Two tickets for the movie that rains on us, please

You could watch a movie on streaming, but your couch probably won’t move with it.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, B-movie king William Castle put vibrating devices underneath movie theater chairs to startle his audiences, among other gimmicks.

A woman wearing glasses eats popcorn in a movie theater.

His schtick never made it to blockbuster films, and other attempts to make movies more immersive — including the poorly reviewed Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama — failed to catch on.

Today, however, we’re in a box office slump, with George Miller’s $168m action epic Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga and The Garfield Movie marking the worst-performing Memorial Day weekend in ~30 years — aside from 2020, when theaters were closed.

Reasons include more selective audiences, a delayed schedule due to strikes, and the advent of streaming, which allows people to enjoy movies in their pajamas with much cheaper snacks.

But could high-tech gimmicks bring audiences back?

At CJ 4DPlex America’s 4DX theaters, tickets cost $8 more, on average, than regular tickets, per CNBC, but offer effects you can’t get at home, including:

  • Seats that vibrate, sway, twist, or otherwise move with the film
  • Atmosphere effects (e.g., snow, rainstorms, fog, wind, lightning, temperature changes, etc.)
  • Scents

For example, in Furiosa, fog rolls in as a paint flare explodes, seats vibrate during motorcycle chases, and audiences get spritzed with water. During Wonka, 4DX theaters piped in a chocolate scent.

Most of the 750 4DX screens…

… are in Europe or Asia, but there are 62 in the US and Canada — 50 of them operated by Regal Cinemas, whose parent company, Cineworld Group, is recovering from a pandemic-induced bankruptcy.

CEO Eduardo Acuna has named giving people a reason to go to theaters as a key strategy, and told CNBC that 4DX theaters have been “a strong box office performer.”

  • In 2023, US locations made $53.4m in sales.
  • Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) earned $83.6m globally, or ~3.6% of its total box office sales, and is 4DX’s best-performing film yet.

It’s hard to say if that will increase as consumers become more aware of 4DX theaters. But premium formats like 4DX, alongside IMAX and 3D, may prove one way to lure people back into theaters — which make most of their money on concessions anyhow.

BTW: We’d absolutely see Twisters in 4DX. See you there?

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