Immersive seating is coming to a theater near you.
While the idea of immersive cinema has been around since at least the late 1950s, thanks to such early adopters as William Castle and Hans Laube (inventor of the short-lived “Smell-O-Vision”), it’s never come close to reaching the level of mainstream acceptance enjoyed by other premium theatrical formats in the United States. But that’s all beginning to change with the rise of such companies as D-BOX, CJ 4DPlex (makers of 4DX), and MediaMation, which produces the immersive seating technology known as MX4D. While the concept has been able to break through overseas, skeptics have pegged the format as a cheap gimmick that’s destined to remain a niche concern, at least within the U.S. Those with skin in the game, however, maintain the concept has already proven its viability.
“Look, let’s be very clear here: D-BOX is not a trend,” says Michael Paquette, the company’s VP of corporate affairs. “We have been in the market and growing since 2009. We are not a fad. Trends don’t last a decade nowadays. We see our motion technology in the same way sound transformed the cinematic experience in the early days. Motion is another dimension that has a monumental impact on the storytelling.”
“3D, IMAX, [and] PLF [premium large format] are well established as consumer choices,” adds Jeremy Devine, MediaMation’s VP of marketing. “Those formats have had staying power, and we believe 4D is the next key category.”
Motion seating companies are taking inspiration from those more established immersive formats as they seek to expand their reach across the world and, especially, within the U.S. While the technology has already gained a strong foothold in East Asia and Latin America, it has yet to fully take off in the North American market.
To change that, all three companies have been linking up with both national and regional theater chains. In April, CJ 4DPLEX notched an expansive deal with Cineworld to install 4DX at 79 Regal Cinemas in the U.S., the largest single-circuit deal for immersive seating in the U.S., which will significantly spread 4DX’s footprint across the country. D-BOX, meanwhile, is in business with AMC and Cinemark, while MX4D has signed deals with both B&B Theaters and National Amusements. All are betting big on the notion that audiences will embrace immersive seating en masse, much as they have IMAX and 3D.
“The first 4DX auditorium in America was at our Regal LA LIVE theater in Los Angeles in June of 2014,” says Regal CMO Ken Thewes. “The auditorium was extremely well received, attracting moviegoers from all across the area. We continued to receive the same response from moviegoers as we opened additional locations. This guest response for one of the best theater experiences the industry has to offer made our decision to expand an easy one.”
Like many other innovations, such as VIP auditoriums and dine-in cinema, immersive seating is making its way to the United States following what could be called a proof-of-concept overseas. The timing is crucial; while last year’s box office receipts in North America hit a record high, attendance was down from 2016. Premium formats and amenities have helped theaters address the financial effects of falling attendance; while 3D box office was down in 2017, premium large format (PLF) continued to flourish worldwide. The Cineworld-Regal 4DX deal is a clear indication that immersive seating is the latest front in the theater-amenities arms race. Immersive seating proponents believe their products can even help curb the decline in attendance.
“[MX4D] increases auditorium occupancy rates by over 45 percent,” says Devine. “Just as exhibitors found that recliners were a better use of space and buoyed business, the MX4D installs have proven to be a great return on investment.”
“Many exhibitors have told us that their customers who prefer D-BOX generate more visits to their cinemas, are willing to drive longer distances in order to get their D-BOX tickets, and generally will spend more dollars at the concession stands,” notes Paquette. “All of that means a bigger take at the box office.”
One hurdle standing in the way of the format’s widespread adoption is economic. Though both IMAX and 3D showings come with surcharges, tickets for immersive-seating auditoriums can cost as much as eight or nine dollars more than a regular admission. Asked whether he worries that these higher prices essentially put the format out of reach for a significant portion of the moviegoing audience, 4DX’s Senior Manager of Strategic Initiatives Yohan Song notes that surcharges are adjusted according to the buying power of each market, with large urban areas like New York and Los Angeles seeing higher surcharges than relatively less-affluent areas.
“There are a lot of markets where we, based on the number of population or their buying power, upcharge around six dollars per ticket,” he says. “And up until now, we think that pricing strategy has been very well-suited for every market, because on average 4DX makes box office revenue grow … more than two to three times higher than a regular auditorium.”
Paquette is even more bullish on the format’s capacity to appeal to the average moviegoer.
“To be honest, there was pushback when we announced this premium to exhibitors and studios almost 10 years ago, and we are very sensitive to ensuring as many people as possible get to experience our highly unique motion technology,” says Paquette. “However, D-BOX is like the Field of Dreams. If you build it, they will come. We have seen over time, that there’s an elasticity in the customer’s capacity to pay a premium when the experience is worth their while. … Most of our business worldwide consistently comes from repeat customers.”
As premium formats go, immersive seating certainly represents a unique way of experiencing a film. The experience is akin to being on a motion simulator ride, with seats moving, rocking, and vibrating in tandem with the action unfolding onscreen. In the cases of 4DX and MX4D, the experience can also include the use of fog, wind, mist, bubbles, and even scents to enhance the sense of being inside the movie.
“If you want to bring back people to the theater, you really need to upgrade the experience and offer the best night out possible,” says Paquette. “We believe our motion-enhanced experience is the best entertainment upgrade available for moviegoers today.”
It’s worth noting that every one of the movements and effects programmed for each film is subject to the approval of the film studio, with motion editors often working with a mere two-week turnaround time. But if the technology takes off with consumers, the hope is that filmmakers will be tempted to design their films with immersive seating in mind—and indeed, some have already expressed an affection for the format.
“Last year, when we released Guardians of the Galaxy 2 [in 4DX], James Gunn came here, he saw the technology, and he really enjoyed it,” says Song. “He really gave his feedback about how 4DX made certain scenes better than what he had expected. And that has been the story with most of the directors coming here.”
Globally, all three companies currently boast screen counts in the hundreds: D-BOX tallies more than 700 screens worldwide, while 4DX has 570 and MX4D boasts over 300. All these companies are actively expanding their footprint across the United States. To get moviegoers in the door, the companies have adopted a wide range of marketing tactics, including the use of studio promotional channels to help spread the word (4DX, for example, enjoyed a dedicated spot at the press junket for last month’s Venom). Additionally, Paquette notes that some D-BOX exhibitors now offer price reductions as a means of getting cost-sensitive moviegoers to try it out for themselves. Once they do, he’s confident that they’ll keep coming back for more.
“We have seen over time that there’s an elasticity in the customer’s capacity to pay a premium when the experience is worth their while,” he says. “Basically, our customers discover when they take the leap and try it once, they see how the immersion adds to the experience. And, in turn, they come back over and over again.”