Thursday, January 6, 2011

Will 3-D save Hollywood?

In the late ‘50s movie studios faced stiff competition from television. John Wayne and Elizabeth Taylor were getting their asses kicked by George Gobel and Gale Storm. And color TV was hitting the market (albeit slowly… almost one color at a time). In an attempt to make the theater experience more special, Hollywood unveiled a new way to see movies – Cinerama. Talk about a widescreen -- three projectors simultaneously showing a movie on a huge, deeply-curved screen. Even Lucy & Ethel couldn’t compete with that.

Wow! This was a revelation. I remember running to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood to see THIS IS CINERAMA. It was really cool. You were riding on a giant rollercoaster, going through the canals of Venice, hanging out at Niagara Falls. I didn’t even care that there was no story and I was nauseous halfway through the picture.

Movies started being made in Cinerama, and after a while the novelty wore off. I recall sitting through this ponderous James Garner movie, GRAND PRIX. Endless scenes of point-of-view driving in race cars. Please make a pit stop!  Anything to break up the monotony!  Crash! 

Pretty soon the craze died down. Yeah, visually I’m sure it was eye-popping, but no one wanted to see CIRCUS WORLD or THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL. By the 70s, Cinerama was effectively over.

Another innovation Hollywood unveiled that was destined to revolutionize the movie industry was Smell-O-Vision. As absurd as this sounds, odors were pumped into theaters. A character on screen would hold up a bouquet of roses and you’d smell roses. She’d walk into a seafood store and you’d smell fish.

So when a movie stunk, it stunk!  And they did.

There were technical problems galore.  Smells weren't timed correctly, some parts of the theater got more of a blast than others, some scents were slow to dissipate.  You were left with the delightful aroma of fishy roses (which would probably still sell better than Jennifer Aniston's current perfume line is).  

This gimmick didn’t take off at all.  (Can you imagine if they tried Smell-O-Vision with a "certain scene" in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE?)

And here we are today. Studios face competition not only from TV but now from Netflix, streaming video, DVRs, ON DEMAND, Wii, my blog, and even smart phones. Ticket prices are high, commercials are shown, and inconsiderate assholes are texting and reading email during showings. To counter this, Hollywood has unveiled its latest stunt– 3-D. Better even than IMAX, their savior that didn’t save them last decade. Do we really need to see a close-up of Mick Jagger’s face six stories tall?

As with Cinerama, there has been an initial flush of success. But I caution the studios, 3-D alone won’t do it. Ultimately, what brings people into the Cineplex is good movies. You could make THE CLASH OF THE TITANS or THE LAST AIRBENDER in 4-D, 5-D, Smell-O-Vision, holograms, or images projected directly into your brain – no one is going to come see them.

Again, it all comes down to quality. We can ride our own rollercoasters, smell our own roses, or see the world in three-dimension. What we can’t get everyday are compelling stories that move us, make us laugh, cry, scream, and marvel.

Please don’t overlook the one innovation that has been attracting people to theaters for a hundred years – writers.

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