This morning, I went to my favorite theater, The Camera Seven Pruneyard in beautiful Campbell, California, to “test-drive” one of the 22 new theater seats they’ve just installed there. The Camera Seven is part of the Camera Cinemas group, a South Bay institution, which opened its first theater, the now-closed Camera One, in 1975. The company has a total of 24 screens in four buildings. They continue to bring Indie film to the Silicon Valley when no one else will.

All theaters, and the Camera chain is no exception, are being faced with lower attendance and more people enjoying films at home as prices on flat-panel TVs have dropped and a service like Netflix streaming puts thousands of films at your fingertips. Movie theaters are finding ways to fight back, to get all of us lazy people to leave the house and enjoy movies where they should be experienced–in a theater.

Though the chain is regional and relatively small when compared to the AMCs and Cinemarks and Regals, they have been at the forefront of several trends.

–Thanks in large part to their support, The Cinequest San Jose Film Festival completed its 20th year this past Spring. Most of the screenings have taken place at a Camera theater.

–For 14 years now, me and 400 of my closest friends have been meeting 10 times a year on Sunday mornings to enjoy a secret film, some breakfast, and then a chat with the filmmakers. The Camera Cinema Club continues to be a highlight of my movie-going life.

–They have four screens that are using Sony 4K Digital Projection, which is 4 times the pixels of 2K projection, whatever that means. All I know is that it’s sharp and bright and doesn’t “feel” digital. Like most movie snobs, I was against the whole idea of digital, but it sure looks good in those theaters.

–And beginning this Friday July 16th, with the release of Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION, another technical milestone will be met at the neighborhood Camera Seven. D-Box Motion Seating.

Here’s what I can tell you from the fifteen minute test drive that I had this morning:

* There are 22 extra-wide seats occupying the two best rows in Theater One. These eleven seats per row take the place of 15 normal sized seats. They are cushy and red and have a ridiculously heavy-duty cup holder on the left hand side. The right hand is used to adjust the “severity” of the motion.
* Each seat is numbered so that when you buy a ticket at the box office, the staff can direct you to your exact seat, which will then be activated. No ticket sold for that seat, no activation.
* Each seat has a cool light on it that reminds me of “terminator” or “battlestar galactica” or what other sci-fi reference you want to use. It “flows” up and down, up and down, until someone sits in the seat. This is cool if you’ve arrived and the theater has already been darkened, but as an OCD moviegoer, I noticed the moving lights on the seat next to mine during the demonstration.
* The seats don’t lean back like the ones we’ve all become used to. They are really wide and feel sturdy. I’m not sure I’d sit in one without the motion effects because it’s a bit stiff and my legs dangled a little bit.
* If you sat in the third row, you’d probably feel completely left out because the people in front of you will be oohing and aahing and smiling as they move around and you’d be sitting there, as always, not moving. This will probably provide great upsell. I can imagine someone sitting in a normal seat but hearing the fun the other people are having during a trailer and running off to the box office to upgrade.

Here’s what I saw today:

1) A quick instructional/commercial clip on what’s going to happen. That clip can be seen here. When the animated chair on the screen went left, we went left; when the chair had a wave splash water on the seatback, I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel a wave “splash” my seatback.
2) A trailer for THE EXPENDABLES. There were gunshots and motorcycles and bombs going off. I was trying to calibrate my chair so I didn’t look up very often, but when I did, here’s what I noticed. When Mickey Rourke was on a motorcycle, my butt was rumbling and when that motorcycle turned, so did I. Less successful was when a guy got shot or kicked or something and fell over from left to right, my seat sort of tipped me to the right. When the soundtrack bumped, so did my seat. Think TERMINATOR 2 (dum-dum dum dum-dum [pause] dum-dum dum dum-dum) your seat will bounce in time. Which is pretty cool.
3) A trailer for TRON: LEGACY, which in my opinion used the D-Box technology a bit better. There was a helicopter shot of the top of a building (think Batman looking over Gotham) and my seat “flew” and banked like the camera did. That was my favorite effect of the day, the flying. There was more action and the light-cycles and more soundtrack thwacking. And on a side note, the Tron logo looked a crisp as anything I’ve ever seen in a theater, thanks to the 4K projectors mentioned above. It was during this clip that I noticed I was smiling.
4) Then we saw the pre-credit sequence from FAST & FURIOUS (the 4th one, I think). The part where they high-jack a gas truck (which somehow is pulling FIVE trailers up and over some Dominican Republic mountains.) When Vin Diesel spun his car around, my seat seemed to spin; when Michelle Rodriguez jumped out of the car onto the gas trailer, my chair sort of “jumped”. The footage was loud and crazy and as I was being thrown this way and that way, I glanced over to my right and watched another viewer as her head moved around. I then turned my seat down to 2. I also tried 1, but wanted more. The sequence ends with a flaming tanker rolling down a hill and Diesel timing his drag race just perfectly so that the truck bounces over his car. Then stuff blows up. Loudly.

None of the three clips I saw were from films I’d probably see in a theater. Especially Fast & Furious. But the day wasn’t about artistic creativity. It was about immersion. The first film which will utilize this technology is INCEPTION which has been my most looked-forward-to film of the summer for quite some time.

I have some questions about the technology. There’s been a great deal of debate lately over the merits of 3D. Are studios simply releasing things in 3D to pick up the $3 surcharge or are they starting from scratch to make an immersive experience? Some films are turned into 3D after filming if finished (Alice In Wonderland) and some are made 3D from scratch (Avatar, Toy Story 3, Up). Toy Story 3 is a good example of a film whose 3D didn’t call attention to itself. It was just there. It added a little something to the film experience. Nothing shot out at the audience or caused them to duck or showed off the technology. If this D-Box technology can find a way to subtly add motion to already good films, I’ll be sold. After the presentation had been finished for 15 minutes, my arms were still tingling from the Fast & Furious shaking. But then again, I had it on level 3 for most of the clip.

This D-Box experience will set you back $8 on top of the price of admission. So a 3D, Saturday evening show, could run you $20 a head. This isn’t for everyone, and if a film needs a seat to swing around to and fro to keep an audience’s interest, then maybe the plot isn’t up to snuff to begin with. How many times have we seen couples on dates eating hot dogs and nachos and sodas and candy and popcorn. All of which ends up being much more expensive than $8. A guy on a date, who is trying to impress his lady friend can easily one-up his peers by springing for the extra experience of “feeling” INCEPTION, while his friends merely “watch” INCEPTION. The experience is not unlike those amusement park rides where you swoop around left and right and get motion sick even though you’re not really moving anywhere. $8 is a small price to pay for that kind of fun.

Will the technology take off? I’m not sure. This is not something that can be inexpensively done at home, though the company does sell home theater seats that also move. Would a three hour film like AVATAR lead to “D-Box fatigue” or some kind of motion sickness. We’ll have to wait for reports to trickle in.

I think it’s a great idea to have INCEPTION be the first film to utilize this technology. By all accounts, the film is for thinking people, and the clips show a world where gravity is not absolute. I anticipate that once people find out about these seats, all 22 of them will be occupied for at least the first few weeks.

I want to thank Camera 7 General Manager Alejandro Adams, and Camera Cinemas District Manager Dominic Espinosa for letting me sample the newest technology that movie-going has to offer. And I got a bonus tour of the projection booth too!

You can follow Camera 7 on Twitter to hear how the technology is being received.

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Written by Michael W. Cummins