Every new technology comes with an uncomfortable adjustment phase.
Remember Google Glass? At first, people thought it was a creepy invasive product for use by lonely gamer nerds who’d put them on, stare at women who’d never date them, record the image surreptitiously, and face-swap it later to make deep fake videos.
But then, as the technology took hold, and the culture assimilated the idea of …
Wait, bad example.
Google Glass was a terrible idea.
The point is, even with technology that sticks, you have to expect a few setbacks during the roll-out period.
And so it was that I found myself in Regal King of Prussia Stadium 16 last week to experience and evaluate the chain’s new 4DX exhibition experience, which offers a giant screen, giant sound, 3D imagery, plus seats that move and enhancements like blowing air to simulate wind and water droplets to simulate rain.
I thought I’d try the matinee viewing of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. I bought a pricey ticket ($28) and took my seat, expecting to get jostled and subjected to loud music. There would also be exposure to random liquids and hard-to-identify smells — essentially stuff I get on the subway, no extra charge.
There were problems. First, no 3D, but who cares, I’m not a fan. Twenty minutes in, however, no moving seats. Forty minutes, still nothing. An hour, two hours … I’m craning my head to see whether anybody’s seat is moving. Nothing. Are they saving the 4DX for the finale, like fireworks? Is that the deal?
Movie ends, nothing happens.
Patrons congregate in the aisle, we all agree that nothing happened, and we inform the manager. Suspicions confirmed — the technology wasn’t working. So the courteous and efficient staff — really, they couldn’t have been nicer — gave us all refunds, no questions asked.
Well one question was asked: Does it usually work? Yes, said the staff. So back I went on Sunday, by which point the 4DX theater was showing the new version of Aladdin, and the system was working perfectly.
The movie opens with a boat bobbing on the ocean, and, as it happens, this is a sequence tailor-made for 4DX. Your seat slowly moves up and down on the undulation of the waves, and as the sails puff out, a soft breeze caresses your skin and you’re right there with Will Smith on the 3D Arabian sea. (The software reliably syncs the 4DX bells and whistles with the images and action on screen, and the extra stuff is more or less constant.)
A few minutes later, Aladdin is leading people on an acrobatic chase through a bazaar, and my seat (actually the entire row) is forcefully rocking back and forth, with the centrifugal jerking of a mildly disruptive roller coaster. During the musical numbers, every bang of the bass drum is matched by a throbbing pulse in your seat cushion. You feel the thump in your rump. There are fragrances, too. I’m pretty sure Princess Jasmine actually smelled like jasmine.
Later still, when Smith’s genie conjures a thunderstorm, lightning is simulated in the theater, and actual droplets of water (not too many) fall on you. Pro tip: There’s a button on your seat that lets you to disable the water spray.
In short, 4DX offers swanky versions of sensations you may have cumulatively experienced over the years — William Castle’s electrified seats, John Waters’ Smell-O-Rama, the vibrating Sensaround from the 1970s, even the blowing in your ear, if you dated in the 1950s.
As for me, getting doused during a movie was also not unprecedented. During a screening of Navy SEALS starring Charlie Sheen at the old Sameric, the roof partially collapsed during a rainstorm, leaving some of us damp. The Sameric was then in severe decline. It was full of vermin, and, aside from movie critics, there were also mice.
Yet the Sameric was at the time the only game in town in terms of old-fashioned (emphasis on old) movie palace with a big screen. I think of the old Sameric — about the not-so-good old days of movie exhibition — every time I evaluate some new technology like 4DX.
The new technology is expensive, and it’s surely not for everyone, but — taking the long view — it wasn’t so long ago that the conventional movie theater experience was suitable for almost nobody. In the last several years, exhibitors have upped their game — renovating theaters with better sights, sounds, and seats.
This is how chains survive in an environment that has them competing with home theaters and streaming services. And it’s almost certain to be part of a larger menu of options for customers. 4DX originated in Korea, and the Asian markets are taking the lead in transforming the theater experience. There, new cities are being built from the ground up, and so are the relationships between content providers and exhibitors. In China, a chain is co-operating with Chinese streaming services to offer streamed movies based on a critical mass of online requests from customers. Get enough Game of Thrones fans together, and you could rent a theater for a binge watch — in IMAX, 4DX, whatever. The point is that the customer/exhibitor interface will be more collaborative and flexible.
You see the early stages of that here, where 4DX is the latest in technological options and refinements. (It’s available at the Regal Warrington, and will be at the United Artists Riverview by year’s end). Aladdin, for instance, can be viewed in a variety of price ranges, in different configurations. Regal KOP has IMAX, RPX (its own IMAX brand with enhanced size and sound), and 4DX. AMC has its IMAX-competitor, Atmos, in Neshaminy, and is installing one at its Center City location, set to open later this year.
These premium services come with premium prices. 4DX strikes me as a premium service for premium occasions — as much like going to Six Flags as going to a movie theater. It’s not my thing, even though the 3D looked better than it does when my head isn’t being whipped around. But the theater was full of children who giggled with delight at every lurch of the chair and never seemed to tire of it.
I have certainly been to more unpleasant screenings. I recently saw a show at a theater where the seats could be fully reclined and a guy completely flat on his back was attempting to eat a large bucket of popcorn. He’d never shoveled food into his mouth from a horizontal position, and it showed — his body was littered with kernels that never made it to his mouth. He looked like he’d been felled by a cannon loaded with popcorn.
This highlights another unexpected benefit of 4DX and its jostling seats. It is so hard to eat and so hard to text and so hard to make cellphone calls that people weren’t doing any of that. Or if they were, I couldn’t hear it.