Movie Theaters Hope To Add Another Dimension To Their Profits

Sep 28, 2014
Originally published on October 14, 2014 1:10 pm

Some experimental features have been popping up in movie theaters lately. One of them is a so-called 4-D experience. It's hard to describe in words exactly what a 4-D movie experience feels like, but here's one attempt: it is intense.

During a recent screening of Guardians of the Galaxy in 4-D at the Regal Cinemas LA Live theater, the seat moved up and down and side to side, like a simulator ride. There were strobe lights; fog seemed to come out of the walls and little jets of water sprayed over the seats.

During one scene, bubbles floated down from the ceiling. But what really stood out were the puffs of air, blowing by the ears of moviegoers out of vents built into the headrest, to simulate wind. All of this on top of a movie that features a gun-wielding raccoon and a talking, shape-shifting tree.

After the movie, Jennifer and Colin Mackenzie said they actually enjoyed being fogged and spritzed and wind-blown.

"It was a lot like a roller coaster," said Colin.

His wife Jennifer agreed, but wanted even more. "Well, maybe not as intense as a roller coaster. I don't think there was enough. I think there should have been more rain and more lights!" Jennifer even hoped that one day the 4-D technology could be merged with virtual reality.

Moviegoer Gary Epstein was pretty pleased as well. "The movie was good," he said. "The ride was good too. I couldn't fall asleep."

New Theater Tech

There are a lot of new toys for movie theaters coming down the line these days: new immersive sound systems with over 50 speakers; new screens that get bigger and bigger; even a theater in the works by some students at CalArts that has a 360-degree, fully panoramic dome screen.

Amir Malin, an analyst with Qualia Capital, says a lot of this movie theater innovation is happening because the American box office has kind of topped out. The number of people actually going to see movies is still high, but Malin claims that number has peaked.

"I wouldn't say box office is trending down," Malin says. "Exhibition domestically, we're staying at relative levels."

But even with this stagnation, the amount of money movies take in domestically keeps creeping higher, pretty much every year.

"Any increase in revenue is largely due to increase in ticket pricing," Malin says.

So it's not about getting more people in seats. In fact, the blockbusters of today actually have fewer viewers than the biggest movies of a few decades ago. Statistics at Box Office Mojo find that of the top blockbusters of all time, ranked by attendance, only one in the top 10, Titanic, was released after 1990.

That means profit-making is all about getting the people still in the seats to pay more. Every new feature is an excuse to raise ticket prices. And Malin says theaters have to try even harder now because they're up against a lot of new competition.

"There's definitely concern whether they're going through a dinosaur phase right now [and] headed toward extinction," he says.

Malin says theaters are up against a few new challenges. The amount of time movies are exclusively in theaters is shorter. There are also more ways and places you can watch movies, like on phones or tablets.

On top of all that, television today offers high-quality shows that more directly compete with movies.

Some Just Want To Show Movies

Not everyone is on board with the changing face of theaters. Mike Hurley, an independent movie theater owner in Maine, says a lot of these new bells and whistles — like 4-D — are just too much.

"We didn't get 3-D, so we're not getting 4-D," Hurley says. "All we wanna do is show movies."

In fact, Hurley had to raise funds just to get enough money together to help his theaters make the transition to digital recently. He says besides not needing all of the new features, he really can't afford a lot of them.

"There is really only so much a movie theater can spend on toys that people come up with," he says.

Stephen Lighthill, a professor of cinematography at the American Film Institute Conservatory and president of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), also feels some of these new features are unnecessary. He says theaters may be in an extra hurry to innovate right now, but new wacky features finding their ways into cineplexes has been happening for a while.

"There always have been the two trends where one person has says, 'We gotta make better movies.' And the other person says, 'We gotta find better technology,'" Lighthill says.

Remember Smell-O-Vision?

Lighthill says, ultimately, no one theater gadget will save the industry — but a few things might. He thinks the answer for the whole industry is to make better movies and have an eclectic array of films and events to watch at theaters.

And it's true that more and more theaters are hosting things other than movies in their space, like livecasts of opera performances and even video gaming competitions.

Movie industry analyst Amir Malin says two easy fixes are already increasing revenue at theaters across the country: restaurant-style food and alcohol, and "reseating," or replacing old cloth theater seats with new, plush and more spacious leather seats.

In the meantime, there will continue to be new inventions to keep theaters one step ahead. A company named Barco recently screened the film The Maze Runner at a panoramic theater in Los Angeles that has three screens on three walls.

Ted Schilowitz, whose title at Barco is "CinemaVangelist," admitted that not every film will be right for all of the new technology moving into theaters these days. And maybe it won't be right for all moviegoers.

"If it was too intense, our recommendation was move a little further back in the theater," he says. "If you want something more intense, come closer."

Come closer. That's pretty much what all these theaters, and all their new tricks, are asking us to do.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

In Los Angeles, some experimental features have been popping up in movie theaters. There's a theater offering a 4-D experience. And another with something called a panoramic set-up - multiple screens. It's all part of a plan to keep those of us who still go out to the movies entertained. NPR's Sam Sanders takes a look at what these innovations tell us about today's movie industry.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: There's really no way to adequately describe on the radio what a 4-D movie experience feels like. But I will try. I went to see "Guardians Of The Galaxy" in 4-D the at the Regal Cinemas L.A. Live theater. The seat moved up and down and side to side. There were strobe lights on the walls and fog and little jets of water spraying over the seats. Bubbles floated down from the ceiling. But what really stood out - the puffs of air blowing by my ears out of vents built into the headrests to simulate wind. Here.

(SOUNBITE OF AIR PUFFS)

SANDERS: You hear it? Those three little psst, psst, psst. That was it. After the movie, I caught up with Jennifer and Colin Mackenzie. They also got fogged and spritzed and windblown. So how was it?

COLIN MACKENZIE: A lot like a rollercoaster, I think.

JENNIFER MACKENZIE: I don't think there was enough. I think there should like - definitely more rain. And they didn't use a lot of the lighting.

SANDERS: There are lots of new toys coming down the line, like new immersive sound systems for theaters with over 50 speakers. There's even a theater in the works by some students at CalArts that has a 360 degree, fully panoramic, domed screen.

Amir Malin is an analyst with Qualia Capital. He says this is all happening because the American box office is kind of topped out. The number of people actually going to see movies is still high, but Malin claims that number has peaked.

AMIR MALIN: I wouldn't say that a box office is trending down. Exhibition domestically - we're staying at relative levels.

SANDERS: But the amount of money movies take in keeps creeping higher pretty much every year. Malin says he knows why.

MALIN: Any increase in revenue is largely due to increase in ticket pricing.

SANDERS: So it's not about getting more people in seats. The blockbusters of today actually have fewer viewers than the biggest movies of say two decades ago. That means it's about making the people still in the seats pay more. So every new feature is an excuse to raise ticket prices. And Malin says theaters have to try even harder now, because they're up against a lot of new competition.

MALIN: There's definitely concern on the part of exhibitors in whether they're going through a dinosaur phase right now - heading towards extinction.

SANDERS: The amount of time movies are exclusively in theaters is shorter. There are more ways and places you can watch movies - on your phone or your tablet. Malin says Americans are kind of over screened. And TV has gotten really good and is more of a direct competitor with movies. And so theaters look for the next new thing to make you have to come through their doors. But not everyone is on board with all these changes.

MIKE HURLEY: We didn't get 3-D, so we're not getting 4-D.

SANDERS: That's Mike Hurley, an independent movie theater owner in Maine. For him, a lot of these new baubles and whistles, like 4-D, are just too much.

HURLEY: You know, there is really only so much a movie theater can spend on new toys that people come up with.

SANDERS: Hurley in fact had to fundraise just to get enough money together to help his theaters make the transition to digital recently.

Stephen Lighthill also feels some of these new features are unnecessary. He's a professor of cinematography at the American Film Institute Conservatory. Lighthill says theaters may be in an extra hurry to innovate right now but new wacky features finding their way to cineplexes has been happening for a while.

STEPHEN LIGHTHILL: There always have been the two trends where one person says we got to make better movies. And another person will says we got to find a better technology.

SANDERS: Remember Smell-O-Vision? Lighthill says ultimately no one theater gadget will save the industry but a few things might.

LIGHTHILL: I think the answer for the whole industry is to have an eclectic array of films and events to watch at theaters.

SANDERS: Events - more and more theaters are hosting things other than movies in their space - live casts of the opera, even video gaming competitions. In the meantime, there will continue to be new inventions to keep theaters one step ahead. I saw some preview clips of the film "The Maze Runner" at a panoramic theater in L.A. It had three screens on three walls.

Ted Schilowitz works for Barco, the company that created the panoramic set-up. I had to ask him about one thing.

For a few seconds, I was a little dizzy.

TED SCHILOWITZ: Yep. If it was too intense, our recommendation is move a little further back in theater. If you want something more intense, come closer.

SANDERS: Come closer - that's pretty much what all these theaters and all their new tricks are asking us to do. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.