Skip to main content Skip to Gnb Skip to Copyright

Has the future of movie theaters arrived?

The Korea Times (January 28, 2014)

Watching movies has just become more intense. Yes, you’ve probably gripped the armrests while watching a blockbuster before, but that was because of a thrilling plot. But in the latest theaters, you must try not to fall out of your chair when it rocks back and forth, left and right, gives you a tickling sensation or a feeling that you’ve been hit in the back. You duck water squirted in your face. Air is blasted beneath your ears. You even smell strange aromas that actors pretend to encounter on screen. Such in-theater experiences are the latest products from movie industry giant CJ, which ambitiously calls this new cinematic experience as “4D.” However, the term is an exaggeration and comically inaccurate. Several of CJ’s “4DX” (the “X” for “extreme”) theaters in Seoul were visited as research for this story and there was certainly an abundance of gimmicks. But there was certainly no time-bending, Dr. Who stuff happening in any of them. Still, these next-generation theaters do provide an experience that is new and different. CJ boasts 4DX the “next big thing” in the cinematic sector. While this might seem unlikely at the moment, 3D movies weren’t supposed to last this long either. What is entirely certain is that it’s a bad idea to go to one of these screenings with a full stomach. You could be in danger of losing your lunch or dinner.

What ‘4D’ feels like

CJ’s arbitrary concept of 4D is basically stereoscopic imagery supported by a touch of real, “environmental” effects. Chairs move and vibrate. Jets of water or air are directed at heads and necks. Lighting is individualized and customized. Aromatic vapors are diffused. There are cascades of bubbles and billows of smoke, simulating whatever conditions the movie is showing at each moment. While watching an action thriller, your buttocks are pounded numb by the mechanized seats. During children’s movies and animation, you try hard not to get wet. CJ employs a group of technicians at theaters who manually adjust the effects. In some of its 4DX theaters, viewers can choose to turn on or off a number of effects such as water from the buttons on their seats. Of the three films this reporter watched, “The Suspect,” the recent Gong Yoo spy flick, provided the most memorable 4DX experience. The chairs began to rock during a German car commercial at the beginning of the film and the intensity and pace of the drama soon locked the audience into a fast and furious ride. Starring as desperate North Korean spy agent Ji Dong-chul, Gong, or his stunt double, puts himself through a lot of bodily harm in this movie. When his car tumbles down a set of stairs, the seats bump and bounce in accordance with his painful descent. Crazy car chases leave you feeling dizzy and thinking about Tylenol. The climatic fight scene of the movie involves a lot of hand-to-hand combat and knife wielding. The chairs punch and poke viewers in cadence with the action. Every Korean action movie is required to have a scene that features the protagonist looking dangerous, vulnerable and sexy in the rain. So of course your hair gets wet. “Tarzan,” a 3D animation film, provided a gentler experience. In one scene, Tarzan slides down the trunk of a tree, then suddenly jumps off, grabs a vine, sways back and forth jumping from one vine to another. The seats convincingly simulate this motion and helped establish an emotional engagement. The screening was liberal in its use of aromatic vapors. When Tarzan’s parents die in a helicopter crash, viewers are hit with the smell of burning rubber and were subjected to fog. When Jane first enters the woods, you smell the grass when she does. “Frozen,” an American animation that is beginning to climb the Korean box office ranks, demonstrated the broadest range of 4DX gimmicks, with a variety of effects simulating wind, light and odor. Throughout the movie, viewers feel strong winds and cold air blowing through their hair. They smell flowers and grass when Elsa becomes queen and the palace magically turns into a garden. They smell trees when Anna and Kristoff run into trolls in a forest. There are splashes of water when Hans plunges into water, setting up his fateful encounter with Anna. When Elsa creates snow with her magical powers, the lighting effects simulate strikes of lightning. The best effect is when Anna and Kristoff ride on a reindeer-drawn carriage down a snowy mountain. The bumpy ride is so realistic and the wind maximizes the effect.

Can this ever be mainstream?

While moviegoers are still new to the 4DX experience, CJ has been experimenting with the technology in its CGV theaters with varying degrees of success since 2010. It opened 12 4DX theaters nationwide, including two in Seoul, that year. Now, 22 are in operation. Previously, the theaters did not become popular because CJ wasn’t comfortable about fully promoting them. The company now believes it has a convincing-enough product and has vowed to revolutionize the experience of movie watching here and abroad. CJ has always regarded 4DX theaters as a potential export product. It already operates 67 screens in 22 countries overseas. In last December alone, the company added 20 screens in 13 countries, including Croatia, Ukraine, Russia, Indonesia, Thailand, Venezuela and Mexico. CJ plans to open 90 more theaters worldwide this year and expand the numbers to 300 by 2015 and expects much of its market to come from North America and Europe. It aims to become the nemesis of IMAX cinemas. CJ’s onslaught in 4DX seems to have stoked the urgency of Lotte, the chaebol that is on the other side of Korea’s movie industry duopoly. Lotte has opened eight “4D” theaters in Korea, including three in Seoul, but is trailing far behind CJ in the market. “We are generating demand very fast. This clearly indicates that our 4D experience is resonating with moviegoers here and abroad,” said Choi Byung-hwan, CEO of CJ 4DPlex, the CJ unit that manages its 4DX theater business. “I think people’s needs are expanding. Rather than being passive in theaters, moviegoers now want to have an active cinema experience. They want to feel more and experience more in the same amount of time they spend in the theaters,” said Claire Park, assistant manager at CJ 4DPlex. “Korean companies have to develop theaters with cutting edge technologies because of moviegoers and their high expectations.” The United States is slowly adopting “4D” theaters because of its culture of watching movies at home or theaters near their homes, Park argued. “This is one reason why the market is less dominated by multiplexes,” she said. Mexico has been a lucrative export market for 4DPlex and Japan is showing promise. “It’s also interesting to see how different cultures react to different effects in 4DX. ‘Fast and Furious 6’ did well in Eastern Europe while ‘Pacific Rim’ did well in Asia and South America. This shows how Eastern European viewers like to enjoy the car racing motions,” said Park. “The water effects also had very positive responses from Mexico while Korean and Japanese viewers tend to dislike it.” The films that are chosen for the 4DX effects are usually blockbusters or action films such as the Avengers, Iron Man, Amazing Spiderman series or animations which are suitable to add the effects. “It’s because viewers complain if there isn’t enough motion. They want to get the most from the expensive tickets they bought,” Park said. Interestingly, more men visited 4DX theaters than women. The gender ratio was 55 men to 45 women, meaning men enjoyed more action and motion.