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Movie theaters are becoming roller coasters, whether you like it or not

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Formats like 4DX are more theme park than movie

Image: Pixar

Today, Cars 3 becomes the first Pixar film to be distributed in 4DX, the motion-based “immersive” film format from Seoul’s CJ 4DPlex. 4DX is one of a handful of formats that attempt to turn traditional, passive filmgoing into something more experiential: seats shake, tilt, and pivot, while environmental effects like air blasts, scents, sprays of water, and in-theater fog and strobe lighting echo what’s happening on the screen. Imagine Star Tours, only while you’re watching a movie, and you’ll get the idea.

4DX and its competitors have largely been focusing on bombastic superhero movies and action flicks, and while animated 4DX films are nothing new — Despicable Me was released in the format back in 2010, and last year everything from Disney’s The Jungle Book to Kung Fu Panda 3 got the treatment — it’s hard to not see the Pixar release as an inflection point. One of the most prestigious modern animated film studios, winner of 16 Academy Awards, is having its latest film released in a format that is arguably more of theme park experience than a cinematic one.

It’s symptomatic of an industry struggling to give audiences something they simply can’t get online or from their television at home. And whether it’s extra-large screens or vibrating seats, the concept of making filmgoing “immersive” has become the latest trend. But enveloping audiences in a fictional world requires more than just technological add-ons. And in the mad rush to entice audiences into theaters, these new formats could undermine the most important reason to go to the movies of all.

4dx chair

It’s not a big surprise that technologies like 4DX — like IMAX or 3D before them — are appealing to theater owners and studios. Movie attendance in the United States is shrinking, and increases in ticket prices are what actually drive the perception of a healthy, robust theatrical business. According to data from the National Association of Theater Owners, the average ticket price in the US has increased more than 30 percent over the last 10 years, while North American box office grosses have actually grown just 24 percent. It’s a war of attrition and Hollywood is losing. And with so many entertainment options available to audiences, these technology-driven theatrical experiences offer a dual benefit: they’re something viewers can’t re-create in their living rooms, and they simultaneously justify a more expensive ticket.

But just because something is appealing from a business perspective doesn’t mean it makes for a great moviegoing experience. After James Cameron’s Avatar legitimized 3D filmmaking, audiences were assaulted with a torrent of poorly converted 3D films that still give the format a bad name. In similar fashion, the experience of motion-driven, “4D” filmgoing can range wildly, with my colleague Sam Byford calling 4DX “a gimmick at best” after watching Iron Man 3, to saying that 4D was a must-watch for The Force Awakens.

I recently went to a 4DX screening of Wonder Woman in Los Angeles, and I wouldn’t characterize the overall experience as pleasant. The extra $8 per ticket was the first sticking point, and then both my wife and I felt vaguely queasy after viewing just the 4DX hype trailer. Things progressed as you’d expect from there. Watching a film in 4DX can be a jarring, jolting experience — but in fairness, so can a theme park ride. 4DX, however, touts itself as an “immersive multi-sensory cinematic experience.” That magic phrase — immersive experience — is the thread that unites everything I write about in this column, and it’s where 4DX fails completely.

There are two distinctly different elements to the 4DX experience: the motion of the seat, and the environmental effects. The seat tilts, shakes, and rolls to essentially track the movement of the camera from shot to shot. It’s Camera Operator: The Simulator, which would be fine by itself if it wasn’t for the environmental effects. Those cue off of literally anything. In one moment during Wonder Woman, 3D arrows being shot toward the audience triggered blasts of air, creating the illusion that the film was spilling out of the screen and into the auditorium. In another moment, though, I watched a character fall off a horse and land on the ground — triggering a quick, uncomfortable jab in my back from what the company calls a “back kicker.”

Image: Warner Bros.

As a piece of immersive entertainment, it’s utterly discordant. There’s not a coherent experience with a consistent point of view that’s being delivered to the audience; instead, it plays like a collection of effects shoved in wherever they can be justified. As 4DX creative director Catherine Yi later explained to me on the phone, the company uses two different editors: one for motion, and one for the environmental effects. Those individuals stay in constant communication during the process, but there’s no hard-and-fast rule about perspective or continuity that the company abides by in crafting its experiences.

“At the very beginning stages of our company, nobody had a lot of experience doing this. So in the beginning, our editors were really going by trial and error,” she said. “What ended up happening was if you just choose one character, or one point of view, there are a lot of holes [in the effects and motion], and it becomes a little bit jarring. [So] we try things. And if it works, and if it seems seamless and natural, then we go with that.”

The problem is that seems to be a philosophy based on maximizing the usage of the effects, rather than their utility. The 4DX experience with Wonder Woman didn’t pull me into the film, it continuously shoved me out. When I’m wondering why my seat is punching me in the back instead of focusing on the outcome of the battle on-screen, it’s a sign that the format is actively harming the movie in question.

That’s largely because systems like 4DX are essentially grafting motion simulator ride tricks onto mediums that were never designed with them in mind. When going on a ride like Flight of Passage at Disney’s new Avatar land, or taking a trip on Star Tours or Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, there’s a carefully choreographed dance taking place. The on-screen visuals and environmental cues work together with the ride vehicle to deliver an experience that simulates something very specific. Audiences can actually feel like they’re heading into a space battle, or taking a ride on the back of a Banshee. Technologies like 4DX, on the other hand, can’t do that because the movies they’re piggybacking on were never designed as first-person experiences.

The end result definitely can’t be duplicated at home — but it turns what could be a satisfying filmgoing experience into a roller-coaster ride of distraction. Perhaps that’s a net positive when dealing with a movie that has no coherent story or characters worth following — Transformers: Age of Extinction was the first 4DX film released in the US, after all — but for something like Wonder Woman, it actively prevented me from enjoying a film I had already seen once and liked.

The same kind of awkward fit applies when looking at other new technologies that bill themselves as enhanced cinematic experiences. 4DX sister company ScreenX is pushing a new panoramic format that uses two additional screens placed at the edges of the traditional frame for a wider field of view. (The latest Pirates of the Caribbean served as its first Hollywood blockbuster.) Barco’s Escape format has been doing something similar for the past few years, with movies like Star Trek Beyond getting the extra-wide treatment. But for the most part these are cases where supplemental content is added to the extra screens well after the actual film has been storyboarded and shot, keeping them from feeling like organic parts of the film itself.

Despite the problems, however, there’s no sign of these format explorations slowing. 4DX currently has 380 screens in 48 different countries, with its nine US locations expanding, thanks to a partnership with Regal Cinemas. “We’re a household name in places like Korea, China, and in Latin American countries,” Yi says. “Because the US is so much bigger, we’re still working on becoming a household name here.”

And in terms of sheer revenue, that ticket surcharge does pay off. According to the company, 4DX theaters showing Wonder Woman averaged more than three times as much box office revenue as non-4DX screens in the same locations, with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales pushing that number even higher. Granted, these numbers are largely due to the higher ticket prices versus any innate audience reaction — but for theater owners, that may not make much of a difference.

If it’s able to scale, that kind of financial result may be what drives the industry even further in this direction. If films became available for home rental sooner than they currently are — and all signs point to this happening eventually — then perhaps turning movie theaters into roller coasters, or VR arcades, becomes the way forward. Whether or not it actually benefits the filmgoing experience will be secondary in that case; it will simply be a question of economic survival.

Thankfully, there are plenty of other new options that focus almost exclusively on improving the quality of the presentation itself. IMAX’s upcoming film release of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, or Dolby Vision’s laser projection system, enhance the traditional cinematic experience. They don’t try to tack on “immersive” bells and whistles or expanded-screen gimmicks. They simply let the movies themselves be as good as they can possibly be when audiences sit down with their popcorn.

Of course, that approach only works if the films themselves are good and connect with audiences. When every blockbuster is a tired sequel, or a poor attempt to start yet another expanded cinematic universe… well, maybe then a roller coaster — even a bad one — isn’t the most abominable idea. I do still need to see The Mummy, after all.