Movie theater franchises have been adding more and more immersive theater experiences to their screenings: There’s the ever-popular IMAX (in its various forms), AMC has the Dolby Cinema, and Regal Cinemas has launched a few new options with ScreenX and 4DX. I spent the summer checking out cinema chain’s answers to slumping attendance, focusing mainly on what 4DX has to offer.
Let’s get ScreenX out of the way quickly. I saw one film courtesy of Regal in ScreenX, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. King of the Monsters was a bad movie in my opinion, and the ScreenX experience made it well, weird. ScreenX features additional projectors that extend the image of the film down the left and right walls of the theater at key moments. The walls of the theater are painted a lighter color, similar to the color of the main screen. The image isn’t stretched up those walls though. Basically, films must be formatted for ScreenX to allow use of parts of the image that are normally copped off. Sadly, the result is projection with different color grading that the main image and lower resolution. It really only worked well once, when an explosion occurred during the film and the walls lit up.
AMC’s Dolby Cinema is a solid experience offering an extremely bright image with deep blacks and good sound, like a baby IMAX with the laser projection.
The option I gave the most attention to is 4DX. 4DX has the potential to truly make the cinematic experience more immersive for certain types of films, namely action, horror and science fiction. Comedies and dramas need not apply. 4DX works like a theme park ride; the seats move in unison with camera movements, there are sprinklers for scenes that take place in the rain, there are air guns by your head to give greater impact to things like gunshots, little haunted house-style ticklers at your feet, and of course the seat punches you in the back when someone gets hit on screen. The whole seat can vibrate and there are wind and fog machines for appropriate scenes. Oh, I almost forgot, there are flashing lights on the walls for your peripheral vision for things like lightening.
I’ve seen nearly every big summer movie in 4DX, some I bought for myself at a whopping $25 a ticket and some tickets were provided by Regal. Here are the movies I have been able to see in 4DX this year:
• Avengers: Endgame
• Fast and the Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw
• X-Men: Dark Phoenix
• Men In Black: International
• Spider-Man: Far From Home
• IT: Chapter Two
• Rambo: Last Blood
• The Matrix
Avengers: Endgame was the first film shown in the brand new 4DX theater here in Nashville, TN. I bought a ticket the weekend the 4DX opened. For the first two and a half hours the experience was incredible, all the way to the destruction of the Avengers complex and the entire theater filled with smoke just as the building was collapsing. What came next though was not so incredible. In the major fight that makes up the majority of the last act of the film, the mechanics went out of sync for nearly a full second. Punches would land, you’d wait for it, and then get that haptic feedback. The whole presentation became distracting rather than immersive. It was the opening weekend, so there could have been adjustments that needed to be made, so I gave the experience the benefit of the doubt.
Hobbs and Shaw was a stellar experience. The action was immersive, even the laughs hit a little harder with the haptic feedback. That film was a ton of fun in 4DX. In fact, I probably enjoyed the film more than it deserved due to that experience. Finally, this is what I was hoping for.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Men In Black: International were both terrible movies that just couldn’t be made better with 4DX. That said, those immersive elements did their job and some sequences were at least a little more fun in the cinema because of the nature of 4DX. Things were going well and I was recommending the experience to everyone with the one caveat being to only go see films that are getting solid reviews because the experience isn’t cheap and it’s sad to experience 4DX the first time for a bad film. I saw it happen.
As the summer progressed, things changed though. I saw Spider-Man: Far from Home, IT: Chapter Two, Rambo: Last Blood, and just last weekend the 20th anniversary presentation of The Matrix all in 4DX. The commonality in these screenings is pretty much right at the half-hour mark, the 4DX falls out of sync. It starts at a millisecond and grows to a full second out of sync. Upon notifying staff, you feel the 4DX turned off and back on again and everything is resynced, for about ten minutes, then it goes out again. We were given a variety of excuses for the problem each time. It became an interesting people-watching experience. When the films started, the audiences were completely enthralled with the experience, laughing and screaming as they are tossed around in their seats and sprayed with water. When the 4DX went out of sync, they continued to be surprised by the punches in the back and such, but overall always became more disengaged with the experience. I believe many people didn’t realize the problem, they just weren’t as connected to the experience.
After many, many complaints, including writing to Regal on the corporate level, with no improvement in the experience, I have to warn you against spending the money on it. It’s disappointing because that first half hour of The Matrix was incredible. The experience was making a classic film fresh and making the viewing experience new, but alas it all went downhill.
In the end, I do believe cinemas must offer a premium experience, something we can’t get at home, to convince audiences to come out. You just can’t beat seeing a film beautifully projected with bombastic and immersive sound in a theater, and that’s still the way to get them in. It’s incumbent on Hollywood to bring new stories and experiences to cinemas that require viewing in those venues. Some people won’t come, and that’s the nature of it. Some people will prefer to watch Lawrence of Arabia, Halloween, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind on an iPad, and you probably won’t get them to the theater. Those of us who do come and spend the bucks expect an amazing experience. 4DX is not it consistently.