CJ @ CinemaCon: Interview with Phil Groves of IMAX

By J. Sperling Reich | April 10, 2016 10:00 am PDT
Phil Groves of IMAX

On Monday, April 11th CinemaCon will award Phil Groves from IMAX the CinemaCon Passepartout Award during the International Day luncheon at the annual trade show in Las Vegas. The award is presented each year to an industry executive who has proven their “dedication and commitment to the international marketplace”. Mr. Groves is really a no brainer for the award. A much beloved figure in the industry, Groves joined IMAX in 2003 as its first ever Vice President of Distribution and Development. The hire signaled to the industry that IMAX was serious about distributing a growing list of Hollywood tentpole films using their proprietary DMR (Digital Media Remastering) process which enabled the company to up-convert films from 35mm into the IMAX format.

At the time he was hired only three DMR titles had been released, starting with the first, “Apollo 13” in September of 2002. Groves was instrumental in helping grow the IMAX DMR business which has been so successful that by 2015 upwards of 44 blockbusters were released into IMAX theatres. These days, cinemas clamor for IMAX titles as much as distributors try and reserve IMAX screens for event films months in advance of a release. Groves role has also changed within IMAX, meaning he’s worked his way up to his own blockbuster title; Senior Vice President, IMAX Corporation and Executive Vice President, Global Distribution IMAX Entertainment.

IMAX wasn’t Groves first stop in the motion picture business. I first ran into him around 2002 when he was a the Vice President of Film for Loews Cineplex Entertainment. At the time I was helping develop web based software designed to help film buyers communicate with distributors. Groves was progressive enough to realize that at some point such applications would be used by exhibitors. Thus, he had me meet with his executive in charge of trailer placement so we could include such functionality in the finished product. While we were more than 10 years ahead of our time, Groves was right – film buyers at large circuits now rely on similar software to determine everything from film booking to showtime scheduling.

Groves lives in southern California with his wife Carol and daughter Casey. He works out of the IMAX offices in Playa Vista (an area of Los Angeles that has come to be known as Silicon Beach due to all the high tech companies located there). He’s thankful motion picture exhibition and distribution, at least the areas he’s involved in, is a phone business and his travel time is limited to 4 or 5 big business trips a year with a handful of smaller jaunts in between. We managed to catch up with Groves by email the week before CinemaCon and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his career and IMAX.

Celluloid Junkie: What is your first memory of going to the cinema to see a film? What movie were you seeing?

Phil Groves: My first recollection of seeing a movie in a theater was “2001: A Space Odyssey”, when I was about ten. There may have been something sooner, a re-issue of “Bambi” perhaps, but “2001” is the one that made an indelible impression, and set in motion a life-long love of movies and science.

CJ: What made you decide to work in the motion picture industry? And are you pursuing the career or profession you anticipated early on? How did you go from screenwriting and storyboarding to film buying for Loews and ultimately to IMAX?

Phil Groves: Actually, my first love was a possible career in the aerospace industry – a dream I nurtured while living on the East Coast. After moving to Los Angeles when I was 17, and getting a summer job at a movie theater, my more creative side found sustenance in this amazing world we call cinema. The screenwriting and storyboarding, along with other creative pursuits, occurred in parallel with a career on the business side of Showbiz. I saw greater success as a film buyer for a number of theater chains; and then, of course, IMAX, which has been an amazing experience. I have in development here at IMAX a film called “Asteroid Impact”, a project where all of my interests get to merge into one mission.

CJ: Like all industries, the motion picture business changes with time. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve experienced and what were some of the changes that surprised you the most?

Phil Groves: Of course, IMAX was seismic for me, personally; but converting feature films into the IMAX format was also a significant change in the theatrical space. Filmmakers seek out the IMAX screens for their incredible titles. The other big change is the increasing significance of the international market, with the meteoric growth of China driving much of it. IMAX made itself a very good partner early on in China, and has grown right along with the market.

CJ: When you first started working with IMAX they had already released a handful of Hollywood titles. Were you brought onboard to increase the number of titles being released in IMAX?

Phil Groves: Greg Foster, CEO of IMAX Entertainment, is the engine that brings our film slate together, with me aiding and abetting. My primary focus is, and was, to make IMAX fit more seamlessly into the theatrical ecosystem, with my talented team and me coordinating with studio distribution and our exhibitor partners.

CJ: Was it challenging to convince studios to release in IMAX?

Phil Groves: Yes, at first. Warner Bros was the first studio that got the joke, and saw the potential IMAX had for their titles with a day and date release strategy. With each title came the proof of concept, in the box office data. We provided studios with analysis, and they also did their own. Over time, the win-win for the studios and exhibitor alike became more self-evident and foreseeable.

CJ: What have been the biggest challenges in distributing Hollywood releases in IMAX?

Phil Groves: The IMAX global network has a bandwidth of one auditorium. This creates a dilemma since we are often faced with a demand for titles in IMAX which overlap in their release dates. We work with all of the studios, and hate having to say “no” to any of them.

CJ: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the way studios handle an IMAX release since you first started working with the company?

Phil Groves: The most notable are the variety of ways to leverage the IMAX involvement with a film. Apart from the incremental box office the IMAX screens generate, IMAX also offers additional hooks with which a studio can use to market their films. For instance, when a filmmaker uses the IMAX cameras, this added feature allows studios and media a variety of ways to talk about the movie to the consumers. The most passionate moviegoers seek out the best way to view their film of choice, and the more bells and whistles there are to enhance the experience, the more they are driven to seek out the IMAX screens.

CJ: IMAX continues to grow its presence around the world. Is it correct to say you are especially focused on the Chinese market? Are there any other markets IMAX has its sights set on in the near future?

Phil Groves: There are other people at IMAX focused on getting IMAX technology into the theaters, and they are a great team. China has certainly been a huge focus, but there are other growth markets which have our attention, including ones like India and Brazil.

CJ: Which international markets have been most receptive to IMAX? Alternatively, which have presented the most obstacles?

Phil Groves: Newer markets with a growing theatrical business, like China, seem to connect best to IMAX; but it really isn’t the nationality so much as it is the cinephile everywhere that connects with IMAX. In markets where IMAX did not pre-exist before that first IMAX screen, we are faced with explaining to the consumer “What is IMAX?” Fortunately, we have a terrific marketing team and they have a way of getting the word out.

CJ: Are there territories where IMAX has saturated the market (e.g. North America) and may not be able to significantly increase its screen count?

Phil Groves: North America is certainly the closest to saturation, but even here we still see room to grow. We are in about 65 countries, with more coming. We deliver double-digit percentages of the global BO with a single digit share of the screens. Lucky for IMAX, the world is a big place.

CJ: What are some of the noteworthy challenges you’ve faced working various territories around the world when it comes to film distribution and exhibition?

Phil Groves: With many titles throughout the year, some markets have release dates which are staggered off the Domestic schedule. This dynamic creates “knots” in the timing of titles for a specific territory, with titles overlapping. Conversely, this also creates “gaps” in the schedule, which offer up the chance to include other titles we couldn’t pursue otherwise. This push-me/pull-you effect keeps things interesting with our partners, but we always work out good solutions in the end. The world is not only big, but it’s round too.

CJ: It seems every time one turns around an exhibitor is opening their own flavor of premium large format. Is that one of the biggest issues IMAX now faces? Is it even fair or proper to be comparing IMAX against private label PLF?

Phil Groves: The presence of IMAX screens has made it clear there is an audience that craves an elevated, out-of-home experience. So it is no surprise others try to create their own brand which attempts to suggest the same – especially if there is a theater with an IMAX screen down the street. The comparison between IMAX and a PLF is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison, since IMAX is involved with a film’s production (often starting at pre-production) before it ends up in an IMAX theater where our projection and sound technology then take over. The version of the film destined for an IMAX screen can only play an IMAX screen. A typical DCP headed for a PLF screen can also play on any other projector in the complex.

CJ: In looking back, during your time at IMAX have there been any projects, deals, releases, etc. that you wish you could do over or tweak in order to better the outcome?

Phil Groves: Our filmmaker and studio partners are the best. I don’t think there is much we can do to improve on them. However, it is the movie business, and movies insert a degree of unpredictability into the equation. All we can do is learn from our successes and failures to inform our thinking on the next project. The good news is we succeed far more often than not.

CJ: What are your predictions for the motion picture exhibition and distribution industries over the next 10 years? How do you see IMAX fitting into the future of the business?

Phil Groves: There is the ongoing concern about the collapse of the holdback time between theatrical releases and home viewing. But I think it’s possible we may not recognize the “collapse” of a window as such. It seems to me the studios are already reacting to the distinct needs of theatrical and home video by focusing on event films for the movie theaters, and other content for the home flat-screen. I believe film lovers will always seek out big, communal ways to enjoy their entertainment, and IMAX will always be there to serve that appetite.

CJ: What part of your job do you think fellow industry professionals would be surprised you spend a lot of time focusing on?

Phil Groves: Many may not be aware of the long range planning that is necessary in creating the IMAX line-up of titles. When working with Greg Foster to target the titles we feel deserve the IMAX screen, we are often doing this years in advance of the film’s release date. This is especially important for movies where the filmmaker wants to employ the entire suite of IMAX tools, the IMAX camera being only one of them.

CJ: Is there one film release or achievement in your time at IMAX you’re especially proud of?

Phil Groves: To me, you’re asking which of my children is the fairest. But if I had to pick a favorite, it would be “Interstellar”. Apart from the challenges and effort that went into mounting its release in both IMAX film and digital, it is one of my favorite films of all time. It portrays the astounding notion of travel between the stars with convincing authenticity, and masterfully combines this very Sci-Fi premise with a resonant and poignant story about a father and his daughter. It literally blends every one of my passions into one movie.

J. Sperling Reich