4DX promises 3D film with roller-coaster intensity, but will it kill cinematic storytelling?

Is 4DX just Smell-O-Vision 2.0 or the future of movie-going? Call it what you will, but the cinema experience is getting a shakeup with new technologies that theatres hope will take a bold step beyond 3D.

Canada's 1st cinema featuring motion seats, environmental enhancements now open in Toronto

Cineplex is among the theatre chains worldwide that's introducing 4DX technology — which includes sensory enhancements such as motion seats, water effects, wind, lighting and scents. (Cineplex/Canadian Press)

Smell-O-Vision 2.0 or the future of movie-going: Call 4DX what you will, but the cinema experience is getting a shakeup worldwide, with new technologies that theatres hope will take a bold step beyond 3D.

With 4DX, in particular, cinema seats shake, rattle and roll during movie screenings, coupled with environmental effects tossed at the audience at key moments — think a spray of mist, a hot blast of air or wafting scents.

'They call that the tickler': Eli Glasner test drives 4DX at the movies

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CBC's Eli Glasner narrates his first 4DX experience. Is this the future of moviegoing or just another cinema gimmick? 1:01

"The best way to think about what 4DX could offer is if you bring together the expansiveness of a 3D-cinema experience with all the fun and intensity of a thrill ride at a theme park," says Chris Vollmer, a New York-based partner at Strategy&, PricewaterhouseCooper's strategy consulting team.

Movie theatres face an increasingly competitive environment — home entertainment setups now typically include game consoles, streaming services, video-on-demand and more — so the drive is to create distinctive and immersive special events that will drag audiences off their couches and into the cinema.

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Audience members give their reviews after a rollicking 4DX version of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. 1:08

Theatres and Hollywood in general "have to work harder to get customers to open up their wallets," Vollmer says.

"If you can find immersive experiences centred around cinema content that makes these blockbusters even more fun, even more unique to experience — particularly for people who love that kind of content —  you can actually get them to pay more."

The goal is to create a premium offering that takes an audience out of the ordinary, Vollmer adds, especially given that consumers — and millennials in particular — are already accessing high-quality shows, movies and other video content every day on their portable devices.

Latest film fad?

But are these new technologies just the latest in a long line of movie-theatre gimmicks? 

Acclaimed director Ang Lee's war drama Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk debuted in November as a high-profile introduction to a new high frame rate filmmaking format — and it flopped.

Virtual reality (VR) movie presentations remain at a fledgling stage. The jury's still out on wrap-around, panoramic screens like Cineplex's Barco Escape. And after years of ubiquity, you continue to hear gripes about 3D films.

Director Ang Lee, who employed the hyper-realistic, faster frame rate format for his war drama Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, is using it again for his next project, boxing movie Thrilla in Manila. (Chiang Ying-ying/Associated Press)

"It's no different than the 1960s … when those William Castle movies came out and there was, like, Smell-O-Vision and the first 3D happened," says Canadian actor Jay Baruchel. 

"Since the return of 3D, I think there's been maybe three movies that have justified the use and should be seen in 3D."

For Baruchel, who is also a writer and a director, storytelling reigns supreme and high-tech tricks "shouldn't be a crutch" for filmmakers.

"A good movie is a good movie," he says. "You better give me a product worth seeing — and I promise you, getting wind blown at me is not going to make it justified." 

'Technological carnivals' will only attract movie-goers over the short term, according to movie mogul Robert Lantos. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Spectacle has always been an essential part of filmmaking, says Canadian movie mogul Robert Lantos.

But "we're talking about technology surpassing storytelling. And I'm afraid that, long-term, is probably not going to have a happy ending," he says.

Betting the house on gimmicky movie experiences — which Lantos dubs "technological carnivals" — isn't the answer.

"If you depend entirely on the next sort of technological wizardry to attract an audience, along the way, you keep losing more and more people who get past the age of 14," he says. "You get to a point in life where you're not really impressed by that anymore."

A special 4DX presentation was part of the 2015 edition of CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CinemaCon)

In the short term, however, 4DX, IMAX and other enhanced offerings are still coming to a theatre near you.

Though they currently comprise just a small percentage of worldwide screens overall, Vollmer says they're growing in the important markets of North America and China. 

He adds this growth also jives with Hollywood's current focus on "big blockbusters, big franchises, big-event programming and special-effects driven" productions as part of its global revenue-making strategy. 

"We're in really early days, but I do think it highlights how theatre-owners are thinking about evolving the cinema experience."

In November, Cineplex opened its first 4DX cinema at its Yonge-Dundas location in Toronto. It marks the 300th 4DX screen worldwide but the first in Canada. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

With files from Eli Glasner and Alice Hopton


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