Mike Koenig sat back in his seat for a recent screening of "Mad Max: Fury Road." But this was no ordinary theater chair.
As the theater darkened and death machines rumbled across the desert on screen, Koenig's chair rumbled with them. As bullets whizzed by Furiosa, the movie's heroine played by Charlize Theron, puffs of air shot out of Koenig's headrest. Wall-mounted fans in the theater gusted desert winds and fog machines pumped smoke from the mayhem.
The 46-year-old software salesman's Wednesday matinee was a "4-D" movie experience, the kind of rollicking thrill factory once reserved for theme park rides.
With domestic movie theater attendance stagnant in recent years, more theater owners are looking to provide these immersive jolts to goose both moviegoers and box office revenues.
"I loved it," Koenig said, having forked over $26.25 for a "4DX" ticket at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live Stadium 14 in downtown Los Angeles. "If you ever rode bumper cars as a kid, you'd like this."
Motion seats touting a "4-D" experience can sometimes occupy a row or two in an otherwise normal theater. More souped-up models like the one at L.A. Live can take up an entire auditorium decked out with strobe lights and pneumatic lifts.
With the summer movie season in full swing, movies like "San Andreas," ''Jurassic World," ''Ant-Man" and "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" are being programmed by motion artists with the bumps and sways necessary for the seats to come to life.
It's one way for theater owners to offer something that can't be experienced at home for the average fan.
Shelby Russell, vice president of marketing for L.A. Live, says the 100-seat auditorium that was retrofitted with the 4DX system last June has tripled its revenues, thanks both to greater attendance and the $8 ticket upcharge, not to mention the $4 add-on if the movie is also shown in 3-D.
The setup has helped attract visitors to L.A. who come for the theme parks and studio tours and drop by the 4DX theater for another thrill, he said.
"The attention it's garnered for our cinema has been fantastic," Russell said.
4DX is backed by Korean conglomerate CJ Group, which has set up 170 theaters in 33 countries, but just one in the U.S. at L.A. Live. Another company, Torrance, California-based MediaMation Inc., has outfitted about two dozen theaters worldwide with its similar "MX4D" system, but there's just one in the U.S. in the L.A. suburb of Oxnard.
MediaMation did do the work on a 68-seat 4D EFX theater in Indiana at Fair Oaks Farm in fair Oaks. It regularly shows a movie to visitors called "Grass to Glass," which "takes the visitors on a 3D/4D experience of the entire process from the grass the cows eat until it arrives in a glass on your table."
Canada's D-Box Inc. leads the pack with nearly 330 installations of its "MFX" seats at theaters worldwide, including 175 in North America, most of which are in the U.S. However, its seats only sway, vibrate and jostle, and are usually placed among non-moving seats in auditoriums. While the less-expensive installation cost has helped D-Box grow quickly at theaters, there's no snow, fog, scents or strobe lights. The range of motion is more subtle, though the company argues it's also more refined than newer entrants.
"We are 15 years ahead of them," said motion artist Jesse Auclair, during a visit to D-Box's encoding studio in Burbank. The company's experience stretches back to the time it made motion seats for wealthy home theater owners along with industrial-grade car and flight simulators. "We've evolved so much, it feels so much better now."
When multiple vibrations are layered on top of each other, for example — say when a rumbling tank fires off a shot and you feel the shell exploding — D-Box encoders take care to avoid harmonic distortions by keeping vibration frequencies at least an octave apart, Auclair said. The company also has thousands of pre-set rumbles, which speaks to its experience in the field.
CJ4D Plex, behind the 4DX format, says its experience offers many more sensations than other seat-movers. Leg ticklers reach out to give you a surprise tingle, lightning is punctuated with a strobe light. Even scents, from raspberry to burnt tires, help audiences immerse themselves in the on-screen world.
"We don't think anyone else brings that combination of features," says Chief Marketing Officer Angela Killoren of CJ4D Plex America.
The companies say demand for motion seats is growing. D-Box said in February that the number of theaters worldwide equipped with MFX grew 31 percent over the previous 12 months, and had plans to install 20 more screens at Cinemark theaters in the U.S. over the coming year.
CJ4D Plex's Killoren said the group built 10 new installations between March and the CinemaCon convention in April, and has plans for further announcements this year. MediaMation vice president Dan Jamele said the company, which got its start installing its systems at theme parks, has been increasing its theatrical installations by 25 to 35 percent each year and expects to top that pace this year.
Charlotte Jones, an analyst with research firm IHS, called "4-D" a growing "niche trend" that caters to people looking for an "event type experience, but on the flipside may lack universal appeal."
So far, motion seats are giving only a small boost to the box office, says Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., which distributed "Mad Mad: Fury Road."
But he said he hopes that it follows other innovations like luxury seating, which has been growing in popularity and is becoming a more important factor in theatrical revenues. For now, studios are cooperating with motion artists by testing the experiences in a final check before the public release. Someday, directors may even make movies with motion seat effects in mind.
"We love them. They achieve excitement from a niche audience," Goldstein said. "We're laying the seeds to see if there's potential down the road."