New seating system shakes up cinema

Kathleen Boyd (right) and Kristin Livingston reacted to water mist in the MX4D theater at Showcase Cinema de Lux.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Kathleen Boyd (right) and Kristin Livingston reacted to water mist in the MX4D theater at Showcase Cinema de Lux.

There’s a scene in the movie “Jurassic World” where a dinosaur strides toward the audience as a crashed helicopter erupts in a ball of flame behind him. It’s a cute visual gag, poking fun at similar scenes from a hundred action movies.

But during a recent screening at the Showcase Cinema de Lux in Revere, it’s unlikely anybody remembered to laugh. Not when their seats were lurching and rumbling beneath them at each monstrous footstep, and the stench of the burning chopper filled the theater.

A newly remodeled screening room in the Showcase theater complex was showing the movie in “4-D,” a seating system that bombards moviegoers’ senses with vibrations and motions, gusts of wind, sprays of water, and even smells.

“It’s an experience that brings the moviegoing to a new level,” said Tony Pungitone, director of US operations for National Amusements Inc. of Norwood. His company is the first on the East Coast and only the third in the United States to install a 4-D theater system made by MediaMation Inc.
of Torrance, Calif.

It’s also the latest attempt by theater chains to pry consumers away from home theaters and Internet-streamed high-def movies.
Tickets priced about $8 more than a standard movie ticket, so 4-D systems could generate stronger revenues for theater operators, even if they don’t attract a lot of new customers.

Movie ticket sales could use a boost. After jumping 6 percent in 2012 to $10.8 billion, domestic revenues barely grew the following year and took a 5 percent dip in 2014 to $10.3 billion.

National Amusements, which is privately held by 97-year-old media mogul Sumner Redstone and his daughter, Shari, won’t reveal the price tag on the renovation, but it didn’t come cheap. MediaMation installed 70 computer-controlled movie seats, along with strobe lights and a fog generator that turns the entire theater into a special effect.

“We’ve been building these seats eight or nine years for theme parks” like the Legoland parks in Germany and California, said Dan Jamele, MediaMation’s chief technology officer. A few years ago, the company branched into movie theaters, and has installed the system in about two dozen in Mexico, Colombia, Japan, and China.

“What do we do to bring people in America out of their homes, and back into theaters?” The 4-D experience could be the answer, said Jamele. “It’s a little stick of dynamite to get you out of your seat.”

MediaMation doesn’t have the market to itself. A South Korean company, CJ Group, has opened a similar theater in Los Angeles. The industry’s biggest player, D-Box Inc. of Canada, has over 330 4-D seating systems worldwide, many of them in US theaters. But the D-Box system is only installed in some of the screening room’s seats; most viewers must settle for standard chairs. Besides, D-Box seats only move and vibrate in time to the on-screen action.

MediaMation’s system is far more advanced, and requires remodeling the entire screening room. Of course, the new seats provide the expected shakes, rattles, and rolls. But just as you’re getting used to moving around, a nozzle hidden in the right armrest may squirt you with a mist of water to simulate stormy weather. A plastic “tickler” mounted near your ankle may begin to brush against your lower legs, as if you were running through tall grass. Air blowers mounted in the armrests and headrests hit you with gusts of air to simulate a helicopter flight or a windstorm, and the same blowers spew out synthetic scent, meant to smell like a Jurassic rain forest or a flaming helicopter.

MediaMation also embeds brilliant strobe lights in the theater ceiling to enhance the effect of on-screen storms or explosions, and installs a fog machine just below the screen to generate additional smoke and mist. All of it is controlled by a computer that’s precisely synchronized with the movie.

The overall effect is like watching a movie on a plane in a thunderstorm, while the passenger behind you kicks the back of your seat and sneaks puffs on a cigarette. The 4-D system doesn’t make sense for a courtroom drama or a witty romantic comedy, but it’s just the thing for a dinosaur movie, according to Kristin Livingston, a freelance education writer from Wakefield who attended the screening.

“I loved it,” said Livingston. “I had seen the movie before. It just heightened the experience, having the movement and the sounds and the smells.” Livingston especially enjoyed the scent of mud and rotting vegetation that wafted up as two children fled a ravenous dinosaur, and of course the burning smell. “It wasn’t pleasant,” she said, “but it was cool.“

Charlotte Jones, principal cinema analyst for IHS Technology in London, said in a recent report that 4-D is a “bells and whistles” technology that will appeal to those whose taste in movies
runs to blockbusters. But she warned that the concept “may lack universal appeal.”

MediaMation intends to find out. The company’s head of cinema sales, Heather Blair, said she’s in talks with other theater chains to build more 4-D theaters throughout the United States, but wouldn’t reveal how many, where, or when.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
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