Boasting a network of more than 700 screens in France, CGR Cinemas became a powerhouse in Gallic exhibition by developing markets beyond the country’s metropolitan hubs, and by foregrounding technological advancements. Of late, the cinema chain has looked outward, exporting its proprietary Immersive Cinema Experience (ICE) model to Spain, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Estonia.
Beginning with their move toward fully digital projection in 2007, the CGR Group has put a premium on technical polish, especially as it targets filmgoers in more suburban and ex-urban environments.
“In order to expand they had to address a more untapped market,” explains CGR exec Guillaume Thomine Desmazures, who joined as ICE Theaters senior VP sales and strategy in 2020. “That was the key to CGR’s success. They would open theaters where there were none, addressing a public that didn’t want to drive 100km to go to the movies.”
But in order to get those filmgoers into their cars to begin with – especially in an age marked by a plethora of streaming options – the cinema chain had to offer something out of the ordinary. And that’s where the ICE experience came in.
Developed in-house and launched with the release of Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” in 2017, the ICE formatted theater marries 4K laser projection and Dolby Atmos sound with a row of LED panels on either side of the auditorium, filling the viewer’s peripheral vision with bespoke visuals that reverberate the action on screen.
“It’s like surround sound but for light,” explains Thomine Desmazures. “Sound went from mono to stereo to surround to 7.1 Dolby Atmos by adding speakers to create more immersion. We placed those panels just like speakers in order to give light another dimension. Our eyes view the world from a 220-degree angle, so we simply replicate what you would see if you were inside the film.”
As Thomine Desmazures sees it, while the LED panels offer a dazzling embellishment to the theatrical experiences, the ICE experience goes further than pizzazz. “You need to build a full experience, and not just limit it to one element,” says the exec. “If your image is not crystal clear and the sound is not great, people will come once and the subsequent word of mouth will destroy the business.”
And so, alongside the laser projector and the 53 sound sources, each theater comes decked with a stadium set-up of curved recliner seats. And if the larger seating arrangement somewhat limits auditorium capacity, that is very much the intent.
“It’s like business class but for theaters,” says Thomine Desmazures. “You’re on the same plane going to the same destination, only you enjoy the experience so much more. Audiences are willing to pay more for something that goes beyond the traditional cinema experience.”
Though pricing varies from territory to territory, the usual premium fee adds 50% to a standard ticket price, while ICE theaters average around 120 seats per room, offering an added bit of cachet.
And when it comes to blockbusters, audiences certainly seek it out. Recent blockbusters like “The Batman” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” did more than half their CGR admissions in ICE theaters, which encompass only 40 of the cinema chain’s 700 domestic screens. In the case of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” those 40 ICE theaters delivered more than €3 million ($3.2 million) in box office alone, while titles like “Dune” and “No Time to Die” each boasted a 300% increase in occupancy rates compared with standard auditoriums.
“We saw that even if you reduce capacity by putting in wider seats, as long as you offer a premium experience audiences are willing to pay for, your occupancy rate is through the roof,” says Thomine Desmazures.
Since 2017, ICE Theaters has exported this model to partners in Los Angeles, Spain and Saudi Arabia, and promises more to come. Just last month, ICE Theaters opened a new outlet in Barcelona that offered 85 seats with a 65% upcharge and screened sold-out showings for its first three days. Just yesterday, ICE Theaters announced a new partnership with Estonia’s Apollo Cinema to build a large-format theater in Tallinn.
“It’s not the kind of experience you’re happy to try once in a lifetime,” says Thomine Desmazures. “It’s just a new way to enjoy a film. Our product is flashy enough to attract younger audiences and classy enough to retain senior audiences. That’s why we’ll keep building more ICE theaters and keep on expanding.”