No sooner had cinema been invented than storytellers began exploring new ways to experience, interact with and immerse themselves in the new entertainment. Although technology has evolved and screens have become bigger over the decades, the medium is essentially the same: stories told in a linear fashion with projected images. But new settings, experiments and stunts have attempted to improve the format and create something more immersive.
3D and Cinerama
As film historian David Bordwell has chronicled, the early 1950s saw two technical advances – 3D and Cinerama, both short term failures that would have dramatic comebacks later on. While 3D had mainstream releases, such as Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder in 1954, the format was considered a flash in the pan. Thanks to several horror movies over the decades – Warner Bros’ The Mask in 1961, Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein in 1973 among them – and not unlike some of the creatures in those films, 3D never completely died. The last five years have seen a revival, with well-financed releases like Avatar, Up and Hugo. 3D has overcome its gimmicky stigma and it is now common to have simultaneous 3D and 2D releases for big, visual films, including 2014 best picture nominee, Gravity.
Cinerama – a blended triptych of images shown on a large curved screen – also involved its own special camera equipment. And like 3D, big Hollywood films bought into the concept, such as the 1962 Western epic How the West Was Won starring Jimmy Stewart. The Cinerama brand extended beyond the special three-lens equipment that spawned it, and the technology would later get a second life as Imax, first in museum film screenings on curved screens and then in the blockbuster-friendly experience found in many multiplexes.
For interactive stunts and gimmicks at movie screenings, we all owe a debt of thanks to William Castle, a prolific director of low-budget horror films in the 1950s and early ‘60s. He used techniques with strange names such as Emergo and Percepto that included floating skeletons above the audience, vibrating seats and ghosts that could only be seen by wearing red-tinted cellophane glasses. His imitators include Smell-O-Vision and having audiences sign medical releases in case they were scared into a heart attack. One Castle film, 1961’s Homicidal, included a 45-second onscreen “fright break” before the climax of the film, during which an audience member could leave if they were too scared and even get their money back. In another, the audience could choose the ending with a flash poll.
Rules for watching
Alfred Hitchcock was inspired to make Psycho, in part, by William Castle’s success in the ‘50s – so it’s not surprising that screenings of the 1960 thriller included immersive rules for cinema audiences. The main decree was that no one should be permitted to enter late. A sign, guarded by a man in a police uniform, read that “not even the manager’s brother, the president of the United States, or the Queen of England (God bless her)” would be admitted once the film had begun. Audiences standing in the queue were also urged to keep the story a secret by recorded messages from the director himself. Not allowing latecomers was so radical an idea that this video includes testimonials from theatre owners on the success of the ‘Psycho policy’.
Choose your own adventure
First seen in the Czechoslovak Pavilion at Expo '67 Montreal, the film One Man and His House was shown as a Kinoautomat screening – the first time a plot was determined by the audience, accomplished by pressing red or green voting buttons at various moments to determine the next segment. The New Yorker reported at the time that the “Kinoautomat… is a guaranteed hit… and the Czechs should build a monument to the man who conceived the idea.” After 40 years of obscurity, the Kinoautomat kicked off a world tour in 2006 at the National Film Theatre in London and its official website posts current screenings
Similar audience choices – this time registered with video game-like joysticks – were built into the 20-minute long “interfilm” Mr Payback, which opened in 44 US cinemas in 1995. Film critic Roger Ebert was not a fan of either the interactivity or the film itself. “It is mass psychology run wild, with the mob zealously pummeling their buttons, careening downhill toward the sleaziest common denominator,” he wrote of what he would later declare the worst movie of that year.
Musicals are great vehicles for audience participation. The Sound of Music, Grease and now Frozen are all popular, but the granddaddy of the movement is arguably 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The camp musical has been encouraging singing and dressing as characters since the late 1970s. Interestingly, the film’s traditional release was largely a bomb, and it was midnight showings at the Waverly Theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village a few years later that turned a screening into a party – playing the soundtrack as people came in, shouting out lines of dialogue and, of course, costumes. The fascinating history of these interactive shows is chronicled on the official Rocky Horror Picture Show fan site by Sal Piro, the author of Creatures of the Night, about the film’s cult following .
Going back to the early 1930s, there were some films that were shown in tandem with live theatre and musical acts. And while incorporating film into a live event, especially at a theme park, has been done to death by now, 1996’s Terminator 2 3D was one of the first and most ambitious of the concept. The 12-minute film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton and included a triptych of 3D projecting screens on the front and sides of the theatres, located at Universal Studios theme parks around the world. In addition, seats dropped out under audience members at a key moment and the title character seemed to ride a motorcycle out from the screen and onto the stage.
Vertical screens, synched screens and never-ending stories
There have been a number of isolated attempts to rethink traditional film and make it more engaging. Time Code, in 2000, was shown simultaneously on four synched screens with overlapping action (spoiler—an earthquake hits all four at the same time). It sounds confusing to watch but sound was cleverly used to direct the viewer’s eye to the main action. The Clock is a 24-hour loop of clock-face cameos in films, aligned to the real time where it is shown. The installation by the artist Christian Marclay has appeared in some of the world’s most important galleries, and audiences from New York to Seoul have been encouraged to come and go at different times in the cycle, and to stay as long as they want. Vertical screens are a more recent development, encouraged in part by the way we hold our smartphones. A group of filmmakers have started something called the Vertical Cinema project which is screening shorts in a portrait orientation, often in churches to accommodate the height required.
There is something to be said for the environment in which you experience a film. There are in-pool screenings, food and drink pairings to match the film, and fully immersive experiences such as those by Future Cinema in London and BBQ Films in New York, which orchestrate performances around films that mix up audiences and live actors. “We’re reinventing how people experience this movie,” said Gabriel Rhoads of BBQ Films, standing in a school gymnasium decked out like the dance scenes in Back to the Future. Shortly afterwards, costumed audience members entered the dance and blended in with actors in character acting out scenes around them and danced to a ’50s band. Some were granted a private audience with a yelling, demerit-giving Principal Strickland, whose desk contained bottles of liquor you could sip from when his back was turned. “We’re developing new ways of telling stories to give people a social experience,” Rhoads added later, summing up the goal of immersive film screenings going back to the 1950s. The evolution of this trend is, itself, going back to the future.