At a recent screening of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” at Island 16 Cinema de Lux in Holtsville, several members of the Schultz family found themselves bombarded by fog, sprayed with water and shaken in their seats. Something seemed to scuttle around their legs, while devices called “butt kickers” did just that. At times, a strong odor wafted through the air.
The Schultzes didn’t ask for their money back, though. In fact, they paid a premium for the experience — roughly $80 for two adults and three children — and the Blue Point-based family loved every minute of it. For Stephen Schultz, 12, it was a welcome change from staying home to watch movies on a television or computer screen.
“I look on the computer all the time for entertainment,” he said, “and this felt different from that.”
The latest trend in moviegoing, a theme-park-style experience known as 4-D, makes its first Long Island appearance at the Holtsville multiplex. The technology has been making inroads at U.S. theaters for several years now, including Manhattan’s Regal Union Square Stadium 14 and Regal E-Walk Stadium 13 & RPX, which installed it last year. It’s a gambit on the part of large theater chains hoping that audiences will pay extra to feel the rough rhythm of a horse’s gallop in “The Magnificent Seven” or the wet snort of an Erumpet in “Fantastic Beasts.”
“When the creatures come, you can feel them on the back of your neck,” said Pat Caraway, a Holtsville resident who sat a few rows below the Schultzes. “It’s really worth the extra money.”
That’s exactly what National Amusements, the chain that owns the Island 16, wants to hear. Box-office revenue has risen over the past decade, from $8.8 billion in 2005 to $11.1 billion last year, according to BoxOfficeMojo, but only because ticket prices have increased. Meanwhile, home-video revenue is growing so fast that it may outpace theatrical box office next year, according to a widely cited report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. In other words, movie lovers seem increasingly tempted to stay at home rather than trek to their local theater.
“Cinema has been around for a very long time,” says Duncan Short, senior vice president of operations at National Amusements. “The social experience of being together to watch a movie continues to be such an important experience. But we’ve got to continue to evolve.”
TAKE YOUR SEATS
A handful of companies make 4-D seating, but National Amusements chose California-based MediaMation, which has a background in theme parks, and its brand called MX4D. Co-founder Dan Jamele, who has a background in audio engineering, says he relies on a music-industry technology called MIDI — commonly used to trigger synthesizers or help sync audio tracks — to coordinate seat movements and other effects with what’s happening on the screen.
For every movie, a team of nine programmers — mostly musicians, says Jamele — spends two weeks deciding when a seat should tilt (forward, back, left, right), when to cue a water blast and when to pump in a scent (“Fantastic Beasts” includes the smell of fresh pastries). The seats also have the aforementioned “butt kickers” and back pokers, while the auditorium can be equipped to flash strobe lights during battle scenes or pump out canned fog to enhance a mood.
“It’s a pretty labor-intensive process,” says Jamele. “The studios come in and sit with our programmers and go through the movie, and make any changes they want. Then we get the final approval on that. We did about 68 movies this year.”
Whether 4-D will become another forgotten cinematic novelty — remember “The Tingler,” a 1959 horror film that played in theaters with buzzer-equipped seats? — or become an industry standard like Atmos sound remains to be seen. National Amusement’s Short hints that other, even more elaborate technologies are on the horizon.
“There’s so much new that’s out there,” he says, though he declines to be specific. “It’s a case of, ‘Watch this space, more to come.’ ”