Patrick von Sychowski interviews Choi Byung-hwan, CEO of CGV, on the transition of 4DX from theme park attraction to absorbing film experience.
Words: Patrick von Sychowski
Immersive — it may be one of the most prevalent buzzwords in our business, but the driver behind it is solid — make the audience feel they are part of the story. Few do more to achieve this goal than Choi Byung-hwan, CEO of CGV, the South Korean conglomerate that specialises in bringing the film beyond the screen.
Q: How has CJ 4DPLEX gone about refining its 4DX technology since it was first conceived in 2009?
The idea behind 4DX evolved from 4D theme park rides. 4DX harnessed that technology and developed it to provide an increasingly immersive experience. The end result is less a theme park ride and more complementary to films.
The motion-chairs and environmental effects of 4DX are constantly being upgraded with new effects, reflecting feedback from audiences. 4DX provides motion-chairs with 13 different motion effects and eight environmental effects. Last year, we released the sway and twist effect and the fog storm effect, and we continuously develop the existing motion-mechanisms. In addition, we have launched ‘4DX with ScreenX’, a blend of 4DX effects with the panoramic screen of ScreenX [see Peter Knight’s review on the following pages — Ed]. The first site opened in Korea last year, followed by the first European site in Paris in July. ‘4DX with ScreenX’ created a new experience value for audiences, with the movie on a 270-degree panoramic screen. Combining the two formats creates a natural convergence of two technologies that are rapidly growing in popularity.
We’re always on the lookout for interesting collaboration projects, specifically in the gaming and alternative content fields. For example, Simuline, experts in creating dynamic rides and simulators for the attraction industry, was incorporated as a subsidiary of CJ CGV in January 2013, and merged into CJ 4DPLEX in December 2016. To expand our business beyond cinema, we have 4DX VR Cinema in the concept stage. Our 4DX VR technology is currently featured in theme parks and arcades around the world and we are in the process of adapting it for theaters. The VR world is an interesting, growing industry, one we want to keep up with.
Q: CJ 4DPLEX is known for innovation as well as being relentless in gathering customer feedback. Can you tell us more about this process.
Since its debut, over 83 million people have experienced our formats. We constantly check and accumulate audience responses to create international standards for this industry. When major Hollywood titles end their run, a satisfaction survey is conducted up to twice a month, including a brand satisfaction survey for five of the major global markets on an annual basis. Audience feedback is invaluable so we try to listen attentively and ensure these opinions are reflected in how we move forward with technology.
Our business is built on providing the best experience and in this context, our decision to expand ‘4DX with ScreenX’ to the global market is the result of positive feedback. It was unveiled at CinemaCon 2018 in April, following a sneak preview in one theater in South Korea last year. The format received significant attention from exhibitors and was recognised this year at the Edison Awards winning Silver in the Media and Visual Communications-Entertainment category.
Q: What do you see as the key difference between 4DX and its competitors?
CJ 4DPLEX is the world’s first 4D cinema company and 4DX came from CJ CGV, the parent company of CJ. It has achieved a dominant position in the market with numbers and the reaction from our audience suggesting 4DX is the leader of the premium cinema formats. 4DX operates more than 66,000 seats in 563 theatres in 59 countries (as of October). To date, 4DX has reached $240 million at the box office and 20 million admissions for 2018 so far.
The biggest difference between 4DX and its competitors is the creative aspect behind each film. 4DX provides precise movements and a wide range of speed control through a quality motor system installed in the chair. We’ve improved the mechanism to be smooth and subtle so that viewers can be fully absorbed in the film. Our focus is always on improvements in the 4DX environment and the comfort levels for the audience. We do not put in effects to “fill empty space”. Each is selected to maximise enjoyment. More than 30 creative producers from Seoul, Beijing and Los Angeles collaborate in producing 4DX-enhanced films — 4DX Studio works with producers and directors to create the most innovative experience for each sequence of the film.
Q: Let’s talk about ScreenX. Do you see this as a PLF concept competing with the likes of IMAX and China Giant Screen or something different?
What sets ScreenX apart is that it not only offers a larger screen but also an immersive factor. PLF systems simply extend the image or make it appear 3-dimensional on a single screen, ScreenX utilises the entire auditorium with a 270-degree viewing experience. Two specially installed panel screens on the right and left side of the main screen create a panoramic view of select scenes, allowing the audience to feel as if they’re in the movie.
Q: ScreenX has had great success with Korean films such as ‘Train to Busan’ and “Battleships”. What’s the outlook for future Korean films releasing in ScreenX?
Films like ‘Train to Busan’ have proved to be very compatible with the format. ‘Gonjiam’, a Korean horror film, attracted a lot of attention because of scenes shot using ScreenX’s 3 CAM system, and — with 200,000 audience members in attendance — accounted for 10% of the total moviegoers for the film. It could be a turning point for ScreenX for Studios to consider ScreenX in the pre-production process. Currently, we are preparing to release 3D Korean animations such as ‘Jumbagi2’ and ‘Underdog’, as well as K-pop’s top idol Twice’s latest concert film “Twiceland” in coming months.
Q: Can You tell us about films from other Asian territories releasing in ScreenX, particularly from China. Will we see films specifically made for ScreenX?
Since we started showing ScreenX with ‘Mojin: The Lost Legend’ in China in 2015, we have created 11 Chinese local films to date. This year, we produced ‘Detective Chinatown Vol 2,’ a romantic comedy in ScreenX and the response was better than expected with over 320,000 million attendees. We are now in discussions with other major Chinese studios.
Q: ScreenX had its Hollywood debut through the Bruckheimer/Disney partnership for ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ How did you convince Hollywood studios to release their films and get involved in the creative post-production process of converting films to ScreenX?
Our first Hollywood feature was in 2017 with “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”. Its success brought ScreenX the privilege of working with many of the largest studios and most brilliant filmmakers on 10 titles to date. ScreenX has been invited to be a regular part of the creative post-production process as Hollywood increasingly appreciates our strength in communication and our meticulous care.
Our in-house ScreenX producers collaborate with the likes of Marvel and New Line Cinema to create a process that neither disrupts nor delays the pipeline of a blockbuster. Our LA office is a frontline communicator to the largest content creators and distributors and our producers work with studio post-production and production teams to navigate the creation of content approved by studio partners.
Q: Do all genres work in ScreenX and/or 4DX? Would a romantic comedy like “Crazy Rich Asians” work?
In China, ScreenX has released comedy films such as ‘The Village of No Return’ and ‘Hello Mr. Billionaire’ and audiences told us their experience was enhanced through ScreenX. ‘Detective Chinatown Vol. 2’, a Chinese comedy-mystery buddy film in the ScreenX format ranked the highest attendance of all time in Chinese 4DX box office, surpassing 320,000 million attendances. ScreenX suits a variety of genres, particularly films that contain expansive landscapes, but our main focus has always been story. We want the side images to complement the main screen, accentuating the most important aspect — the story. We put a lot effort into selecting scenes where ScreenX and the narrative match.
Q: CJ 4DPLEX recently signed a large global agreement for both 4DX and ScreenX with Cineworld-Regal. How were they convinced to roll out these technologies?
Cineworld is a great partner for their reach and for being forward thinkers. They are believers in moving the experience forward, and high-end technology is a component of that. Likewise, both 4DX and ScreenX are proven innovative cinema formats that outperform traditional theaters: for example, in the US, 4DX outperforms regular theaters by generating an average of 2.2x higher Box Office Gross.
Q: Do audiences respond differently to the 4DX experience in different countries?
Depending on the studio and the exhibitor, there is the option to produce a distinct 4DX film. For example, Korean audiences do not like strong water effects, but these are popular in Japan. As such, 4DX has tailored films including ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,‘ and ‘Jumanji’ to include extreme water effects for the Japanese market.
Q: Is CJ 4DPLEX developing other technologies for the cinema, such as VR or augmented reality?
We try to get people into the habit of going to theatres and we see enhanced cinema experiences as a great step in achieving an atmosphere that can only be available in theatres. Not just to sit back and watch a movie, but to be a part of it. We started with 4DX, then ScreenX, and now ‘4DX with ScreenX’ and ‘4DX VR’. We’re still developing projects to bring innovative, formats to audiences. Early this year, we screened the world’s first 4DX VR film. ‘Stay With Me’ at the CJ-CGV cinema chain — it achieved over 75% occupancy rate.
Q: Do you regard the solutions offered by CJ 4DPLEX as creating a truly compelling reason for people to come to the cinema instead of staying at home and streaming film and TV shows?
As home video streaming has become prevalent over the past few years, the movie theater/film industry has been hit hard. Unique experiences that can only be enjoyed outside the home are the next logical step.
Our aim is to be a powerful driver of the future premium cinema marketplace, continually providing differentiated experiences.
Choi Byung-hwan on….
Japanese success for 4DX
In 2013, 4DX opened its first auditorium in Japan with Korona theaters. Before installing 4DX, Korona was not especially well-known, but after having 4DX in one of its auditoriums, its popularity increased including sales, opening with a 90% occupancy rate. Our marketing concept was ‘Not just cinema! It’s a Theme Park with a movie nearby your Home’. 4DX’s successful opening performance in Korona led to 4DX’s growth, with 4DX opening 25 screens in 2015 and 16 in 2016. There are now 55 auditoriums in Japan, our second biggest market.
To build popularity, 4DX first targeted local movie fans and released more than 10 local films in 4DX a year. 4DX also screened the classic animated film, ‘Girls and Panzer’ and the box-office ranking of the film jumped from 38th to 8th after re-launching in our format. Hollywood blockbusters have also done well. ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ in 4DX earned more than ¥1 billion surpassing 0.4 million attendance in the Japanese box office.