?
We are constantly developing our technology and looking at ways to improve it. We don’t rest on our laurels; we’re all about being the leader in the marketplace and staying so. There isn’t a studio that we’re not in business with these days, and we’re really proud of those relationships; we’re really proud of the movies that we’re tied to. Filmmakers play a huge role in that. If you look at the biggest and best filmmakers out there, chances are you’ll be looking at somebody who’s also very engaged and a part of the IMAX world as well.