I have seen the future of cinema, and it is wet. Mist in the face, trickles down the neck, damp fog all around.
This is 4D, the so-called fourth dimension of cinema, and at least one operator is counting on audiences being ready to embrace this clammy change in a big way.
Village has outfitted one of its cinemas at the Century City shopping centre in Glen Waverley with the new 4DX technology. If it is a hit with customers, it will soon be rolled out nationwide.
The idea of four-dimensional cinema isn't exactly new. Aldous Huxley described something like it in his 1932 novel Brave New World, labelling the smell and touch-enhanced experience "the feelies" (remember, he was writing just a few years after sound was introduced, taking motion pictures into the thrilling new era of the "talkies").
In the 1960s, as cinema responded to the threat of television, a variety of one-off gimmicks were tried out, offering scent (Smell-O-Vision) and in some cases live performers as part of an enhanced experience.
In the 1970s, the bass-driven Sensurround was created for Earthquake (1974) and used in a handful of other films but never really took off widely. Beyond that, 4D has tended to be used mostly in theme park and tourist attractions, with the visuals a secondary element.
The new 4DX offering is a far more integrated affair. In Australia, Thor: Ragnarok was first cab off the rank, followed by Justice League, with Star Wars: Return of the Jedi next to come. Village Cinemas boss Gino Munari says he expects between 60 and 80 films to be made available in the format over the next 12 months, primarily in the big-budget effects-driven space.
The way it works is that a 4DX program runs parallel to the DCP (digital cinema print) on which the sound and picture for the film is stored; this program triggers physical in-theatre effects synchronised to on-screen events.
The on-screen action triggers physical effects in the cinema seat and surrounds. Photo: Eddie Jim
When a car splashes through a puddle, you might get a burst of mist on the face. Our hero rides a motorbike at high speed, you'll feel a jet of air around the ears. She wakes up and smells the coffee, and you might too. Some films are screened in 3D at the same time, but not all (which raises an interesting question: if a 3D film gets bumped up to 4D, what do you call a 2D film with 4D effects? A 2.5D film?)
Such whizzbangery doesn't come cheap: it costs about $1 million to fit out a 4D cinema, with its hydraulic seats and array of sensory effects. With ticket prices set at $30, the 4DX offering at Century City is just $5 more expensive than the standard 2D experience in the same cinema. The payback period is likely to be years.
It won't be for everyone, of course. It's hard to see many thoughtful dialogue-driven movies being offered up in 4D. If you suffer form motion-sickness, the sharp movements of the seats - which are enticingly wide and comfortable, but don't come with lap belts - could be a problem. And if you wear glasses, a burst of water on the lens is the last thing you'll be wishing for.
It's no accident that Village Cinemas recently rebranded as Village Entertainment. The company is a substantial player in theme parks, has developed the Intencity brand as a games arcade element in its cinema complexes, and has just entered the Virtual Reality space with its XOVR brand. The addition of 4DX makes sense as part of a strategy of diversifying away from the movie business as it was.
Whether customers will see it as anything more than a gimmick, to be tried once then left behind, remains to be seen.