Just how desperate are cinemas to draw younger moviegoers?
Across North America, the short answer is “very”.
It’s no longer just 3-D and ear-splitting sound — even alcohol sales. Some theaters have installed undulating seats, scent machines, 270-degree viewing and on-screen text messaging.
For an extra US$8, a Regal theater sprays patrons with water and pumps scents (burning rubber, gun powder) into the auditorium, according to the New York Times.
“When I step back and think about what will get people off a couch, in a car, down the road and into a theater, the answer is not postage stamp-sized screens and old seats,” said Gerardo I. Lopez, chief executive of AMC Entertainment, the No. 2 chain in the United States.
“Why would they bother? What the hell, stay in the house.”
If Lopez sounds frustrated, he is. Ticket revenue in North America has fallen 4 percent this year compared with the same period in 2013, according to box office analysts, and attendance is equally down.
The busy Thanksgiving and Christmas moviegoing periods are not expected to make up the ground.
The decline has hammered the biggest theater companies, with profit at both AMC and Regal Entertainment, the No. 1 chain, plunging more than 50 percent through the first nine months of this year, compared to the same period a year earlier.
Two statistics released in the spring by the Motion Picture Association of America are particularly unnerving.
Last year, despite a glut of extravagant action movies, the number of frequent moviegoers 18 to 24 fell 17 percent from a year earlier; the 12-to-17 age bracket dropped 13 percent.
The undiscerning young ticket buyers Hollywood has long counted on to turn out weekend after weekend are suddenly discerning.
Or they are at least busying themselves with video games, living room wide-screen televisions and devices that can pull up thousands of movies with a couple of clicks. For many teenagers, the idea of focusing on a single screen for an extended stretch is anathema.
“The traditional moviegoing experience is at odds with the rest of their lives,” said Ben Carlson, president of Fizziology, a consultancy that focuses on entertainment and social media.
To combat the problem, theater chains seem increasingly open to trying just about anything.
Regal, for instance, in June began offering something called 4DX in downtown Los Angeles. More than 100 seats buck and dip in close synchronization with the action on the screen. Compressed air blasts from headrests to simulate flying bullets. Fans provide a gentle wind effect.
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