Top 10 Best (or Worst) Film Gimmicks

By Michael Schilf · July 3, 2010

Thanks to the mastermind behind Avatar, James Cameron, 3-D is here to stay… at least for a while, that is until the audience stops paying for overpriced tickets to watch the hoards of crappy CGI 3-D schlock that wil be dished out by the bucket load, caring little about story, character, and technical presentation, and 3-D dies again just as it has in the past.

There have always been gimmicks used in Hollywood to sell movie tickets. Some were complete and utter disasters while others were one hit wonders, never to see the light of day again, and still others have lived, and died, only to rise again from the grave. But the following list honors the top ten failed gimmicks used in film. Of course you could always see it, and then we could hear it, but thanks to the think tanks behind some of the most unique marketing campaigns cinema has ever seen, we can also feel it, taste it, smell it, even be hypnotized by it.

10. D-BOX: Fast & Furious (2009)

D-BOX Technologies Inc. is a Canadian company founded in 1992 that went relatively unnoticed by Hollywood until recently when the D-BOX Motion Code was developed – a simulation motion seat system that was touted as the next dimension of cinematic experience. The first movie to support D-BOX motion code was Fast & Furious released on April 3, 2009. Despite the system receiving positive reviews, D-BOX Technologies has yet to post a profit. In fiscal 2009, D-Box Technologies posted $4.4 million in revenue but $5.3 million in net loss. Clearly, the jury is still out on D-BOX, but studios have jumped on the bandwagon: Fox, Lionsgate, Disney, Sony, Blue Underground, and Universal Studios. Their success remains to be seen.

9. 4-D: Captain EO (1986)

4-D is a marketing term, coined to describe a movie combining a 3-D film with physical effects, which occur in synchronization with the film. Water sprays, air jets, strobe lights, and vibrating seats are common effects used. Captain EO, the first ever 4-D film starring the late Michael Jackson, debuted at Epcot and Disneyland theme parks in 1986. Because the "fourth dimensional" effects are expensive to set up, 4-D films have been presented almost exclusively at special venues such as theme and amusement parks. In the last few years, however, South Korea began building movie theaters with the ability to present 4-D films – Avatar and Journey to the Center of the Earth among ten mainstream films that have received the treatment.

8. Sensurround: Earthquake (1974)

Specifically developed for the 1974 disaster film Earthquake, Universal Studios pioneered a sound technique that would enhance the audience's audio experience during film screenings. They called it Sensurround – a system that worked by adding extended-range bass for sound effects through a huge, low-frequency speaker system. It was used with only four films: Earthquake (1974), Midway (1976), Rollercoaster (1977), and Saga of a Star World (1978). Sensurround was actually quite popular with audiences; however, the system was impractical for most theaters, not to mention the dangers it created – the Mann's Chinese Theatre was forced to hang safety nets to save the audience from chunks of plaster that fell from the ceiling during Earthquake screenings.

7. Odorama: Polyester (1981)

Director John Waters designed Odorama – a "scratch-and-sniff" gimmick in which special cards with spots numbered 1 through 10 were distributed to the audience before the show. When a particular number flashed on the scene, viewers were to scratch and sniff the corresponding number on the card, and take in that particular scene, some of which included flowers, pizza, glue, gas, grass, and – believe it or not – feces. But you never knew what you were going to get. After being prompted to scratch and sniff a bouquet of flowers, the audience would receive a whiff of old sneakers; hence, the joke was on them.

6. Percepto!: The Tingler (1959)

In this horror-thriller, cult director William Castle featured the "Percepto!" process: random theatre seats were electrically charged to literally "shock" the audience and stimulate panic. But this wasn't enough for "the king of the movie gimmick". To enhance the film's climax, Castle stationed fake "nurses" and an ambulance outside the theatre as well as "fainters" in the audience, who would be carried out on a gurney and sped away in the ambulance. The gimmick worked; however, the extra cost added to the film's budget exponentially, and the fad was gone before it had a chance to take hold.

5. Duo-vision: Wicked, Wicked (1973)

This tongue-in-cheek mystery thriller, which follows a psycho handyman at a seacoast hotel who wears a monster mask while he kills and dismembers blonde haired women, chattered the way we experienced film at the time. Move over silent era, step aside talkies, hit the road 3-D… now we have Duo-vision. Duo-Vision was by no means ground breaking. It was just a promotional marketing term to describe split screen. What makes Wicked, Wicked the first "Duo-vision" film, however, is that split screen is used for the entire movie. As the marketing geniuses said, "Duo-Vision. No Glasses – All You Need Are Your Eyes."

4. Illusion-O: 13 Ghosts (1960)

Director William Castle – known as "The King of Ballyhoo" – used a "process" dubbed Illusion-O: the film was shot in black-and-white, but the ghost elements were tinted a pale blue and superimposed over the frame. Audience members were given special "ghost" viewers with red and blue cellophane filters. Anyone brave enough to look through the red filter saw the ghosts, but apprehensive ones could opt out of the "horror" by looking through the blue filter, which screened out the ghosts. The ghosts, however, were visible to the naked eye anyway, making the red filter pointless.

3. Hypnovista: Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

The promotional campaign for this Horror film was trying maybe a little too hard when it announced that Arthur Crabtree's film would be released in Hypnovista – a gimmick that was so interactive that it was to completely change the way audiences experienced the movies… by way of hypnosis. In the opening prologue, a "real hypnotist" actually hypnotizes the audience, giving them "hypnovision", so that they will fully experience every thrilling moment of the film: see the vat of death!; feel the icy hands!; see the binocular murder!; and feel the tightening noose! Hypnovista was used only once – apparently not enough qualified hypnotists to go around for future film releases.

2. 3-D: Man in the Dark (1953)

This noir film was the first 3-D movie ever made by Hollywood, but the gimmick failed to impress. First off, it wasn't a very good movie, at least not to a New York Times critic who called it "a conspicuously low-grade melodrama", but even worse, the 3-D gimmick itself was anything but extraordinary. In fact, the climatic roller-coaster scene – the film's climax – was such a disappointment that it was described, ironically, as "flat".

1. Smell-O-Vision: Scent of Mystery (1960)

Smell-O-Vision – a system that released odors during a film so the viewer could "smell" what was happening – made its only appearance in this 1960 mystery. The process injected different smells into a movie theater's seats when triggered by the film's soundtrack, but the reception was not a whiff of fresh air. According to Variety, aromas were released with distracting hissing noises, scents reached the audience seconds after the action, and the odors were so faint that the audience began a chorus of loud sniffing in laughable attempts to catch the scent.