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How can movie theaters compete with your living room? By building a better living room.

From 4DX, which turns movies into theme park rides, to other approaches, theaters try to head off Netflix at the pass.

Premio Persol 3D Award & The Hole Red Carpet - 66th Venice Film Festival
3D glasses are just the start.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

At the downtown Los Angeles movie theater where I’m seeing The Fate of the Furious, a brief commercial plays before the film. It’s an ad for what’s about to happen to me, even though I’m already settled in my seat and part of a presumably captive audience.

Two cars race down city streets, a scene we’ve all watched a million times before. The action stops, and the words “Missing something?” appear onscreen. Then, the scene plays again, with every seat in the theater bucking and vibrating in time with the action. We see a man in his theater seat join the chase, rocketing after the cars, obviously enthralled.

I’m gripping my seat; my body isn’t used to the notion of movie theater seats moving. “Wait!” it seems to be saying. “This shouldn’t be happening!” The ad seems intended to shake off the weak of will and spirit, who might prefer a screening of the film that isn’t also a theme park ride.

“That was fun!” a guy near the front exclaims when the commercial is over. He’s met with nervous laughter. Many of us, it would seem, are with me, but we’re also with that guy. We want to believe this will be a good time, but it’s also not at all what we’re used to.

This is 4DX, just the latest in a long series of attempts by movie theaters to compete with your living room by offering an experience your living room can’t provide. And maybe the living room is winning.

A brief history of film competing with television

The advent of television pushed movie studios and theaters to come up with new formats that could compete, such as the ultra-widescreen Cinemascope. (The Robe, released in 1953, was the first narrative feature shot in the format.)
Al Green Archive/Getty Images

The movie business in the 20th century splits fairly neatly into two eras. In the first half of the 20th century the movies were a fresh novelty, minimizing the impact of older forms of entertainment like Vaudeville and the stage. New movie palaces opened in seemingly every city, in response to a bottomless appetite for the images on the silver screen. Sure, the radio took off in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but the movies still offered big, moving pictures, something the radio just couldn’t.

Then, in the early 1950s, television penetrated enough of the US market that the film studios started to freak out. Now the moving pictures were in your house! They began doing everything they could to offer things that TV couldn’t, from massive, widescreen visuals to enormous epics that couldn’t be produced on TV budgets.

And yet film studios were only too happy to rebroadcast their wares on TV, and rights for TV airings (and, later, home video) became a major source of revenue. Film and TV eventually reached a kind of equilibrium.

By the ‘70s and ‘80s, movies told both the biggest stories (which couldn’t be mounted on a TV budget) and more artistically challenging stories aimed at adults (which could scare away TV advertisers, who preferred to target the widest swath of possible audience). Meanwhile, TV became the home of certain types of comedies and dramas that struggled to gain footholds on the big screen — why go to a theater to watch a screwball comedy revival when you could just watch Cheers?

But as the turn of the century approached, that TV-film equilibrium grew unstable. Roughly around the debut of The Sopranos in 1999, but arguably going back a bit further than that, two things began to happen in tandem: TV started to get more adventurous in both storytelling and aesthetics, and many adults increasingly stopped going to the movies. Those trends continued for the intervening 20 or so years, and now, with the rise of cost-effective visual effects, something like Game of Thrones can mount a lavish production that provides a reasonable facsimile of big-screen blockbuster filmmaking.

Adding to this problem, the movie theater experience is terrible in many places; there’s always a risk of your fellow patrons talking through scenes, lighting up the theater with their smartphone screens, and so on. And at a time when many people’s big-screen TVs aren’t theater size but are good enough to get the job done in their living room, why leave, especially when the cost of firing up something on Netflix and making popcorn for your whole family is immeasurably cheaper than buying tickets and snacks at the local cineplex?

So what’s now perceived as the current crisis in moviegoing is both very old — with roots in the ‘50s — and pretty new, in that it’s directly imperiled by the rise of Netflix and Amazon as film distributors in a way that the simple existence of I Love Lucy didn’t create.

But people are still going to the movies. Ticket sales have fallen in the past few decades, but not drastically so. The total of movie tickets sold annually has crested 1.5 billion twice since 1995, in 2002 and 2003, but it’s hovered between 1.2 and 1.5 billion in every year since. And the price of those tickets continues to climb, rising to an estimated $8.65 on average in 2016 where it was $4.42 on average in 1996, leading to healthy profit margins for almost everybody but theater owners. (Theater owners don’t collect as high a percentage of ticket prices during a film’s first handful of weekends, when it typically makes the most money, and thus they really hope you’ll buy a popcorn and soda the next time you visit).

For better or worse, Americans have a deeply ingrained idea of the movie theater as a fun place for a friendly outing, for a date, for a family night. The true threats to the moviegoing ecosystem are off in some hazy future — but they’re still there. What happens if the younger adult audience (the one watching all those superhero movies) starts to drift away? That’s what movie theater owners and studios are hoping to prevent.

The rise of 4DX and other moviegoing gimmicks

4DX at CinemaCon 2017
4DX chairs move and vibrate in time with the movie.
Photo by Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for 4DX

The most obvious early example of movie theaters attempting to outdo television was the flurry of excitement around 3D in the wake of the release of Avatar in 2009. The fanfare that surrounded Avatar is easy to forget, now that the film has become something of a punchline, but its 3D visuals, on a big movie screen, were like nothing else out there.

Director James Cameron created a visual experience so awe-inspiring that it was easy to pretend the film’s story was better than it was. Avatar’s retreat from cultural relevancy is almost entirely due to how few of its charms can be captured on a TV screen. (This is also why the movie’s sequels will probably be a success — if anybody can create eye-popping visuals that work on a huge screen, it’s Cameron.)

But in the years following Avatar’s debut, it became clear that very few filmmakers had the slightest idea how to use 3D. There was Cameron, and more than a few animated filmmakers successfully used the format (especially the teams behind Coraline and Tangled), but most 3D movies were ugly to look at — dim and hazy, with little care or cleverness brought to their added dimension. What could have been the biggest change in how we experience movies since the invention of color film was largely used for cheap gimmicks.

Outside of 3D, theater owners have floated numerous ideas for how to make the moviegoing experience not only more appealing or exciting, but pleasant (since asking people to simply be polite human beings currently seems beyond our capabilities as a species). Some theaters actually have playground equipment for kids to bop around on before the show, while others have suggested hosting screenings where people who want to use their phones are allowed to. Similarly, the more-recent-than-you-might-think use of IMAX screens to show narrative features (as opposed to nature documentaries) plays into this trend.

The rise of chains like Alamo Drafthouse, which serve you food and drinks as you watch a film, also fall into this category; just like in your living room, you can snack on something healthier or fancier than popcorn, but you don’t have to prepare it! In a similar vein, think of the recent trend toward screenings where you can drink alcohol.

4DX at CinemaCon 2017
A closer look at a 4DX setup, from 2017 CinemaCon.
Photo by Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for 4DX

4DX falls squarely within — and furthers — this tradition. It jostles your seat, which is larger and more like something you might buy at Brookstone than your typical movie theater seat, and sends you bumping along as Vin Diesel and his Furious co-stars race through the streets of various global metropolises. When the camera tilts, the seats often tilt with it, and an early set of shots of the blue ocean waves is accompanied by a gentle rocking motion that made me a little sleepy.

Every so often, little puffs of air burst by your face to accentuate, say, gunfire or a big explosion. On your 4DX armrest, there’s an option to “turn water off,” but Fate of the Furious is not an especially wet movie, so I did not get sprayed once. But other effects are also possible: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 director James Gunn has promised “snow and bubbles” for his film when screened in 4DX.

All of this is meant to draw viewers into the movie, by making them feel like part of the action. The Fate of the Furious is a junky enough film that I didn’t mind bouncing around like I was on a Tilt-a-Whirl, but for my first viewing of the movie, I found the whole experience a little distracting. If it had been a better movie — like many of its predecessors — I might have been actively annoyed at having the experience interrupted by my seat suddenly trying to make an escape (or maybe if it were better, I would have been even more drawn in). But I also can’t deny that the whole experience is fun. I just don’t know if I’d want to do it more than a couple of times.

There’s also the fact that 4DX, even more than 3D before it, is inherently limited to a certain type of film. What would the 4DX experience for any random Oscar contender look like? Would a gentle burst of water mist over you as Juan teaches Little to swim in Moonlight? Would your moving seat try to replicate Sebastian and Mia’s dance moves in La La Land? 4DX is only better than your living room if you’re sad your living room isn’t more like one of those space shuttle simulators that shopping malls used to have in the ‘80s and ‘90s. (Though if you’re a theater owner, you probably like the upcharge that comes with it — which ran to nearly $25 a ticket for a Saturday matinee in Los Angeles.)

There’s another way, and it’s just a few miles up the California 101.

The answer: make a movie theater the best living room money can buy

Ghost in the Shell LA IMAX Fan Event
Every auditorium in AMC’s Universal Citywalk theater has pristine picture and sound, with incredibly comfortable seats as a bonus.
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

Los Angeles is lousy with good movie theaters, including the storied film palaces of Hollywood, and the Arclight, which could reasonably be considered the best movie theater in America.

But for my money, the Los Angeles theater I like most is the newly refurbished AMC Universal Citywalk, just outside of Universal Studios. Yes, it’s just another AMC. But it’s one where literally every aspect of the moviegoing experience has been calibrated for maximum engagement, right down to the wide variety of snacks available.

Every theater is outfitted with soundproofing and state of the art projection that causes the screen to almost glow. (Seeing a few moments of the gloriously blue Moana there felt like having a hallucinatory experience.) There’s no noise from other theaters or the outside world to intrude on a quieter film. The seats are comfortable and they recline, but they also don’t interfere with others in the room. (If you have to escape to the bathroom or concession stand through a full row of reclined seats, there’s plenty of room to maneuver.)

And here’s the thing: The theater doesn’t really police phone usage or anything like that, outside of making the usual requests not to take out your phones while the film is playing. Maybe Los Angeles moviegoers are just that much better than moviegoers everywhere else (they’re not!), but I’ve never had problems with that sort of thing at the AMC Universal Citywalk, because the experience of just watching a film there — no matter how good or how bad — is hypnotic. For a while, you forget everything else, even your phone or the state of the world.

Even better, the theater’s approach is actually scalable: At the AMC Universal Citywalk, the experience of watching The Fate of the Furious is just as compelling as the experience of watching Moonlight, because so much thought has gone into the presentation. Both major blockbusters and tiny independent films are well served by having a beautiful black box to watch them in and a big bright screen to watch them on.

Tickets are a little more expensive at this theater than at other, comparable multiplexes. But it’s a price I’m generally happy to pay, because I know it’s helping support all of the work that went into calibrating an overall better viewing experience.

AMC is one of the major theater corporations in the US right now, and I’m hopeful the Universal Citywalk will become a template for other theaters going forward. The approach, as it turns out, is not to compete with your living room, but to build a living room so great you could never hope to approach it. There’s still something potent about sitting down, in the dark, with your loved ones, and forgetting everything but what’s onscreen. You don’t need your seat to move around for that.

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