At the downtown Los Angeles movie theater where I’m seeing The Fate of the Furious, a brief commercial plays before the film. It’s an ad for what’s about to happen to me, even though I’m already settled in my seat and part of a presumably captive audience.
Two cars race down city streets, a scene we’ve all watched a million times before. The action stops, and the words “Missing something?” appear onscreen. Then, the scene plays again, with every seat in the theater bucking and vibrating in time with the action. We see a man in his theater seat join the chase, rocketing after the cars, obviously enthralled.
I’m gripping my seat; my body isn’t used to the notion of movie theater seats moving. “Wait!” it seems to be saying. “This shouldn’t be happening!” The ad seems intended to shake off the weak of will and spirit, who might prefer a screening of the film that isn’t also a theme park ride.
“That was fun!” a guy near the front exclaims when the commercial is over. He’s met with nervous laughter. Many of us, it would seem, are with me, but we’re also with that guy. We want to believe this will be a good time, but it’s also not at all what we’re used to.
This is 4DX, just the latest in a long series of attempts by movie theaters to compete with your living room by offering an experience your living room can’t provide. And maybe the living room is winning.
A brief history of film competing with television
The movie business in the 20th century splits fairly neatly into two eras. In the first half of the 20th century the movies were a fresh novelty, minimizing the impact of older forms of entertainment like Vaudeville and the stage. New movie palaces opened in seemingly every city, in response to a bottomless appetite for the images on the silver screen. Sure, the radio took off in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but the movies still offered big, moving pictures, something the radio just couldn’t.
Then, in the early 1950s, television penetrated enough of the US market that the film studios started to freak out. Now the moving pictures were in your house! They began doing everything they could to offer things that TV couldn’t, from massive, widescreen visuals to enormous epics that couldn’t be produced on TV budgets.
And yet film studios were only too happy to rebroadcast their wares on TV, and rights for TV airings (and, later, home video) became a major source of revenue. Film and TV eventually reached a kind of equilibrium.
Read more at Vox.