LOS ANGELES — As the giant spaceship crashes into the mysterious planet, the seats inside the movie theater heave back and forth and rumble like an earthquake.
“Back ticklers” in the seats thump as an astronaut dodges fireballs and rolls on the ground. A strobe light flashes and huge fans expel gusts of air reeking of smoke and gunpowder.
In the latest bid to lure moviegoers back to the multiplex, where 3-D is already the new norm for hits such as “The Avengers” and “Men in Black 3,” technology and entertainment companies are pushing a new system known as 4-D.
At the leading edge of the technology is South Korean conglomerate CJ Group, which operates Asia’s largest theater chain and has set up a laboratory near Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to demonstrate and market its 4DX system.
The 4-D experience is already wowing fans in South Korea, Thailand and Mexico, where CJ Group has 29 specialty theaters that regularly screen big Hollywood titles like “Avatar,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Prometheus,” which featured the crashing spaceship.
Now CJ Group is close to finalizing a deal with a nationwide U.S. chain to install nearly 200 4-D theaters in the next five years, with the first to open this year in Los Angeles, New York and several other major cities.
CJ Group executives say its 4-D venues already draw sellout crowds from Seoul to Mexico City, and they predict that U.S. audiences are ready to shell out an extra $8 for the new movie experience. They say 4-D technology will help reverse the longtime decline in cinema attendance in the U.S.
“Theaters need to find new ways to bring people back to the multiplex and away from their couches, and this is one way of doing that,” said Theodore Kim, chief operating officer for the Los Angeles lab of CJ 4DPlex, operator of the specialty theaters.
They aren’t the only people working in the fourth dimension, and they’ll have plenty of company if their 4-D system gains traction.
D-Box Technologies of Canada launched a limited number of moving movie theater seats in North America in 2009 with “Fast & Furious,” and it now has about 100 locations in the U.S. The theme park attractions “Shrek 4-D” and “Transformers: The Ride” at Universal Studios Hollywood and “Soarin’ Over California” at Disney California Adventure Park use similar technology.
Gimmicks to get people to buy movie tickets aren’t new. Since the introduction of sound and color, movie and theater companies have often used new technology to drive sales.
Director William Castle rattled audiences when he installed buzzers in theater seats for his 1959 horror film “The Tingler.” Decades later, theaters deployed Sensurround, developed for the 1974 film “Earthquake,” with large bass speakers that created such intense vibrations that Grauman’s Chinese had to install a safety net to catch falling plaster during screenings.
Filmmakers have even tried to heighten the on-screen action with in-theater odors. Smell-O-Vision, used in 1960 with the movie “Scent of Mystery,” featured 30 odors — including brandy, flowers and gunsmoke — pumped across the audience at key moments.
Director John Waters used scratch-and-sniff cards for his 1981 suburban satire “Polyester.” Robert Rodriguez revived the idea last year with the release of his “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World.” Waters called his gimmick “Odorama.” Rodriguez dubbed his “Aromascope.”
CJ Group insists it isn’t building theme park rides, and claims its theaters offer a much richer movie experience. In addition to the moving seats, it installs tiny nozzles that spray water, mist, bubbles, air and odors from a collection of 1,000 scents, such as “rose garden,” “coffee,” “women’s perfume,” “burning rubber” and “gunpowder.”
The theaters, containing up to 240 seats, also have giant fans and strobe lights to simulate wind and lightning flashes or explosions.
It takes 16 to 20 days to program the 4-D effects into a movie, using special software to adjust such things as wind level or seat vibration.
For director Ridley Scott’s sci-fi movie “Prometheus,” 22-year-old programmer Catherine Yi studied the “point of view” of the alien ship in deciding how best to insert effects. In the crash scene, should the seats rock side to side or sway back and forth to simulate the ship’s fall? How violently should they gyrate when debris and fireballs hit the ground? Should the giant fan in the theater emit one blast of wind or two? When should the canisters release the gunpowder smell?
“You don’t want to sensory-overload the audience,” Yi said as she sat in the test theater near Grauman’s, scanning a computer that resembled a heart monitor. “You have to know when to draw the line and when less is more.”
In one nighttime scene in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” when vampire-like mermaids launch an attack on pirates in rowboats, the seats rocked back and forth to simulate the movement of the boats, a gentle breeze was stirred by fans, fog filled the auditorium, and a faint smell of the ocean wafted across the audience. When the mermaids shot strands of seaweed at the hapless pirates, moviegoers were sprayed with water. In “Prometheus,” water sprays simulate something entirely different: the innards of an alien.
CJ 4DPlex, which debuted in 2009, now screens about 20 major Hollywood titles a year for the international market and works with several big studios on international releases.
“We’ve done a number of films with them and they’ve been very successful,” said Chris Aronson, head of domestic distribution for 20th Century Fox. “It’s certainly something that’s unique to the theater environment.”
It costs about $2 million to design and outfit a 4-D theater, with exhibitors covering half the costs. CJ Group says circuits quickly recoup their investment because the theaters are so popular.
One of its largest customers is Mexico-based Cinepolis, the world’s fourth-largest chain, which recently expanded into Southern California. Cinepolis has a dozen 4-D theaters in Mexico and is opening several more there and in Brazil and Peru.
Luis Villavicencio, brand director for Cinepolis, said the theaters typically do two to three times the business of conventional theaters and has drawn nearly 700,000 customers this year.
“If you try to get a ticket on an opening night, tickets are sold out,” he said. “Mexican audiences really love this.”