Imagine sitting in a dark theater, watching Jennifer Lawrence navigate a burning forest in “The Hunger Games,” when suddenly a blazing tree falls in her path on screen. The tree’s impact rattles her – and shakes your seat.
At two local movie screens operated by Regency Theatres of Calabasas, this “four dimensional” experience has already been rolled out. Tickets for the rumble seats go for an $8 premium and have sold with some success for blockbuster action movies.
The special seats are still on a limited run, with just a few other theaters in Los Angeles using them at the moment, including the independent Chinese Theatres in Hollywood. But other theater owners and studios are keeping their eye on 4-D cinema as yet another way to distinguish the moviegoing experience from what’s available at home on cable, DVD and streaming.
Lyndon Golin, chief executive of Regency, which has 29 locations in the region, has installed 64 of the seats and said they have boosted box office revenue for blockbusters.
“We believe that there is room for this fourth dimension in movies,” Golin said. “The idea is to enhance the moviegoing experience and give people more of a reason to go out.”
The seats are installed at Regency auditoriums in Agoura Hills and Van Nuys, and during opening week of “Hunger Games,” the theaters with the seats often sold out, he said.
Now that exhibitors like Regency have largely changed over to digital projectors with 3-D systems, proponents of the technology see 4-D seating as a next logical step to creating a fully immersive cinema experience.
“We’ve got all these different options for upgrades,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a box office analyst at Hollywood.com. “If it’s the right movie, people seem willing (to pay).”
But Regency and other chains are also experimenting with technologies to attract younger audiences distracted by video games, social media and other new entertainment options. They’re installing Wi-Fi and trying out paperless ticketing, which allows moviegoers to bypass the box office.
There’s a sense of urgency. Last year, domestic theater attendance fell to a 16-year low. While attendance this year has rebounded 17 percent through April, most have chalked-up the ticket sales to a slate of particularly appealing movies.
The rumble seats at the Regency theaters are supplied by D-Box Technologies, a Longueuil, Quebec, firm that has established a reputation as a manufacturer of specialized seating for the video game industry, such as cockpits for flight simulators.
The red seats in the local theaters look similar to a normal seat, but they are larger, and have a flexible base and a control panel below an armrest to adjust the intensity of the experience. The seats are moved by multiple motors that take cues from computer code imbedded in the movie.
Movements are programmed by D-Box’s L.A. postproduction office, which writes code that corresponds to each frame of action, similar to how a soundtrack is added. The movements, which can include vibrations, forward pitches, rolls and up-and-down movements, are reviewed by the studio that made the film before shipment to theaters.
“We’re not a theme-park ride and don’t want to be associated with a theme-park ride. It’s meant to blend in so you forget about it,” said Guy Marcoux, vice president of marketing at D-Box.
Regency is leasing the seats, which were installed about a year ago and have been activated for about 20 movies, including the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” installment and “Real Steel.”
Golin wouldn’t disclose installation or leasing costs, but said he has an option to buy them at the end of the lease, which he said is several years. Regency is evaluating them on a long-term basis. He expects them to pay for themselves in another four years.
D-Box introduced the commercial theater seats in 2008. As of Feb. 13, it had installed or had orders for a little more than 3,000 seats in 125 auditoriums worldwide, according to a Canadian regulatory filing. In the L.A. area, the Chinese has 30 such seats in its Chinese 6 location, with a theater in Thousand Oaks the only other cinema to have them.
The $8 surcharge is split among D-Box, the theater and studio. When added to a separate charge for 3-D, a 4-D ticket can cost a moviegoer more than $20.
Despite the hefty price tag, Dergarabedian said this spring and summer’s big-budget action movies, such as the newest Batman and Spider-Man installments and Walt Disney Co.’s “The Avengers,” could create an opportunity for D-Box and rival seat makers. Since the movies are action packed, have a good amount of buzz and built-in fan bases, he said theatergoers might be willing to shell out for the added experience.
“People will pay it if they love the movie,” he said. “I don’t think D-Box drives the movie. D-Box can benefit from an audience that wants to see a movie in every permutation.”
Among other companies starting to compete with D-Box is Torrance’s MediaMation Inc., which is pitching its technology to theater owners and studios but has yet to sign its first deal. The company has been around for more than 20 years and sells its seats mostly to museums and theme parks, such as Legoland California in Carlsbad. Just recently MediaMation decided to expand into cinemas.
Unlike D-Box’s stand-alone seats, MediaMation’s seats are connected in groups, and are powered by air compressors. The company also offers optional effects that include blasts of air, leg ticklers, fog and even bubbles.
Tracy Balsz, head of marketing at MediaMation, said she’s hoping this year’s rebound at the box office can help her sell to theater owners who are starting to feel more confident.
“We talked to theater owners and saw that there was interest,” Balsz said. “(But) it’s slow to make big change happen in that world.”
Each seat costs between $3,000 and $5,000 to install, and they are installed in blocks of dozens, with the cost paid by the theater. Balsz said that unlike D-Box, MediaMation does not take a piece of the box office and will only generate revenue from sales and leases.
Still, it remains to be seen how broadly the moviegoing public will adopt another ticket upcharge.
As recently as the end of last year, rising ticket costs were seen as a principal cause of the decline in domestic movie attendance, as the average ticket hit an all-time high of $7.96. Dergarabedian noted that this year’s boom has coincided with lower ticket prices, which have averaged $7.83.
One studio executive noted that D-Box and similar technologies appeal to teenagers and 20-somethings that might have trouble paying the added cost with any regularity. With that in mind, theaters have been upgrading in other ways that don’t add significant cost to tickets.
An example is paperless ticketing, which allows a moviegoer to go straight to an usher, who swipes a barcode displayed on a smartphone. Regency recently tested it out at the single-screen Bruin Theater in Westwood and is rolling out the technology at 100 additional screens through a partnership with West L.A. ticketing company Fandango.
And with growing numbers of moviegoers addicted to their smartphones and tablets, the Chinese Theater recently installed Wi-Fi to let moviegoers surf the web before their show. Alwyn Hight Kushner, the theater’s director of operations, said the Chinese is also building a bar and restaurant.
“If you get to the movie early and want to check your e-mail and have a bite to eat, it will give people a chance (to do that),” she said. “People like to feel like they’re getting taken care of.”