BUSINESS

Moving 4-D seats help punctuate summer fare like 'Jurassic World,' 'Ant-Man,' 'San Andreas'

06/22/2015 10:56 EDT | Updated 06/22/2016 05:59 EDT
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Mike Koenig sat back in his seat for a recent screening of "Mad Max: Fury Road." But this was no ordinary theatre chair.

As the theatre darkened and death machines rumbled across the desert on screen, Koenig's chair rumbled with them. As bullets whizzed by Furiosa, the movie's heroine played by Charlize Theron, puffs of air shot out of Koenig's headrest. Wall-mounted fans in the theatre gusted desert winds and fog machines pumped smoke from the mayhem.

The 46-year-old software salesman's Wednesday matinee was a "4-D" movie experience, the kind of rollicking thrill factory once reserved for theme park rides.

With domestic movie theatre attendance stagnant in recent years, more theatre owners are looking to provide these immersive jolts to goose both moviegoers and box office revenues.

"I loved it," Koenig said, having forked over $26.25 for a "4DX" ticket at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live Stadium 14 in downtown Los Angeles. "If you ever rode bumper cars as a kid, you'd like this."

Motion seats touting a "4-D" experience can sometimes occupy a row or two in an otherwise normal theatre. More souped-up models like the one at L.A. Live can take up an entire auditorium decked out with strobe lights and pneumatic lifts.

With the summer movie season in full swing, movies like "San Andreas," ''Jurassic World," ''Ant-Man" and "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" are being programmed by motion artists with the bumps and sways necessary for the seats to come to life.

It's one way for theatre owners to offer something that can't be experienced at home for the average fan.

Shelby Russell, vice-president of marketing for L.A. Live, says the 100-seat auditorium that was retrofitted with the 4DX system last June has tripled its revenues, thanks both to greater attendance and the $8 ticket upcharge, not to mention the $4 add-on if the movie is also shown in 3-D.

The setup has helped attract visitors to L.A. who come for the theme parks and studio tours and drop by the 4DX theatre for another thrill, he said.

4DX is backed by Korean conglomerate CJ Group, which has set up 170 theatres in 33 countries, but just one in the U.S. at L.A. Live. Another company, Torrance, California-based MediaMation Inc., has outfitted about two dozen theatres worldwide with its similar "MX4D" system, but there's just one in the U.S. in the L.A. suburb of Oxnard.

Canada's D-Box Inc. leads the pack with nearly 330 installations of its "MFX" seats at theatres worldwide, including 175 in North America, most of which are in the U.S. However, its seats only sway, vibrate and jostle, and are usually placed among non-moving seats in auditoriums. While the less-expensive installation cost has helped D-Box grow quickly at theatres, there's no snow, fog, scents or strobe lights. The range of motion is more subtle, though the company argues it's also more refined than newer entrants.

"We are 15 years ahead of them," said motion artist Jesse Auclair, during a visit to D-Box's encoding studio in Burbank. The company's experience stretches back to the time it made motion seats for wealthy home theatre owners along with industrial-grade car and flight simulators. "We've evolved so much, it feels so much better now."

When multiple vibrations are layered on top of each other, for example — say when a rumbling tank fires off a shot and you feel the shell exploding — D-Box encoders take care to avoid harmonic distortions by keeping vibration frequencies at least an octave apart, Auclair said. The company also has thousands of pre-set rumbles, which speaks to its experience in the field.

CJ4D Plex, behind the 4DX format, says its experience offers many more sensations than other seat-movers. Leg ticklers reach out to give you a surprise tingle, lightning is punctuated with a strobe light. Even scents, from raspberry to burnt tires, help audiences immerse themselves in the on-screen world.

The companies say demand for motion seats is growing. D-Box said in February that the number of theatres worldwide equipped with MFX grew 31 per cent over the previous 12 months, and had plans to install 20 more screens at Cinemark theatres in the U.S. over the coming year.

So far, motion seats are giving only a small boost to the box office, says Jeff Goldstein, executive vice-president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., which distributed "Mad Mad: Fury Road."

But he said he hopes that it follows other innovations like luxury seating, which has been growing in popularity and is becoming a more important factor in theatrical revenues. For now, studios are co-operating with motion artists by testing the experiences in a final check before the public release. Someday, directors may even make movies with motion seat effects in mind.