You’ve heard of 3D and 4DX. But the latest amped up cinema experience is ScreenX, a “panoramic 270-degree cinematic format” that aims to immerse audiences into the world of the movie like never before. After taking off in South Korea, this curious gimmick is coming to the US, branching out with Regal theaters in New York and San Francisco with the release of Warner Bros.’s The Nun.
At a special screening in Manhattan, I sat down to watch the latest film in the Conjuring series in ScreenX. The theater at the Regal Union Square Stadium 14 was small with stadium seating. And it didn’t look discernibly different from any other theater. That is until the lights went down.
Ahead of the movie, a five-minute demonstration played, which was made up of three shorts intended to show how ScreenX displays differently. Unlike a standard theater, the walls were not covered with dark paint or sound-muffling carpet. They were light-colored and smooth, perfect for the projectors to flash images upon them that extended the aspect ratio out beyond the ends of the front screen and back into the theater.
In one short, the audience was put in the driver’s seat during a car chase. The side walls became the left and right of the car, with buildings, vehicles, and vicious robots zipping past. In another, the side walls expanded the scene of an animated short—say a sprawling office packed with cubicles—then switched to more abstract imagery, some paperwork or a throbbing heart, to accentuate the meaning of the scene playing out in the center screen.
It was interesting, but already I was noticing flaws. First off, these side screens are still walls in a movie theater. Which means, they still must contain lit-up exit signs. Now, years of going to the movies may have trained us to block out these neon distractions. But that’s when the theater is dark, and you’re only looking dead ahead, absorbed in the movie. Now, they were a recurring distraction, and not the only one.
To get this ScreenX effect of 270-degrees of cinema, at least five projectors were used. In addition to the one behind the back wall, there were two on each side wall, making the theater far brighter than any I’d been in before. One projector was angled in such a way that its light spilled so completely onto me that I was able to read my critic’s notebook with ease. Which is a first, but bad news for The Nun. The movie’s atmospheric shadows never felt all that dark because of all this light spilling across the theater.
Another snag, you’re still in a standard box theater. So, the image is not seamless like the “panoramic” sales pitch implies. Instead, the seams at the wall sever that sensation. The experience is further marred by the slightly jarred angle on either side, as if you glued two photos of the same setting together, but one is slightly crooked. ScreenX does not mimic human vision, but offers something clunkier that takes some getting used to.
In the film itself, ScreenX only came to life during select scenes. When the young novitiate played by Taissa Farmiga travels down a dank and dark stone hallway, the side screens stretch its walls out into the audience. When a frightened villager (Jonas Bloquet) runs through the woods, dark trees lined the walls. And as he spins in search of the nasty nun who hunts him, the whole room seems to spin with him. This was the highlight of the experience, adding a dizzying verve to the sequence. But, there’s not much in the way of action in The Nun. So ScreenX’s use was mostly for adding atmosphere to scare setpieces. Otherwise, the walls sat grey and empty…save for the projectors and exit lights.
Looking over the press kit, I see a slew of action movies have gotten the ScreenX treatment worldwide, including Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Meg and Black Panther. I marvel that The Nun is how ScreenX is making its New York debut.* In it, this format is used for little but expanding the frame. I noticed no additional scares or nuns hiding in the side screens. And my fruitless searching means I may have missed the scares put forth in the center screen. Stone hallways stretching out did little to add to the atmosphere as they offer no new visual information or tension. The woods offered possibilities, as any movement could snatch one’s peripheral vision and set off fear. I wonder what The Meg might have looked like, with underwater stretches becoming submersive, perhaps with the shadow of a shark glinting in the distance. But what I saw was an atmospheric horror movie whose scares were hardly enhanced and moodiness was spoiled by being woefully overlit.
Overall, ScreenX was underwhelming. Its staging is awkward, making the mundane machinery of a theater a fresh distraction as its supplemental screening material draws your eye. All the extra light from its projectors wreaks havoc on the immersive darkness of the theater, which typically invites you into focus on the film in front of you. And the added footage meant to make ScreenX immersive wasn’t all that thrilling in The Nun. With box office figures falling, theaters are desperate to provide an experience you can’t get from your couch, that will draw you into the theater. But I suspect charging $22.40 for ScreenX will not be cinema’s salvation.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said this is “the American bow” of ScreenX. Per ScreenX’s team: “This is the NYC bow, but has been in the U.S. in other locations (there are 7 locations in the U.S. total), including the recently opened largest ScreenX location in the world in the Kansas City DMA, which opened with Ant-Man and The Wasp, and the first Regal-owned location in the U.S., which opened in Irvine, CA, with The Meg. The first major Hollywood studio release to show in the U.S. in ScreenX was Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales last year.” Pajiba apologizes for the error.
Header Image Source: SCREENX