Immersive 4DX and Butler Service: How India's Cinemas Are Changing the Moviegoing Experience

Inox Leisure
The Inox Megaplex in Mumbai offers the highest number of cinema formats anywhere in the world.

The country's small but rapidly expanding network of luxury theaters is offering innovative technology and personal service on top of gourmet food in an attempt to woo customers.

The audience gasps in unison as bullets whiz by Bollywood superstars Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff in an intense shootout sequence which sees them battling villains in the high-octane blockbuster War. The crowd reaction is triggered not just by the onscreen action, but also by sporadic gusts of air, timed with the flying bullets, which blow from a vent in the headrest, as the seat itself shakes and rumbles in sync with the explosive sound effects.

This immersive experience, powered by U.S.-based MediaMation's MX4D technology, is one of the multiple theater formats installed at leading Indian chain Inox Leisure's flagship Mumbai property. Located at the Inorbit Mall in the city's Mulund suburb, the 11-screen property, which was recently rebranded as Inox Megaplex, covers 60,000 square feet and entailed an investment of 500 million rupees ($7 million). With its dazzling and expansive lobby and interior design aesthetics, which won't look out of place in a luxury hotel, the Megaplex features the largest number of theater formats at one location anywhere in the world, according to the company.

In addition to one MX4D screen, the formats include India's first Screen X theater, installed by Korea's CJ 4DPLEX, which offers a 270-degree viewing experience via multi-projection technology, Samsung's Onyx LED screen, one Imax screen and four luxury cinemas under the Inox Insignia brand equipped with laser projection and Dolby sound which offer on-seat butler service featuring gourmet food curated by celebrity chef Vicky Ratnani. Also included is a specially designed colorful cinema for kids, which offers its own food menu.

"We want to offer the consumer the best experience on three fronts: technology, service and luxury," Inox Leisure director Siddharth Jain tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding, "Our challenge is, how do we de-couch the customer — why is he going to leave home and spend money at our cinema?"

The company's CEO Alok Tandon also adds that the objective is to "amplify the user experience by including not only the various formats, but also the kind of food we serve. Earlier, people would have food before or after the movie. Now they have it with the movie. So all the services we offer aim to de-couch patrons to step out of their homes for a new experience." That explains why the Inox Megaplex features multiple food options, including a buffet counter.

Turning cinemas into a multi-sensory experience has seen companies such as Inox (the country's second-largest chain, which runs 598 screens) and market leader PVR Cinemas (which runs 800 screens) introducing new formats and services in a bid to woo customers, especially given the challenges offered by the rising popularity of video giants Netflix, Amazon and Disney-owned Hotstar, among others.

PVR opened the first 4D screen in India in 2016, installed by Korea's CJ 4DPLEX, at the company's 15-screen Superplex located in Noida on the outskirts of the capital Delhi. The property also offers Imax, three luxury Gold Class screens and a kids cinema. PVR ushered in the multiplex revolution in India when it opened the country's first multiplex in New Delhi in 1997. Since then, it has been introducing new formats and services and pioneered the concept of a luxury cinema in 2011 under the PVR Director's Cut brand offering gourmet food and on-seat butler service.

The launch of new formats by other players has seen Samsung install the largest Onyx LED screen in the country, spanning 46 feet, at the Swagath Onyx Theatre in India's tech capital of Bengaluru, which was unveiled in April. The screen not only offers a more vibrant image quality courtesy high dynamic range, but is also unaffected by ambient light.

The only international company in India's theatrical industry, Mexico-based Cinepolis runs 374 screens and launched a 15-screen property in the western city of Pune in 2013, which was the first megaplex at the time and included three luxury Cinepolis VIP screens.

Luxury cinemas can charge about $20, compared to average ticket prices of about $4, while 4D cinemas can cost slightly higher at $5.70. While Hollywood tentpoles have helped familiarize formats such as Imax and 4D, what is also attracting patrons is the gradual availability of some homegrown films which are specially adapted for such formats.

In 2013, the third installment of the popular Dhoom action franchise from veteran banner Yash Raj Films became the first Bollywood pic to also get an Imax release. Similarly, 2017's Baahubali 2, considered the most successful Indian film of all time, also saw an Imax release. YRF's latest production, War, which has set records, having grossed an estimated 4 billion rupees ($57 million) worldwide since it opened Oct. 2, has been converted for a MX4D release.

Tandon says that the response to War in MX4D has been "amazing, and it is one of our best-performing screens with an average occupancy of 70 percent."

Despite all the promise of new formats, however, the fact remains that India is still one of the most under-screened markets in the world with a total base of about 10,000. Of those, multiplex screens number just over 3,000, with the balance consisting of single-screen cinemas. Understandably, special format screens such as Imax and 4D number less than a hundred. Still, India's total theatrical revenue reached a milestone last year, crossing the 100 billion rupee mark, or $1.4 billion, for the first time, compared to 96.3 billion rupees ($1.38 billion) in 2017, according to a report by consultants Ernst and Young India. Given that a string of hits have been released this year, including the record-breaking run of Avengers: Endgame, 2019 could well top last year's theatrical revenues.

"We plan to add 900 more screens, but the point is, when will these new screens come up?," says Jain, pointing out that "a new mall could take anywhere between two to 10 years, which is unfortunately the gestation period. The market is under-screened because the effort to create capacity is difficult." Despite the challenges, Inox last year added 85 new screens, which it says is a record for any theatrical company in India.

The long delay in getting approvals is a major impediment in setting up retail and cinema spaces, explains Deloitte India partner Jehil Thakkar. "But cinemas are becoming more important, considering there is a current retail slowdown and the only thing pulling in people to malls are theaters," he adds.

As for the competition from digital platforms, Thakkar asserts that OTT content is largely consumed on mobiles in India and "home users will only increase as broadband catches on, which is still a way off."

Jain opines that digital has only "increased our consumption of content compared to what our parents would consume because we consume content across many platforms. Speaking for myself, I have consumed more cinema after Netflix in spite of all the digital content."

Tandon also feels that "content consumed on OTT is totally different than cinema. War cannot be compared to Sacred Games [Netflix's first Indian series]."