FLASHBACK: Iwerks – A Legacy of Entertainment

The following visit to Iwerks’ Burbank headquarters first appeared on the World Enteractive website on August 12, 2005.

Next to the tarmac at the Burbank Airport lies an unassuming building marked with a giant exclamation point. In the same general location for the past few decades, Iwerks Entertainment, comprising one-half of the powerhouse that is Simex-Iwerks, is one of the uleading forces in filmed attractions and large format cinema. Created in 1986 by former Walt Disney Imagineers Don Iwerks (an Oscar winner and son of Ub Iwerks, the artist who first animated Mickey Mouse) and Stan Kinsey, the technicians at Iwerks continue their founders’ legacy that began with the innovative film projection systems developed by WED Enterprises, now Walt Disney Imagineering. I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Mike Frueh, the Vice President and General Manger of Iwerks, who gave me a tour of the facility. An Iwerks veteran, Frueh has been with the company since 1988, having worked his way through the ranks.

In the back of the grey Iwerks building is a huge workroom. Here, Iwerks technicians labor on the motion bases and projection systems utilized by Iwerks attractions. Projectors use a Strong base, with a projector housing built in-house. TurboRide motion bases are also built and refurbished here. In one corner of the warehouse is a screening room, capable of 5/70, 8/70, and 15/70 2D and 3D projection (and soon HD digital). According to Frueh, “Although we do have some 15/70 systems out there, we consider ourselves to be primarily an 8/70 company, which to some extent we always have been.”

Two new 8/70 theaters will be opening soon in historic venues. In Schenectady, NY, the historic Proctor’s Theatre has just received a $1.2 million donation for the installation of an Iwerks system in the restored Carlson Building, to be renamed the GE Theatre. The 450-seat theater will house a 50×60 screen and reconfigurable seats, allowing for a variety of settings for live performances. In San Antonio, TX, the historic 1926 Aztec Theater is undergoing a major renovation which will provide a unique presentation with every large format film. Frueh told me about the Aztec, “The show will start with a silent film accompanied by an antique theater organ – then the latest large format experience. It’s a really unique project that we’re very excited about.”

We spoke briefly about the motion simulators. Frueh pointed out how Iwerks is a cost-effective company for its customers. For a TurboRide being installed in Russia, Iwerks is providing refurbished motion bases for a fraction of the cost of new equipment. By recycling, and making minor changes, the company has been able to provide new solutions with old tools. To take Spongebob Squarepants 3D and turn it into a 4D experience, Frueh says, “we simply added effects to the TurboRide seats, such as leg ticklers, water squirts, and bubbles.” In the 1990’s, Iwerks introduced the Reactor, a portable motion simulator made of two combined tractor trailers with TurboRide seating. “The Reactor was the first simulator to use high definition video. The idea was that it would be able to tour for months at a time, for instance at festivals or concerts, but in the end it was costly.” What to do with all those trailers? “We came up with the idea of leasing the Reactors to zoos. Our parent company, Simex, has a library of educational ridefilms, so it made sense to take our combined film library, along with our Reactor, which we were using less and less, and lease it to a zoo – a place you usually wouldn’t find a simulator year round, for eight, nine, or ten months. It’s become highly successful.” Thus, Zoowerks was born, with locations in zoos throughout North America. According to Steve Barth, the CFO of the Saint Louis Zoo, “We are currently generating higher than projected revenues and our upstart costs were minimal. There is no question the wide ranging film library from Simex-Iwerks, coupled with Learning Resource Guides for school groups, makes for a powerful revenue generating exhibit that is mission specific.”

Also in the 1990’s, the company came up with the idea for Cinetropolis, the precursor to today’s Dave & Buster’s, Gameworks, and DisneyQuest. “That was really Stan Kinsey’s idea,” Frueh told me. “He took a small team and hid in a trailer out back. Finally, he came up with the idea for Cinetropolis. It was a concept that included retail, dining, and the best of all of our film-based attractions. In addition to a TurboRide and an 8/70 theater, the complex also housed two unique forms of entertainment. The first was a 360° video theater, similar to Disney’s Circlevision system. “We had problems with that theater for two reasons,” said Frueh. “First, keeping nine video projectors in synch all the time is very difficult. Second, we came up with the concept of using it for a nightclub. I went to a number of tradeshows for club owners and what I found out is that they weren’t interested in our system. They felt that if people were looking up at the screens, they weren’t going to want to buy drinks.” The other unique attraction was Virtual Adventures, with a journey to collect the Loch Ness Monster’s eggs. “It had promise, but the software just wasn’t there. You had a submarine with six people, each performing a different task, and real time computer animation. Unfortunately, it was a concept ahead of its time.” As was the entire Cinetropolis concept. The Japanese location closed down. “It was just in a bad location,” says Frueh, while the original location at the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut has been downsized. “If you want to know what Cinetropolis ultimately was supposed to look like, just go up the hill to Citywalk. It was designed by the same architectural firm we were working with.”

But rather than go away after the failure of a concept like Cinetropolis, Iwerks has persevered over the past decade. In 1997, the company announced a merger with Showscan, the company established by Douglas Trumbell to promote his 60fps 70mm system. In February 1998, IMAX Corporation’s Ridefilm subsidiary sued Iwerks for anti-trust in an attempt to prevent the merger. In a press release issued by the company, then Iwerks Chairman and CEO, Ray A. Wright, stated, “This lawsuit by Ridefilm is a frivolous suit intended to force Iwerks to negotiate a settlement in our lawsuit against Imax in the Large Format marketplace which is scheduled to go to trial later this year.” Nevertheless, a month later, Iwerks shareholders voted down the merger. In 2002, after years of financial hardship and frequent management changes, Iwerks was acquired by Simex, a Toronto-based supplier of motion simulator

As I told Frueh, one of the oddest things I had ever seen was an IMAX Ridefilm system at the Luxor with the word “Iwerks” spelled out on its projector. “Well, now it all makes sense, doesn’t it?” he joked. “All the other systems – Showscan, Ridefilm – are handled out of Toronto. Down here, we handle what we’ve always been doing – that’s the Iwerks branded experience.” And it’s an experience that covers everything from large format theaters to the latest in 3D, 4D and motion simulator attractions, fields it has dominated for two decades.

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