4D Movies Soon to Make Their U.S. Premiere

Regal Cinemas’ L.A. Live Stadium 14 multiplex is slated to feature the first “4D” movie theater in the United States. Regal inked a deal last month with the Seoul, Korea-based CJ 4DPlex to install the company’s first Stateside 4DX system at the downtown Los Angeles site.

4D is the latest theatrical innovation designed to lure audiences away from competing streaming and DVD/Blu-ray entertainment platforms.

Theaters today are under pressure to compete with a broadening array of home entertainment delivery systems – like the DVD/Blu-ray-based Redbox, and popular streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Redbox Instant, Hulu, and others. Smart TVs and inexpensive hardware devices designed to enable HML- and HDMI-port equipped standard televisions to wirelessly stream online content have made it increasingly convenient for viewers to stay at home and away from the cineplex. Newest among these devices are the $35 Google Chromecast Streaming Media Player, $49 Roku Streaming Stick, and $99 Amazon Fire TV. The latter was just announced Wednesday. Netflix and Amazon have further upped the ante over the last few years by creating their own exclusive content.

CJ 4DPlex answers the challenge with their 4DX system. Their aim is to make movies a more immersive and total sensory experience, one no longer limited to visual and audio appeal but now augmenting those with movement, tactile sensation, and smell. Per last Sunday’s Fandango.com article, movie audiences can now appreciate the cinematic medium with added “motion, wind, strobe, fog, mist, rain and ‘scent-based’ effects.” The sensations are delivered via air and mist blasts, seat bladders that expand and contract, seat vibrators and low-frequency speakers, seat tilt mechanisms, pneumatic leg and neck “ticklers”, lightning and strobe effects, and scent dispensers. While the theater industry has experimented with similar technologies since the 1980s – primarily in theme park venues — the goal of CJ 4DPlex and a handful of similar integrators is to bring the 4D process to standard multiplex cinemas.

4DX theater seats
4DX theater seats
The 4DX process was demonstrated this week in Las Vegas at CinemaCon, an annual film industry exhibition for studios, distribution companies, and theater owners. Ironically, in their study released at CinemaCon on Tuesday, the Motion Picture Association of America showed frequent moviegoing attendance of 18-24 year-olds dropping in 2013 by a precipitous 17%. The age group has been a key target audience of Hollywood studios for decades. The same study showed frequent 12-24 year-old filmgoers are likely spending much of what was previously their time at the movies instead watching content on a variety of other screens.

Clearly, theaters have a challenge – one not unfamiliar. The 4D process has precedent.

In the 1950s, movie studios developed and popularized unique film- and cinema-based experiences to compete with the then-new innovation of television — experiences that couldn’t be replicated at the time on TV. Among these were the original 3D film process, and a variety of widescreen film and projection technologies that used anamorphic lenses and/or deeply curved screens and multiple synchronized projectors to yield a bigger-screen and more captivating moviegoing experience. Today’s 3D processes and IMAX screens are modern versions of these, and have become popular for a similar reason – to draw viewers who might otherwise favor the breadth of programing available online and the convenience of watching that content without leaving home, whether on their TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.

So will 4D get those viewers into theaters?

One can’t help to be reminded of William Castle. The producer of several late-1950s/early ’60s thriller, horror, and science-fiction B-movie cult favorites was known for enhancing his screenings with gimmicks intended to startle audiences at his movies’ key points. In 1959′s House on the Haunted Hill, when a skeleton rises from a vat of acid, Castle flew a skeleton on a wire over the audience. In the same year’s The Tingler, when the titular sci-fi creatures terrorize an onscreen theater, motors attached to real theater patrons’ seats vibrated beneath them. In 1960′s 13 Ghosts, moviegoers brave enough to withstand the shock could view the movie’s ghosts only by looking through red cellophane glasses provided by Castle.

Then there’s the short-lived 1970′s Sensurround. Originally employed in 1974′s disaster spectacle Earthquake, the process employed specially-made audio speakers during the movie’s ground-shaking sequences to amplify low-frequency sounds that were more felt than heard.

Does 4DX sound like the same sort of gimmick?

To-date, 58 titles have been mastered in the new format, including Hollywood blockbusters Noah, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Gravity, Frozen, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. While the United States is new territory, CJ 4DPlex already has installations in 91 theaters throughout 23 countries, including China, Chile, Hungary, Japan, Vietnam, and India. The company is currently planning other U.S. installations.

Regal Cinemas hasn’t yet announced what the surcharge will be for 4D screenings, but American moviegoers will have the chance to sample this latest movie sensation this Summer. The 100-seat L.A. Live Stadium 14 theater is expected to be ready for audiences by late June/early July.