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Providing a Whirl on Motion Simulators : Business: Cinema Ride hopes to cash in on a virtual reality adventure. But the competition is growing fierce.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At a recent amusement park industry convention in Miami, Mitch Francis, chairman of a new company named Cinema Ride Inc. felt the heat of competition. There were up to 100 companies at the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions annual gathering claiming to be in Francis’ field, marketing what’s known as “motion simulator” rides for theme parks, shopping malls and movie theaters.

Most of these companies, according to Francis, don’t have motion simulator equipment or the special films these attractions require, or meaningful financial resources. “They’re simply wanna-bes,” said Francis.

But Cinema Ride isn’t that much further along itself. In October, Cinema Ride did open its first--and to date, only--motion simulator mini-theater at the glitzy Forum Shops mall adjacent to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

In the first 75 days, more than 85,000 people have paid $4 each to experience Cinema Ride’s attraction, and Francis said, that site is profitable. There are four, 15-seat mini-theaters in Las Vegas, and Cinema Ride’s computer-generated, three-dimensional films have computer-controlled seats that move in concert with the on-screen action. Cinema Ride’s patrons don 3-D glasses to experience the sensation of objects leaping off the screen. Cinema Ride’s movies are about five minutes long, and are thin on plot: one is about a space trip, another on a submarine, another is about a trip through a haunted graveyard run. “What we have here is a whole amusement park in 5,000 square feet,” said Francis.

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To its credit, Cinema Ride now has enough money to try and make a go of it. Last fall Cinema Ride raised around $7 million in its initial public stock offering. Although the company hasn’t reported its financial results for the Dec. 31 quarter, Francis said the company won’t be profitable. Francis hopes that a movie theater in Chula Vista will soon go ahead and buy some of its motion simulator rides as well.

But the number of companies competing in what is sometimes called virtual reality entertainment is growing, lured by talk of a trend toward “location-based entertainment,” such as motion simulator rides, under the same roof with restaurants and shops. Despite all the hype, even the field’s bigger players, such as Iwerks Entertainment in Burbank and Showscan Entertainment in Culver City are still losing money.

Francis is hoping that the compactness of Cinema Ride’s motion simulator theaters will help find buyers. They are built to fit under 15-foot ceilings, so the systems can occupy most existing ground floors of commercial sites, which Francis believes is an advantage to some rivals, whose systems often require larger spaces.

Real estate was Francis’ first business. During the ‘80s, the Colorado native developed office buildings and shopping centers in Southern California. Then the commercial real estate market fell apart and Francis decided to strike a new course. On a business trip to Las Vegas, he checked out a motion simulator ride at the Excalibur hotel. He was enthralled.

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In 1991, Francis joined forces with Gary Packman, another commercial real estate executive, who has since become Cinema Ride’s chief financial officer. The two then began researching the motion simulator entertainment field and explored avenues of possible financing. During this period, Francis had to file for personal bankruptcy.

Finding the capital to start Cinema Ride wasn’t easy. Francis and Packman looked to real estate clients for backing without any luck. Eventually investment banker A.S. Goldmen & Co. lined up private investors who put in around $3 million. Then last September, the company had its public stock offering.

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Landing the lease at the well-trafficked Forum Shops was a major coup. A spokeswoman for the Forum Shops’ owner, the Simon Property Group of Indianapolis, said the company was swayed, in part, by Francis and Packman’s persistence.

Now Francis has an agreement with Nickelodeon Theater Co., an owner and operator of movie theaters, to buy two, 15-seat motion simulator theaters for $910,000, and to rent Cinema Ride’s film library, for an attraction in a Nickelodeon theater complex in Chula Vista. If the deal goes ahead, there is a provision that says Nickelodeon can insist Cinema Ride buy back the equipment if the attraction doesn’t generate sufficient profits. Nickelodeon insisted on these provisions because of Cinema Ride’s short history.

Cinema Ride’s business plan is to own and operate these motion simulator attractions, or just sell the equipment outright. It will lease the film library, which currently contains five ride films. Cinema Ride hires production companies to create these flicks, which cost from $100,000 to several million dollars to produce. But given the competition, Cinema Ride will be under continual pressure to improve the quality of its library.

At the moment, the market is flooded with simple ride films, mostly involving chase scenes, said Nick Winslow, executive vice president of Warner Bros. recreation enterprises in Burbank. That’s not enough to hook patrons long term, because “people won’t ride simulators just for that,” said Winslow. Warner Bros. itself has experimented with this field as well, and has built an elaborate “Batman Adventure” motion simulator ride in its movie theme park in Australia.

Then there’s the question of how much demand there is for these small motion simulator outlets. Much of the success depends upon finding the right locations, said Jill Bensley, president of J B Research Co. in Ojai, a market research company. “Finding that crossover between retail, entertainment and restaurants is not a slam dunk. Just because people went out to dinner doesn’t mean they want to be jostled in a motion simulator ride,” she said.

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Bensley also noted that all of the major entertainment companies have studied this market. “The big players are getting into it and they’re going to do it right, " she said. Sony Retail Entertainment, an arm of Sony Corp., for one, plans to open a number of shopping-entertainment centers around the country.


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