The 4DX movie experience created a niche market segment

Chris Hemsworth plays the villain Dementus in the Warner Bros. film “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.”

Warner Bros. Discovery

In George Miller’s new Mad Max movie, “Furiosa,” a spark of red light explodes and turns the theater screen into a dark red cloud.

A few feet away, between rows of gyroscopic 4DX chairs, wisps of fog swirl, catching the red from the screen as if the flare had somehow crossed the fourth wall and entered the cinema. As the fog clears, Chris Hemsworth as Dementus comes into focus and smiles at the audience.

It’s a 4DX viewing experience. It’s one of many multi-sensory moments programmed for “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” which opens in theaters Friday, to immerse audiences in Miller’s latest trip into the sprawling wasteland. And it’s an important value proposition at a time when theaters are desperate to bring back moviegoers, especially those of younger demographics.

“We make different kinds of movies,” said Duncan MacDonald, head of worldwide marketing and theater development for CJ 4DPlex America. “We’re very different with our motion capabilities and environmental effects.”

As a result of the pandemic, audiences got used to reduced theatrical windows and watching more content at home. At the same time, pandemic-related shutdowns and production halts due to two Hollywood strikes severely limited the amount of content available in theaters. As a result, consumers lost their habit of going to the movies.

The moviegoers who have returned want a premium experience – higher quality picture and sound – and they’re willing to pay more for those tickets. 4DX is an option in the premium large format market, e.g. IMAX and Dolby Cinema. CJ also owns the 4DPlex ScreenX format.

“Premium movie theater experiences are vital to the health of the industry, and with fewer movies on the market on average than in past years, the importance and essential nature of a company like 4DX comes into sharp focus,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

4DX uses motion seats, practical effects, and sensory elements to immerse the audience in the movie. Warner Bros.’ “Wonka,” the company said, wafting a chocolate scent during the screening.

Don Savant, CEO of CJ 4DPlex America, says the experience is “complementary” to the regular movie-going experience, adding that 4DX cinemas appeal to younger consumers, primarily between the ages of 10 and 30, who want more experiential viewing.

4DX is a 4D film presentation system developed by CJ 4DPlex, a subsidiary of South Korean cinema chain CJ CGV. It allows films to be augmented with various practical effects, including motion-seats, wind, strobe lights, simulated snow, and aromas.

CJ 4Dplex

For consumers, the 4DX experience costs an average of $8 more than traditional ticket prices, meaning a ticket could cost anywhere from $20 to $30. But the extra cost doesn’t seem to deter audiences.

Last year, 4DX ticket sales at domestic venues totaled $53.4 million.

“Notably, the higher price of premium movie tickets is not a hindrance to their success, but rather is seen as a solid value proposition for fans looking for the best possible experience on the big screen,” Dergarabedian said. “This is good news for theater owners who, faced with fewer wide release films in the market, can increase revenue on a per-ticket basis while giving their patrons a great experience that will motivate them to return to the multiplex more often.”

And, for major blockbuster titles, 4DX is proving even more popular. Disney’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” earned $83.6 million from 4DX screens, about 3.6% of the film’s total box office earnings. Sawant said it is currently the highest-grossing film for the screen format.

“We want to give customers an easy excuse to leave their homes and visit their local Regal theater,” said Eduardo Acuna, CEO of Regal Cinemas. “Premium formats like 4DX provide a movie-viewing experience that cannot be replicated by any home theater setup. Each premium format serves a different purpose for storytelling, and each enhances the enjoyment of watching movies in a different and immersive way.”

Acuna said the 4DX auditorium is “a strong box office performer” for Regal.

Regal is the largest operator of 4DX screens domestically, with 50 of its 62 locations in the US and Canada. Globally, there are approximately 750 4DX screens with multiple theater partners. The largest numbers are in Asia and Europe.

Sawant said 4DX is adding about 25 to 30 screens a year worldwide, but wants to increase that figure to 50 to 60 screens a year. The company wants to open about 1,200 4DX locations in the next five years. On average, each theater has about 140 seats.

Movie lovers who get up from their couches and head to a 4DX theater to watch the Warner Bros. film “Furiosa” will, from the edge of their seats, feel the sound of motorcycles racing across the desert, smell the gunpowder in the air during epic shootouts and even be hit by a light spray of water falling on a character’s face on screen.

Last year, 4DX programmed over 100 films for an immersive viewing experience. Sawant said 40 to 45 of these were major Hollywood films. Other films included concert content, musical singalongs, anniversary titles and local language films.

Typically, 4DX programmers based in Seoul have two to three weeks to prepare motion and special effects, although Sawant said they can prepare a film in a week if needed. 4DX can program up to three titles at a time.

Both MacDonald and Savant called 4DX’s programmers “artists,” describing the entire process — from the subwoofers in the seats to the fog machines — as different brushstrokes in a work of art.

“Every film is different,” Macdonald said. “So we look at the specifics of our different films and how they are programmed.”

In some cases filmmakers are involved and suggest when certain effects should be used and how subtle or ostentatious they should be or appear.

“This is the most dynamic way to look at it [a film]” Sawant said.

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