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Gimmicks galore at movie theaters past and present

Regardless of whether 3-D technology is here to stay in modern cinema, filmmakers are still looking for ways to attract an audience that goes beyond a third dimension.

With the Aug. 19 release of Robert Rodriguez’s “Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World,” a new gimmick known as Aromascope will try and entice theatergoers with the chance to experience exactly what the characters on screen are smelling throughout the film.

“Now that everybody is doing 3-D, I was like, ‘We gotta do something else. I want to go the fourth dimension,'” Rodriguez said to E! Online’s Marc Malkin.

In the trailer that premiered with last weekend’s 3-D extravaganza, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” a character is seen looking at three different numbered cereal bowls – moments like these will coincide with a numbered scratch-n-sniff sticker card that will be handed out to audiences going to see the film.

While Rodriguez’s tactics would probably be a better fit for a Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure ride, he certainly isn’t the first filmmaker to employ such gimmicks. Scene & Heard looks at four ways Hollywood studios have tried to grab an audience with senses that go beyond the usual sight and sound.

“The Tingler”

Director William Castle was well known for making low-budget films that always featured an enticing gimmick. With his horror film, “13 Ghosts,” he gave out glasses that would allow the audience to see the film’s many spirits, even if the onscreen characters could not.

Yet, for many audiences, none of his gimmicks were quite as memorable as the one he employed in the 1959 thriller, “The Tingler,” starring Vincent Price. Filmed in what Castle referred to as “Percepto,” he equipped several theaters in major metropolitan areas with vibrating motors under the seats.

In the film’s final moments, the evil creature known as Tingler attached itself to the spinal cords of the film’s characters and could only be killed by screaming. As the vibrating motors were activated, the creature was shown entering a movie theater on screen while Vincent Price’s voice could be heard telling the audience to “Scream for your lives, The Tingler is loose in this theater!”


While Sensurround shares the desired effect of D-Box – a vibrating chair that’s been used on films like “Fast & Furious” to recreate the rumble of a car race – the former relies more on sound to create an immersive filmgoing experience.

Universal Studios used Sensurround to great effect in the 1974 disaster film “Earthquake.” According to, Sensurround used extended-range bass to enhance scenes of destruction caused by the film’s tremors that would literally cause the ground beneath the audience to tremble.

“Earthquake” won an Oscar for Best Sound, but Sensurround was only used in three more films. Still, the technology is remembered by many today as one of the few gimmicks that not only allowed one to hear the sounds of destruction in a film like “Earthquake,” but feel it at the same time.


Unlike Rodriguez’s Aromascope, Smell-O-Vision was used to release actual odors through the air while audiences watched a film. According to Time magazine, the various scents were released through the theater’s air conditioning units.

Smell-O-Vision was only used for Jack Cardiff’s 1960 mystery film, “Scent of Mystery.” The gimmick received harsh critical reception and was even featured on Time’s reader survey of “Top 100 Worst Ideas of All Time.”

For April Fools’ Day in 1965, BBC aired a segment with an expert who chopped onions and brewed coffee to prove he had invented Smell-O-Vision for television and the network received many calls from viewers claiming it was working. Britain’s The Times listed this as one of the best April Fools’ pranks of all time in 2007, securing Smell-O-Vision’s place as one of the most disreputable gimmicks ever.


Along with the 3-D trend, the IMAX format is one of the more interesting modern gimmicks. Sharing much in common with Cinerama from the 1950s, films shot in the IMAX format are projected on a screen much larger than your typical theater’s to present larger, even sweeping visuals to audiences.

The format has grown and changed significantly since the debut of the first IMAX film, “Tiger Child,” in 1970, Nowadays, it’s used for everything from showcasing beautiful nature cinematography at museums across the world to action films such as “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “The Dark Knight.”

IMAX certainly appears to be one of the few useful gimmicks in recent memory – perhaps more so than the 3-D technology cropping up in cinemas across the world. With everything from major blockbusters to nature documentaries being shot in the format, IMAX presents limitless options for filmmakers looking to go big.