From Smell-O-Vision to Astrocolor, the Film Industry’s Biggest Innovation Flops
Editor’s note: IMAX is hugely popular, while virtual reality movies are gaining steam. But what about film inventions that never took off? When will they get their due? Sure, there are the Razzies, which honor the worst acting performances and directing jobs. But there’s no (dis)honor for film innovations that backfired. We asked four film experts to each write about a different flop. Some ideas were on the right track and would eventually be realized in one form or another. But others are probably best relegated to the dustbin of history.
First motion, then sound, then … smell?
Leo Braudy, University of Southern California
In the 1950s, the popularity of television exploded, and the film industry started experimenting with technologies to lure audiences back into movie theaters.
In this context, two 1959 olfactory innovations – AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision – emerged.
Both psychology and neurology have shown how closely smell is related to memory and emotion. But the orchestration of smell in a “smell story” or “smell movie” is another matter.
For budding smell entrepreneurs, the reviews couldn’t have been encouraging.
After New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther emerged from his first AromaRama experience, he wrote that he “happily filled his lungs with that lovely fume-laden New York ozone. It never has smelled so good.”
I saw AromaRama’s “Behind the Great Wall” and Smell-O-Vision’s “The Scent of Mystery” during their brief runs in New York, and the only scents I can recall are the pungent smell of an orange being sliced and the dank odor of a Chinese bay.
Instead of enhancing the cinematic experience, the smells ended up supplying something briefly weird and not very interesting, no different from a noisy special effect.
In 1981, filmmaker John Waters satirically revived the technique for his film “Polyester,” dubbing it “Odorama.”
Waters sidestepped the expensive scent distribution systems of his predecessors by creating a simple scratch-and-sniff card that would be cued by numbers on screen. The 10 smells – which included roses (#1), farts (#2) and pizza (#4) – tried valiantly to be distinct. But to me they all vaguely approximated the aroma of oregano.
Some years later the Los Angeles County Museum had an anniversary showing of “Polyester.” My wife and I had small roles in the film, so we went along. Sure enough, as soon as the show started, almost every member of the packed audience pulled out their treasured scratch-and-sniff cards.
Even though adding odors to movies never took off, at least the connection between smell and memory remained strong.
Letting audiences twist the plot
Scott Higgins, Wesleyan University
But the dream of putting audiences in the picture has fueled a number of film fiascoes, including an early 1990s debacle called Interfilm.
It was something like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book brought to the big screen, courtesy of then cutting-edge LaserDisc technology. Armrests were outfitted with three-button joysticks. Every few minutes the video would pause and viewers had 10 seconds to vote on one of three choices for the story path.
Even though the movie was only 20 minutes long, it required 90 minutes of footage stored on four laserdisc players to accommodate the 68 story variations. For a $3.00 admission, viewers could stay through multiple showings and relive the film from different perspectives.
As you might surmise from the lack of joysticks in today’s cinemas, Interfilm’s “quantum leap” got tripped up.
Despite backing from Sony Pictures, few exhibitors were willing to take on the $70,000 cost of retrofitting a single theater. The film was shown in standard definition via video projection, which couldn’t come close to matching the quality of the 35mm film playing next door. And some audience members would exploit the voting system by racing between vacant seats to cast multiple votes for their preferred storyline.
But the films themselves may have been the biggest stumbling block. Director Bob Bejan shot “I’m Your Man” in less than a week, using his office building as the location. His follow-up, “Mr. Payback,” which opened at 44 theaters in 1995, allowed viewers to choose between ways to punish characters: cattle prodding, pants burning or monkey brain eating.
Film critic Roger Ebert concluded that the “offensive and yokel-brained” “Mr. Payback” was “not a movie” but “mass psychology run wild, with the mob zealously pummeling their buttons, careening downhill toward the sleaziest common denominator.”
That same year, Sony Pictures pulled its support, and shortly thereafter Interfilm was no more.
A giant flying film projector
Stephen Groening, University of Washington
In the 1960s, American Airlines hired the film equipment manufacturer Bell & Howell to design an in-flight entertainment system that could compete (and contrast) with TWA’s large single-screen system that had premiered in 1961.
The result was Astrocolor, an in-flight entertainment system featuring a series of 17-inch screens suspended from the luggage rack.
In its promotional campaign, American advertised Astrocolor as “democratic” and emphasized freedom of choice. Because the screens were positioned every five rows (and every three rows in first class), the set-up didn’t discriminate against those seated in the back of the cabin. And because the screens were small, passengers were free from the tyranny of TWA’s large screen; they could easily decide to not watch the movie and pursue a different activity.
But this was before the advent of the MP4, the DVD, the magnetic videotape and the laserdisc, and airlines needed to use 16mm celluloid prints to exhibit films on board.
So the film was bizarrely threaded along the length of the cabin next to the overhead luggage compartments. Each screen had its own projector that back-projected the film onto the screen in color and in the film’s original aspect ratio. At any given time, nearly 300 feet of film ran through the complex system of gears and loops.
This meant that passengers in the back of the plane saw a scene nearly five minutes after the passengers in the front. And with so many moving parts and a filmstrip that could reach 9,000 feet in length, the failure rate was 20 percent.
Astrocolor had effectively turned the airplane into a giant film projector, and maintenance of the complex in-flight entertainment system could hinder an airline’s flight schedules.
According to internal documents from Pan American Airlines (which also adopted Bell & Howell’s system), the failure rate led to angry passengers and affected crew morale, especially during transatlantic routes. Within a few years, American and Pan Am switched to TransCom’s 8mm film cassette system, and by 1978 Bell & Howell had introduced the first in-flight VHS system.
Even though Astrocolor can be seen as a failure, the irony of calling it a “flop” is that the designers at Bell & Howell were onto something. The small screen system has since become the dominant model of in-flight entertainment, and the single-screen system has disappeared.
Going big – and going home
Thomas Delapa, University of Michigan
Since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have experimented with supersizing the screen and pushing the limits of what are called “aspect ratios,” or the ratio between the width and the height of the screen.
The 35mm motion picture standard dominated the silent-film era and survives even in our digital era. In classic Hollywood, this meant a square-ish projected frame: approximately 1.33 width ratio to 1 high. Rick and Ilsa in “Casablanca,” Scarlett and Rhett in “Gone With the Wind,” and Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” all played in the cozy virtual world of the 1.33 sandbox.
But film innovators eventually started looking for ways to go wider and bigger. There was French director Abel Gance’s three-screen Polyvision process for his 1927 epic “Napoleon.” There was RKO studio’s 70mm- wide “Natural Vision” film gauge that made a brief appearance in the 1920s.
But of all the “before-their-time” widescreen inventions that popped and fizzled, few were as grandiose as the Grandeur process, which was developed in the late 1920s. Utilizing a 70mm-wide film strip – twice the width of the standard 35mm – it was easily the most ambitious attempt of its time to make widescreen go mainstream in the U.S.
The Fox Film Corporation (what would become 20th Century Fox) was Grandeur’s primary sponsor. The technology premiered in New York City in September 1929, when Fox screened a program of newsreels that included a splashy tour of Niagara Falls.
Flashy entertainment followed in 1930’s “The Big Trail,” an epic Western starring a then-unknown former college football star who called himself John Wayne. In Fox’s gargantuan 6,000-seat Roxy Theatre in Manhattan, the Duke galloped across a 42-foot-wide-by-20-foot-tall screen, creating an enormous virtual vista that dwarfed those at most of the 1920s “picture palaces.”
Despite Grandeur’s gushing greatness, U.S. theater owners were less buoyant at the prospect of doubling down on new projectors and screens to accommodate its really big show.
Not only had Wall Street just infamously laid a gargantuan egg, but owners had just shelled out big-time money to convert to accommodate the “talkies” of the nascent sound era. Grandeur’s case wasn’t helped by the smallish box-office returns of “The Big Trail.”
Widescreen experimentation would largely disappear for the next two decades, only to be revived in the 1950s, which marked the beginning of big screen’s steroid era. Launched in 1953, CinemaScope nearly doubled the frame ratio to 2.35 to 1. Then there was the three-projector Cinerama, and a reprise of 70 mm filmmaking in Oscar-winning blockbusters like “Around the World in 80 Days.”
Grandeur’s main mistake was epically bad timing. In today’s evolving digital era, widescreen formats of varying sizes are de rigueur around the world – if not exactly grandeur.
Leo Braudy, Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences; Scott Higgins, Charles W. Fries Professor of Film Studies, Wesleyan University; Stephen Groening, Assistant Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, University of Washington, and Thomas Delapa, Lecturer, Department of Screen Arts & Culture, University of Michigan
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