The Top 10 Gimmicks Used in Commercial Cinema

First, it was movement. Then, color. Finally sound cemented film as something more than a photographic fluke. Indeed, as the artform grew and took shake, several “gimmicks” were employed to keep the people interested. After the dark days of magic lanterns and other optical entertainments, the zoetrope and its imitation of life made the movies legit. Then came the advent of the whole 24 frames per second dynamic. Throw in a few tints, some poorly recorded voice and music, and a juggernaut was unleashed. Since the first quarter of the 20th century, however, studios and those stuck getting butts into seats have been trying to find a way to up the ante. From artistic invention to flat out flimflams, the gimmick has been a major part of the motion picture experience.

Now, a near 100 years later, we’re still looking. As part of today’s terrain, we have feigned interactivity (hit a button on your seat, vote for where the plot goes next), seats on actuators and gimbles (to mimic movement), and the newfound affection for an increased frame rate. Not unlike the Spook Shows of the ’50s and ’60s which saw actors dress up as monsters to torment and tease a vulnerable audience, the modern gimmickry is all smoke and ticket sales mirrors. Still, it’s interesting to reflect on the extremes some will go to in order to make money with their movies. From the oldest bait and switch tricks in the book to some of the most imaginative publicity ever propagated, the cinematic stunt remains part of the process. Here are 10 intriguing examples of its application, from the sensible to the surreal. While almost always about money, there’s a little magic to be found here as well.

#10: Multiple Endings (Clue)

Though they are usually limited to the bonus features on your favorite DVD, some movies have actually come with purposely planned multiple endings. Unlike those rejected by the studio or suggested by the filmmaker, the big screen adaptation of the board game Clue came out with three completely different conclusions. In keeping with the spirit of the childhood fave, various combinations (“Colonel Mustard in the studio with a candlestick”) were filmed, and then attached to various prints. Once sent out to theaters, there was no real way of knowing which conclusion you’d experience. Eventually, a version with all three was offered, to no major box office avail.

#9: The Single Take (Silent House, Russian Ark)

Because of the limits originally placed by technology (Kodak only made celluloid rolls so big), it took the advent of digital filmmaker to usher in the single continuous take. Initially offered by a Russian documentary on the famed Hermitage Museum and its history, the recent horror film Silent House suggested that, it too, was the result of one unedited 88-minute experiment. Of course, with any announced gimmick comes the critique. Many suggested that the approach taken by the 2011 thriller (and its Uruguayan counterpoint) was all just a ruse. Eventually, star Elizabeth Olson confirmed such suspicions.

#8: Subliminal Messages (My World Dies Screaming)

Remember that scene in Fight Club where our unnamed narrator describes Tyler Durden’s job as a projectionist? Recall the moment when our hunky anti-hero inserts images of pornography into otherwise innocuous family films? Well, something like that was tried in the early ’50s, visuals of coffins and skeletons added in, a single frame at a time, to give viewers of a hackneyed horror film a feeling of “unease”. While never truly successful, the process had to be halted when concessioners learned they could “inspire” purchases by placing words like ‘hungry’ and ‘Coke’ into trailers and other preview material.

#7: Real Sex Onscreen (Tattoo, Shortbus)

Back in the midst of the Me Decade, it was a hotly debated rumor. Actors and actresses, as well as pushy producers and production folk, often used the ploy of stars really “doing it” to sell tickets to otherwise specious efforts. One of the most infamous involved Maud Adams, who suggested that her love scenes with Bruce Dern in 1981’s Tattoo were not the result of casting, chemistry, and movie magic. Recently, Hedwig and the Angry Itch‘s John Cameron Mitchell made a mainstream drama in which the actors actually engage in sexual acts. While not offering visible penetration, it truly pushed the boundaries of the concept.

#6: Smell-O-Vision/Odorama (Scent of Mystery, Polyester)

After sight and sound, what’s next? If theater exhibitors had their way, it would be smell. Indeed, as far back as the ’50s, distributors have been trying to find a way to bring odors into the movie-going experience (and not just the ones related to the audience’s personal hygiene). Sadly, the first attempt turned the theater into a landfill of competing scents. Following in the footsteps of his hyperbole hero, William Castle, Prince of Puke John Waters offered scratch and sniff cards to accompany his own sly suburban satire. It worked a bit better, if not significantly so.

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#5: Actual Death Onscreen (Snuff, Faces of Death, The Mondo Movies)

As the ’70s continued to push the boundaries of cinematic content, the notion of films where people actually died onscreen went from urban legend to debated social shocker. Said conversation escalated when a reconfigured exploitation effort was renamed to take advantage of the snuff tag. Since then, home video collections such as Faces of Death have redone the Mondo movie thing, presenting documentary imagery of murder and vivisection while hyping their hard to miss fictional sequences as fact. Today, it’s all very tame, especially in light of all the real examples of murder/suicide/atrocities that can be viewed with a mere mouse click.

#4: 3D (Bwana Devil, House of Wax, Avatar)

In some ways, it was the true perspective precursor. Many turn of the century homes had stereoscopic viewers, images of World’s Fairs and Wonders of the Ancient Planet a mere antiquated viewmaster away. The addition of movement merely made for a rollercoaster ride of audience acceptance. In the ’50s, the two color method created headlines, then headaches. Not until the invention of Real 3D did viewers have a chance to see high tech depth and perception without the pesky lack of contrast and detail… and even then, purist have argued over image quality and the aesthetic pointlessness of the eventual byproduct.

#3: Found Footage (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Chronicle)

While it existed before a trio of would-be documentarians disappeared in the forests outside the small Northeastern town of Burkittsville, it was a certain fabled old hag which gave novice filmmakers hope for a huge homemade horror hit. Since then, we’ve seen more shoddy examples of the creative conceit than actual artistic achievements. Heck, come films have even gone so far as to mimic a surveillance camera approach and have called it compelling. With its widespread use across several genres, it’s not going away anytime soon. Hopefully that means more Chronicles and less Project Xs.

#2: Sex Hygiene/ Live Childbirth Footage (The Films of Kroger Babb)

No, he never actually made a motion picture. Yes, by today’s standards, the subjects he exploited — sex, religion, politics — and the way he did so seem tame and tepid. Yet Kroger Babb was first and foremost an expert salesman, and his unique approach to giving the people what they (secretly) wanted made him a very rich and very important distributor. Hiring actors in the various cities where he would “roadshow” his films, he offered free sex lectures, educational pamphlets, and as part of the otherwise dreary drama’s denouement, footage of babies being born. His novel way around nudities laws remain a showman’s revelation.

#1: Hype and Ballyhoo (The Films of William Castle)

Picking up where Babb and his fellow Forty Thieves left off, horror maestro Castle recognized the limited appeal of his grade-Z scary movie knock offs. So he came up with classic come-ons like “Percepto” (seat vibrators), “Emergo” (a plastic skeleton which flew through the theater) and “Illusion-O” (special colored glasses), each one aimed at making his mediocre movies seem like events. It worked like a charm on gullible post-war audiences. With savvy came a lack of sensationalism, Castle concentrating on more legitimate projects (he ended up producing the macabre classic Rosemary’s Baby). To this day, he remains the high priest of hype and the baron of ballsy ballyhoo.