The Quick 10: 10 Movie Theater Gimmicks

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You've probably noticed by the abundance of funny glasses available at your local Cineplex lately that 3D technology is the latest gimmick to become all the rage at movie theaters. It's only the first in a long line of techniques aimed at getting movie patrons in theater seats. Here are a few others.

1. Light tricks. Has anyone seen Wait Until Dark? Starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin, horror master Stephen King has called the film's ending one of the scariest moments in movie history. Perhaps it was the treatment theaters gave to this film that left such an impression on King: in the movie, there's a part where Audrey's character breaks all of the light bulbs in her apartment and shuts all of her window blinds so she is hidden in complete darkness. As she goes around the place breaking bulbs, theater employees dimmed the lights one by one and eventually turned them all off completely, plunging the theater into total darkness.

2. Smell-o-vision. There's a reason this technique was employed on just a single movie "“ it was expensive to install in multiple theaters, distracting (the smells made a hissing noise when they were emitted) and somewhat ineffective (the smells often didn't show up until after the thing that was supposed to be odorous had left the screen). Moviegoers were unimpressed and bad word of mouth killed this gimmick almost immediately. Although the movie, Scent of Mystery, was a huge flop, a similar but improved technique has been employed in more controlled environments "“ Disney uses smells in several movie-like attractions in their parks.

3. Odorama. Leave it to John Waters to pay homage to the kitch factor of Smellovision. When he released the movie Polyester in 1982, Waters gave all movie patrons scratch and sniff cards. When a number appeared on the screen, people in the audience were supposed to scratch the corresponding card. Smells included pizza, flowers, gas, grass and poo. Waters later commented that he was amused that audiences literally had to "pay to smell sh*t."

4. Seat belts. This was actually a gimmick that was scrapped before the movie's release. For William Castle's 1965 I Saw What You Did starring Joan Crawford, Castle released a statement saying that all movie theaters would have a section equipped with seatbelts. The reasoning? So people wouldn't be scared out of their seats, of course. He intended to follow through on this little marketing ploy until his financial backers informed him that it was just too costly.

5. Punishment Poll. Castle was the poster boy for movie gimmicks "“ he'd try anything once, no matter how silly or impractical. For Mr. Sardonicus, the audience received cards with glow in the dark thumbs on either side "“ thumbs up on one side and thumbs down on the other. Near the end of the movie, the audience is asked whether they want to help the main character or let him die. Their responses would determine which ending would be shown. Supposedly, no audience ever voted to let the man live, so the alternate ending was never needed. But one of the actresses in the movie claims a second ending was never shot at all, so the vote was all a sham.

6. The Tingler. Another William Castle for you. Told you this guy was crazy for weird marketing ploys! The 1959 thriller The Tingler was about a little parasite appropriately named the Tingler that affixed itself at the base of people's spines and could only be killed by the sound of the human scream. Scientists are studying this strange little creature when one of them escapes from the lab and heads directly into a packed movie theater. This is where Castle got his kicks in "“ select seats in the theaters had little vibrating devices wired on to them, which would go off at random during this scene.

7. Not one, not two, but three different endings. You might remember this one. Back when Clue was released in 1985, three endings were filmed "“ and all three were used. You didn't know which one you were going to see until you got to that point in the movie. Eventually, movie theaters started printing that information ("Ending A, B or C") in the newspaper next to the time listing. Not a bad way to get fans to pay to see the same movie three times, huh?

8. Race Car Chairs. At least, that was the idea. Several D-Boxes, vibrating theater chairs, were installed at Grauman's Chinese Theater and at another theater in Surprise, Arizona (surprise!) for the release of Fast & Furious last year. The chairs vibrated, leaned, tilted and shook according to the action happening on the screen. I've not heard of the D-Boxes being used for any film since Fast & Furious, so perhaps it wasn't a very effective gimmick.

9. Emergo. You can probably tell by the grandiose name that this is another William Castle brainchild. This one occurred at the end of House on Haunted Hill, the original 1959 version. As a skeleton gave chase to a character in the movie, a glow in the dark skeleton suspended on wires "floated" across the top of the theater. Hey, no one ever said Castle's tricks were all high-tech. People weren't always scared, though "“ it seems as if most of the time, it became a game to see who could pelt the skeleton with the most Milk Duds.

10. Sensurround. Sensurround = really, really loud movie. OK, it was slightly more complicated than that. Theaters had to install large, low frequency speakers in custom cabinets that often required removing a couple of rows of seats. It was used for the 1974 movie Earthquake and a few more films throughout the rest of the "˜70s, but after theaters complained of structural damage, movie patrons complained of being ill from the vibrations, and businesses near the theaters complained of noise pollution, Sensurround was basically halted.

Did you experience any of these little tricks first-hand? What did you think?

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March 23, 2010 - 1:26pm
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