With surprise masterpieces like Everything everywhere all at once Gaining huge audiences purely by word of mouth, it’s worth looking back and studying all the ways movies and their creators can bring people to the theater. One such method is to include a gadget to enhance your viewing experience and make your trip to the theater worthwhile.
Whether the movies themselves are good or not is irrelevant. All that matters is whether the accompanying gadget is unique and fun, like the multiple endings of Hint or the fascinating anti-spoiler campaign of Psycho.
The average movie screen is between 45 and 65 feet wide, and IMAX theaters reach even larger sizes. Cinerama theaters featured 97-foot curved screens, onto which three projectors projected larger, more immersive images than any other theater, with excellent sound and shocking realism.
Invented by Fred Waller and first released in 1952, Cinerama served the same purpose as many theatrical gimmicks: to combat the growing popularity of television and draw viewers out of their homes and into movie theaters. Although its popularity has waned due to high expense and glaring flaws (e.g. if one projection failed, the entire projection suffered), it’s still an interesting historical spectacle.
The concept of pumping scents into theaters to better immerse audiences in the film is very old. Regardless of the specific technique used (Scentovision, AromaRama or Smell-O-Vision), the general idea is the same. This is often more difficult than it’s worth, as the effect is marred by bad timing and it can take an hour to drive the smells out of the theater, but that doesn’t stop theater owners from try.
There are many creative ways to attempt it. 1960s Perfume of Mystery used certain scents to indicate characters and reveal plot points. “Odorama” version by John Waters from 1982 Polyester used scratch and sniff cards. New film formats called 4DX claim to be the most cutting edge development in sensory enhancement for moviegoers and include pumped-in-theatre smells.
8 Three Different Endings – Clue (1985)
In the black comedy masterpiece Hint, classic characters from the original board game must solve a blackmail and murder mystery to find the killer among them, playing out the most common mystery tropes in the film as they go. The true identity of the killer is revealed at the end… or is it?
Hint was released in theaters with three different endings, the idea being that viewers would realize that their experience of the film did not match that of others and would keep returning to the theater to find all of the endings. It’s a rare example of a theatrical gimmick that translates well to a home release: the Blu-Ray and DVD copies of the film offer viewers the chance to choose a random ending.
7 Death Insurance – Macabre (1958)
Producer William Castle is famous among horror fans for his many creative theatrical gimmicks. One of its firsts was to guarantee a payment of $1,000 to the family of anyone who died of fear on seeing Macabre. Viewers signed real life insurance policies by Lloyd’s of London at the door of the theatre, surrounded by ready nurses and hearses parked on the street outside.
According to the trailer, audience members with pre-existing conditions would not be permitted to perceive this policy. Castle himself joined in the fun, arriving in a casket at the film’s first major cities. All this did Macabre massively profitable studios convinced to allow Castle more movies and more elaborate gimmicks.
6 Punishment Poll – Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
In one of William Castle’s finest B-movie shocks, the titular Mr. Sardonicus, a cursed reclusive baron with an ugly permanent smirk (not featured in the trailer to keep his shocking reveal), commits many deeds. despicable. These include abusing his servants, kidnapping young women, and tormenting his wife.
After witnessing this, the audience was asked to choose the film’s ending: save Mr. Sardonicus from his curse or let him die painfully? The public overwhelmingly chose to punish him with death. Castle claims in his autobiography that both endings were filmed and valid options. The “mercy” ending footage has never been found, and some historians believe it never really existed, with Castle accurately predicting bloodthirsty audience behavior and not disturbing.
5 Emergo – House on the Haunted Hill (1959)
Perhaps William Castle’s most famous gadget comes from House on the haunted hill (not to be confused with an adaptation of Shirley Jackson Haunting of Hill House). At the end of the film, Vincent Price’s character manipulates a skeleton to scare his treacherous wife into believing he has returned from the dead, scaring her into a pit of acid.
At that moment, a veritable plastic skeleton would emerge into the room, swooping down on a system of pulleys above the audience. As screenwriter Robb White lamented, once audiences caught wind of the gimmick, children would bring slingshots to the theater and attempt to shoot down the glow-in-the-dark skeleton.
4 Fright Break and Coward’s Corner – Homicide (1961)
Homicide is an unforgettable film with extremely entertaining gimmicks. Just before Miriam enters the house of Emily, who she has just realized is a murderer, a 45-second timer starts, with a voiceover warning the audience that if they were too scared to see the end, it was their only chance to chicken out and get their money back.
When people started leaving and getting those refunds, Castle added a “Coward’s Corner.” John Waters, himself a fan of Castle, described it in his book Crazy: everyone who left was followed by a projector to a booth where a nurse took their blood pressure and made them sign a card declaring themselves a “bona fide coward”, while listening to a loud recording that mocked them and laughed at them. The fear of public humiliation took precedence over the desire for money: no one asked for a refund.
3 Percepto – The Tingler (1959)
The TinglerWilliam Castle’s gimmick is among the most ingenious. The film stars Vincent Price as a scientist who discovers the reason why humans instinctively scream when they are afraid: there are creatures living in human spines called Tinglers that feed on fear, grow bigger and are not shrunk only by the sound of screams.
At the climax, a Tingler escapes into a movie theater. The film stops and an image of a crawling Tingler is projected on the screen, with Price warning the audience, “Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!” Buzzers called Percepto implanted in the seats would vibrate, replicating the feel of a Tingler in the spine, and paid “screamers and faints” planted in the audience would be performed on stretchers, all to elicit the desired screams.
2 Nobody But Nobody’s Allowed to Late – Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock, himself an admirer of Castle’s gimmicks, used one of his own to create the greatest thriller ever made: Psycho. He bought up all copies of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel to prevent anyone from reading the story ahead of time, and instituted a rule that no theater could allow patrons to attend screenings of psychology once the movie has started.
At a time when it was typical for fans to wander late into movies and freely discuss spoilers, this was surprising and effective. The theaters stuck to the rule. Viewers lined up at the door to see it all Psycho. This served another practical purpose: to ensure latecomers wouldn’t wonder where star Janet Leigh was, as her character is famously killed off just 20 minutes into the film.
1 3D Movies – Miscellaneous
3D is the oldest and most popular theater gadget. The very first 3D film is believed to be the now lost 1922 film The power of love, which used red and green film strips superimposed and viewed through anaglyph glasses. It was also the first film with an alternate ending: the audience chose whether they wanted a happy or tragic ending.
The first 3D color film dates back to 1953 wax house, starring Vincent Price and featuring a character bouncing a paddleball onscreen and speaking to the audience. In the 1980s, 3D was a popular albeit low-quality fad, added to movies like 3-D jaws and Friday the 13th Part III in 3-D. He had a resurgence in the 2000s with films like Avatar. Time will tell how 3D will evolve in the future.
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