Before the advent of IMAX, virtual reality, and immersive theme park attractions, Hollywood was trying its best to pry audiences from the warm glow of their televisions and into theaters. The wide, panoramic aspect ratios used in almost all films today were the result of studios hoping to provide a more immersive experience.
That obviously worked. Most of their other gimmicks didn’t. Take a look at some of the more inventive ways theaters and producers have tried to boost ticket sales over the years.
1. LIFE INSURANCE POLICIES
William Castle (R) with two friends. Getty
The P.T. Barnum of movie salesmanship was undoubtedly William Castle, who bounced from one gimmick to another in the 1950s and 1960s to bolster awareness for his series of B-minus horror pictures. For the 1958 film Macabre, Castle told audiences that their theater tickets would be redeemable for a $1000 Lloyds of London life insurance policy in the event they died of fright. Castle also parked hearses outside theaters and hired women to dress as nurses to roam the aisles. In trade ads in Variety, there were only minimal stipulations: “Not valid for people with known heart conditions or for suicide.”
No one appeared to have died during a screening, a fact that Castle may have considered bittersweet: It would have made for unprecedented publicity.
Fun to say, not so much fun to experience. Preceding such gimmicks as Smell-O-Vision and Odorama, AromaRama introduced an additional sensory stimulant to moviegoers via their nostrils. As opposed to scratch-and-sniff cards, the 1959 innovation promised to “suffuse a theater’s air with recognizable smells … on cue, and clear the air of one odor and substitute another every 90 seconds.”
Curiously, AromaRama debuted with a rather dry documentary about China, Behind the Great Wall, at New York’s DeMille Theater. The New York Times found the experience to have only “capricious” odors working in harmony with the visuals and labeled the entire thing a stunt. With expenses running up to $7500 to install the pungent scents and a slightly nauseating deodorant into an air system, few have had the experience of smelling a great film.
How high was the movie industry on Sensurround, a soundtrack that could produce bass so deep that theater seats rattled? In 1974, Universal was bestowed with a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for their work in getting the technology up and running. Roughly 17 theaters across the country were equipped with the necessary woofers and amplifiers for Earthquake, a star-studded disaster movie.
That kind of sensory assault came at a price: At Mann’s Chinese Theater, the effect was so profound that it literally shook the plaster from the walls, forcing managers to install a safety net over the audience; auditoriums with massive chandeliers and other light fixtures kept their distance, fearing the vibrations could cause a real-life disaster; the vibrations bled into neighboring screening rooms; projectionists popped aspirin because they were subjected to the thudding soundtracks all day long. Sensurround wasn’t a bad idea—it was just too effective for its own good.
“See the hunter, see the hunted, both at the same time!” Long before picture-in-picture was ever implemented in televisions, MGM had the novel idea to offer audiences more than one visual feed with 1973’s Wicked, Wicked, a trope-filled serial killer thriller. For its entire running time, viewers were subjected to dual frames, with the figures on the left (the victims) oblivious to what was happening on the right (a murderer lurking in the curtains). Only occasionally did the film use the technique to add depth to the story, as in the case of one frame flashing back to a character’s tumultuous past.
Director Richard Bare allegedly got the idea from driving down a highway and becoming intrigued by the dividing line in the road; MGM had originally intended to require theaters to run two 35mm projectors at once before realizing they could just strike both frames on the same print. While other filmmakers have experimented with the technique, split-screen never caught on.
Living down to his reputation as a carnival producer, William Castle continued to stir up publicity for his films by installing theater equipment that he dubbed Percepto for 1959’s The Tingler starring Vincent Price. In what must have been one of the earliest examples of interactive entertainment, a select number of seats were equipped to deliver a vibration when the spine-hugging “tingler” creature invaded a theater onscreen. (The boxes were actually airplane de-icing machines Castle bought at a military surplus.) The only way to fight the parasitic monster was to scream, which the audience did, no doubt egged on by the strange and uninvited motor humming beneath their buttocks.
At a theater in Philadelphia, a truck driver became so incensed by the gimmick that he rose and angrily tore the seat from the floor. Castle never brought Percepto out for an encore.
6. AUDIENCE VOTING
The CD-ROM gaming craze of the 1990s didn’t go ignored by Hollywood, which began to anticipate that audiences would want to exert more control over their entertainment. What if they could choose whether Rocky won or lost a bout, or whether Dorothy stayed in Oz? To test the waters, a production company called Interfilm released the revenge action-comedy Mr. Payback, written and directed by Bob Gale (Back to the Future), in 1995. In 44 theaters, attendees could choose a course of action onscreen by “voting” with colored joystick buttons installed in their armrests. Laserdisc players running in concert would then broadcast their selection with no noticeable delay.
It was not the revelatory experience they had hoped for. Roger Ebert labeled the 20-minute film “offensive and yokel-brained” for being preoccupied with toilet humor. He did not specify which color button he used to later vote it the year’s worst film.
7. ALTERNATE ENDINGS
The real secret to huge box office is to convince audiences to see films more than once. That kind of repeat business helped films like Star Wars, Avatar, and Titanic to record grosses. Paramount attempted to cheat the system a bit with 1985’s Clue, a murder mystery based on the board game. Theaters screening the movie would get one of four endings that would reveal a different killer, with the hope being that fans would then see the movie over and over to catch the alternate finales. (After dropping one ending during production, the studio used a letters system—A, B, C,—in newspaper listings so people could keep track of the remaining three.) Unfortunately, most didn’t want to see it even once: it was pummeled by Rocky IV in its opening weekend, ultimately grossing just $14 million.
At the height of the gimmick craze of the late 1950s, Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) made the most audacious attempt to date to please audiences by offering—or threatening—to hypnotize them. Dubbed Hypno-Vista, the conceit consisted of nothing more than a prolonged introduction by hypnotist Emile Franchel before the British-produced movie—about a writer hypnotized to become a killer—begins. Producer Herman Cohen later insisted the introduction was taken out of prints sent for television broadcast because it actually did put viewers under Franchel’s influence. Watch a portion of it above, if you dare.