This is where Tom Cruise sits to review footage from his latest action epic, where Chris Nolan makes sure every soldier in Dunkirk looks exactly the way he should. Then, once filmmakers are happy with what they’ve created, it’s the job of the theater’s namesake—IMAX’s white-haired and suit-wearing chief quality officer—to replicate it perfectly in the more than 1,100 other screens it operates all over the world. Keighley is famous within IMAX for flying to random theaters on the release dates for big movies, to make sure everything’s just right.
For more than 45 years, IMAX has defined the absolute highest end of the movie-going experience by controlling every aspect of that experience, from building cameras to developing laser-projection technology to redesigning the seating arrangements so more people have better views. “Why do filmmakers come back time after time after time?” Keighley asks rhetorically. “Because they know the IMAX version of the movie is probably the best version of the movie.”
In recent months, though, IMAX has set its sights on a new technology: virtual reality. IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond believes VR is much more than a toy for gamers or a living-room furniture piece. He sees it as the future of the movie theater—even the future of movies. It’s just not the present. “Anyone who tells you that VR is ready for prime time in its current form is wrong,” says Gelfond, a stout man in his early 60s. “Wrong!”
But that’s precisely the opportunity. Virtual reality is poised to be the biggest shift in the history of filmmaking. “Everything is new, everything is fresh,” says Joe Russo, the director of movies like Captain America: Winter Soldier and the next Avengers flick. “The execution is different, the impact on the audience is different. Some people are going to take some big swings in it, and those are going to define the direction it takes.” From music to games to blockbuster movies, every aspect of entertainment will be changed by (or competing with) VR. And just as MGM and Warner Bros. made a killing at the dawn of the movie industry, there’s a gold rush happening around the future of frame-free cinema.