D-box motion system puts auds in rumble seat

As home theaters improve and auds turn to vidgames in their leisure time, the movie industry is battling back by trying to make the movie experience more immersive.

Immersiveness is a big part of the pitch for Imax and 3D — and as far as Hollywood is concerned, it helps that both are premium formats that can command an upcharge.

In the search for other options that upgrade both the movie experience and grosses, some exhibs are turning to D-box, a motion system that makes specially designed theater seats shake and tilt in tandem with the action on the screen. For example, in “Battle: Los Angeles,” the 25th pic to get the D-Box treatment, when a bomb goes off left of screen, the seat tilts quickly to the right, as if jolted by the blast. When tanks rumble by, the seats do too.

“Nobody has really done what we’ve done,” says D-Box veep of marketing Guy Marcoux. “We’re starting and creating that niche.”

Unlike 3D or Imax, D-box doesn’t require a changeover of the whole auditorium. So far, theaters typically install two to three rows, or 15-30 seats. Those seats typically command a premium of $8 above other seats in the theater, with the added coin split among D-Box, the studio and the exhibitor. The ticket revenue covers the cost of installation, which is free to the theater owner.

It takes only a few days to install the seats and train staff on how to use them, but D-Box has proven popular enough that there is a waiting list.

“Once they (theaters) try it, the rollout in other locations is happening quite fast,” Marcoux says.

Quebec-based D-Box has been developing high-end home theater motion systems for about 10 years. It began to roll out seats with its patented Motion Code technology in April 2009. An UltraStar theater in Surprise, Ariz., and Mann’s Chinese 6 theater in Hollywood were the first to use D-Box, showing U’s “Fast and Furious.” The seats were sold out for the first two weeks.

Cineplex, UltraStar Cinemas and Galaxy Theaters now each have seven screens with D-Box. Santikos Theaters and Muvico Theaters each have four.

UltraStar Cinemas executive VP Damon Rubio says movies like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and “Tron: Legacy” were popular with D-Box. “Any time we have a movie performing well in the theaters, D-Box seats perform as well,” Rubio says.

“Battle: Los Angeles” opened in the top spot. “Hanna,” which bows April 8, is the next D-Box film on the sked.

The core audience for D-Box appears to be 15- 35-year-olds, equally male and female. Out of 3,000 people polled, D-Box reports a satisfaction rate of 91%.

“We’re not trying to jolt people around,” Marcoux says. “We’re trying to replicate how it would feel in real life. It’s all about the subtleties and the refinement of the movement.

“And it’s really hard to explain to somebody who has never tried it, because the only comparison people have are theme park rides.”

The motion cues for D-Box pics aren’t created by the filmmakers. Instead, all coding is handled by the company’s four Burbank-based motion designers. Designers can work with only post-production assets from the studios; it can take anywhere from 300 to 600 hours to encode a single movie.

“My main challenge is to make sure that even though the system is powerful, we take you more into (the movie),” says lead motion designer Jessy Auplair. “When I try a (theme park) ride, I focus on the ride, and for me, D-Box is the opposite. We never want people to focus on the chair.”

Auplair and the designers encode “intelligent vibrations” frame by frame and then do the same thing for the motion effects. Finally, they are blended together.

“It has to be justified and if not, we’ll stay silent and the chair won’t do anything,” Auplair says.

Each seat has a settings button for customers to tailor his or her experience (onscreen instructions show viewers how the controls work), but for something like “Battle: Los Angeles,” the simulated vibrations of war obviously will be less subtle, though in synch with the numerous point-of-view shots in the movie.

“I think there is a little bit of that jealousy factor sometimes when people start having fun in the seats,” Rubio says. “It’s really turned into that cool advertising where they think, ‘Next time, I want to do that.’?”

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