Cinema is not ready for 270-degree movie screens

Cinema is not ready for 270-degree movie screens
Image: Warner Bros./Screenshot via YouTube
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CJ 4DPLEX, the South Korean company behind the 4DX movie format, has developed a new way to enjoy fine cinema: a 270-degree, movie-viewing experience that makes use of the side walls in theaters, known as ScreenX. This is how I saw The Nun, the latest horror movie in James Wan’s The Conjuring universe. Everything about it was utterly unremarkable.

The movie, which did quite well at the box office opening weekend, traces the origins of a demonic nun who first appeared in The Conjuring 2. The Nun takes place two decades earlier, in Romania in 1952, where a priest and a young religious woman are investigating the death of a nun who took her own life. The movie was bad. The story was pointless and predictable. It earned positive reviews from a mere 26% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

The screen format didn’t help. About 25 minutes of the 1.5-hour movie made use of the full ScreenX format. The scenes were edited for ScreenX in post-production, a CJ 4DPLEX spokesperson told Quartz. (The company hopes to someday be part of a the pre-production process.) The theater where the screening took place, Regal Cinemas in Manhattan’s Union Square, wasn’t originally built for a 270-degree screen either. Lights and exit signs protruded from the screens on the side walls, a constant reminder that I was in a movie theater and not a haunted abbey in 1950s Romania.

While less invasive than 3D might have been, many of the movie’s jump scares didn’t land—in part because the 270-degree screen made it hard to see what was happening. From my vantage point near the back of the theater, anything popping out of a corner of the screen, or lurking in the periphery of a shot, was lost.

When the side panels were used, it normally signaled something spooky was about to happen. In some scenes, the panels displayed the walls of a long, narrow hallway leading to a mysterious door that begged not to be opened. In one, where the ScreenX format was used well, a character walked through a cemetery at night as bells rang on grave stones all around her. The side screens gave the impression of being surrounded by the cemetery, while keeping the focus on the character.

There are currently seven ScreenX locations in the US, and 150 in the world. Perhaps a different theater or a different movie would have yielded more pleasant results. But based on my experience, if 270-degree video is the future of cinema, it still has a long way to go.