According to recent reports, movie revenues are way down (domestically, not internationally) and studios are flummoxed by the news.
So how do you suppose they'll react? By making better movies? Or by coming up with more elaborate gimmicks to lure moviegoers away from their homebound gadgets and get them back into theater seats?
If tradition holds true, I'm thinking more gimmicks are on the way.
You may look at such technological marvels as 3-D (through those obnoxious glasses) and IMAX (the oversized screen that takes up an entire wall) and D-Box (which brings on nausea by shaking your chair in unison with the action on the screen) — and sometimes all three for one movie — as just Hollywood's way of jacking up 21st century admission fees. But motion pictures have a long history of falling back on technological gimmickry when audiences begin to drift away.
Think of these additions to the film experience as desperate devices created during panic attacks. That might make more sense than the notion that these strange forms of audience-building technology are really the result of people sitting around boardroom tables and strategizing.
But even gimmicks that panned out and stayed with us — such as sound, color, widescreen and stereo — started out simply as something new to compete with other entertainment mediums. And all were initially considered passing fancies.
Cole Porter wrote a great satirical song on the subject, "Stereophonic Sound," which is performed in the 1957 musical "Silk Stockings" by Fred Astaire and Janis Paige. Insert "3-D," "IMAX" and "D-Box" into these (abbreviated) lyrics — replacing "Ava Gardner" with, say, "Amy Adams" or "Sandra Bullock" — and think about how well they apply to modern moviegoing:
Today to get the public to attend a picture show,
It's not enough to advertise a famous star they know.
If you want to get the crowds to come around
You've gotta have glorious Technicolor,
Breathtaking Cinemascope and
The customers don't like to see
The groom embrace the bride
Unless her lips are scarlet
And her mouth is five feet wide.
In glorious Technicolor,
Breathtaking Cinemascope or
Vista Vision, or
And Stereophonic sound.
If Ava Gardner played Godiva
Riding on a mare
The people wouldn't pay a cent
They wouldn't even care
Unless she had glorious Technicolor or,
Any color and
In 1957, 3-D had already come and gone, general widescreen releases had only been around for four years and many theaters across the country had not yet switched from mono to stereo.
And yet to come were a number of (mostly short-lived) sensations:
Cinerama was essentially a wider-than-widescreen process introduced with "This Is Cinerama" in 1952, a year before the success of Cinema-Scope made wider pictures the standard. Initially, Cinerama filmed with three in-sync cameras and was shown through three in-sync projectors onto a curved screen, which made it a specialty technique usable in only a handful of theaters.
Psychorama was a series of single-frame images of skulls, snakes, etc., occasionally adding subliminal fright to the 1958 thriller "My World Dies Screaming" (aka "Terror in the Haunted House").
Emergo was used in some tricked-out theaters for "The House on Haunted Hill" (1958), causing a plastic skeleton hanging from the ceiling to fly across auditoriums.
Hypno-Vista for the 1959 "Horrors of the Black Museum" was merely a lengthy prologue by a "psychologist."
Percepto! found certain seats in some theaters fitted to activate small vibrations at the appropriate moment for "The Tingler." And during a scene late in the film, all the auditorium's house lights went down as Vincent Price told moviegoers that the title creature was loose in the theater. (There was an alternate audio track for prints used in drive-in theaters.)
Illusion-O was the process that allowed moviegoers to see the apparitions in "13 Ghosts" (1960) using "ghost viewers," a type of 3-D glasses that were handed out at the door.
Smell-O-Vision was another 1960 gimmick, this one for "Scent of Mystery," with various odors pumped into some theaters. (Some 21 years later "Polyester" pulled a similar trick with Odorama, providing scratch-and-sniff cards to audience members.)
The Punishment Poll for "Mr. Sardonicus" in 1961 allowed audience members to vote for the film's ending and the fate of the title character. Audiences overwhelmingly chose the penalty ending, casting doubt about whether a merciful ending was ever even filmed. ("Clue" upped the ante in 1985 with three different endings that played randomly in various theaters.)
Split Screen, the display of boxed images at the same time to depict at once both sides of a phone conversation or other simultaneous action, has been a staple since the silent era. But in the 1960s and '70s the boxes were multiplied for such films as "Grand Prix" (1966), "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1968) and "Woodstock" (1970), showing too much action to play well on smaller TV screens at the time. Brian De Palma ("Carrie," "Dressed to Kill") used it in many of his films from the 1970s through the early '00s and it still pops up occasionally, as in last year's "127 Hours."
Sensurround gave us rumbling stereo speakers installed in some theaters during the 1970s for "Earthquake," "Midway" and other teeth-rattling pictures — rumblings that also shook neighboring auditoriums in multiplexes.
And how about 4-D? I was curious about what that might be when early reports surfaced that the technique was being employed for "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World." But when the film came out last summer, touted as the first movie in "4-D Aromascope," it turned out to simply be 3-D combined with scratch-and-sniff cards. (See "Smell-O-Vision" above.)
So what's next? If you have some ideas, Hollywood is anxious to hear from you.
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