Ya Gotta Have A Gimmick: Audience Lures From 3-D to Smellovision

The fourth Spy Kids film from Robert Rodriguez, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, is advertised as being presented in 4-D. This can only mean one thing: 3-D plus the added feature of being able to smell what is onscreen. This will be achieved through Aromascope, a card with eight different scents that people can access when a corresponding number flashes on the screen.


It wouldn’t be the first time the smelling gimmick was used in the movies. Mike Todd, Elizabeth Taylor’s impresario husband and producer of the all-star Oscar-winner Around the World in 80 Days, developed “Smell-O-Vision” for the British thriller Scent of a Mystery. It was his son, Mike Todd Jr., who would be the one introducing it in 1960 to audiences after his father’s death. Patrons were treated to such scents as tobacco, coffee and peaches during the British mystery helmed by the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff (Black Narcissus). The problem was that it cost nearly $1 million to convert a theater for the process, proving too expensive, exhibitors thought, for the return.

Of course, there was also John Waters’ 1981 Polyester, in which audience members were handed scratch and sniff cards—aka “Odorama”—that corresponded with numbers flashing on the screen. Number two was a doozy.  Robert Rodriguez was obviously a fan, as Aromascope bears more than a passing resemblance to Waters’ scheme.

In the world of smell cinema, documentarian Les Blank also had a unique idea, but on a much smaller scale. At special showings for his 1981 doc Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Blank cooked garlic-spiced dishes while the movie screened, then offered up the goodies to the theater’s patrons at film’s end.

One has to admire Rodriguez’s showmanship, in a time where poor conversions of expensive movies to 3-D and large screens misleadingly marketed as “Imax” pass for spectacle and get higher admission prices.

Rodriguez, like Waters ahead of him, is taking pages out of the book of William Castle, the cigar-puffing schlockmeister producer who gave us The Tingler (in Percepto, in which the theaters seats were wired),The House on Haunted Hill  (in Emergo, where skeletons would glide through the audience), 13 Ghosts (in Illusion-o, which gave folks the options of either seeing colorful ghosts or not)  and Mr. Sardonicus (in which audiences were offered “The Punishment Poll” to vote on the title character’s fate), among others.

Horror films and thrillers were most often related to cinematic gimmicks. Cannibal Girls had the Warning Bell to tell people to shut their eyes when it was going to get scary. Chamber of Horrors had a similar gimmick called the Fear Flasher. Ten Little Indians offered a Whodunit Break to go over clues and figure out who the real killer was. There were many, many others, particularly during the 1960s.

Of course, film-related gimmicks have been with cinema since its early days. The marriage of sight and sound with The Jazz Singer may have seemed simply to be a come-on if it had not stuck. So, too, with adding color to black-and-white films, starting with the tinting of silent films and dabbled with in the 1920s via different processes before full color became the norm,

Wider screens originally came into view as competition to the burgeoning television industry. Under the direction of Spyros Skouras, Twentieth Century Fox developed Cinemascope, introducing it in 1953’s The Robe. Others got wind of the widescreen success, launching Todd-AO, Panavision, VistaVision 70 millimeter and other formats afterwards.

Later, MGM unveiled Cinerama, a three-screen format with a special projection system that boasted a panoramic view of the action. At first, Cinerama was used in non-fiction films such as Cinerama Holiday and This is Cinerama! Story-oriented MGM epics like The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won were presented in the format a bit later.

But once again, expense played the essential part in the demise of a screen format. Special projectors and a triptych of screens proved prohibitive in cost, as did making the films designed for such showings. Theaters equipped to show Cinerama were limited to a handful across the world. Although Cinerama continued as a company for years, producing such movies as Custer of the West and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, the real three-screen Cinerama format quickly faded.

One of the iconic photos of the 1950s came from Life Magazine and featured a packed, riveted audience watching a film through their 3-D glasses.  The 1953 adventure Bwana Devil from Arch Oboler is considered the first wide release 3-D film; others followed closely, including Universal’s sci-fi saga It Came from Outer Space and Warner Brothers’ Vincent Price scare sensation House of Wax, directed, ironically, by one-eyed filmmaker Andre De Toth.

The 3-D craze seems to come in cycles, here today, gone tomorrow every 10-15 years or so.  Currently, we are the middle of another 3-D cycle, but the aforementioned chintzy-looking conversions and a plethora of product point to the possibility that the format may be fading once again. That may change, of course, if its application is ratcheted back to those special occasions when a filmmaker like James Cameron makes the best of it.

It’s likely that Robert Rodriguez’s Aromascope for the new Spy Kids film will quickly disappear after the film’s run and, perhaps, subsequent DVD and Blu-ray releases. But you never know. If audiences like the smell of it, the studios will happily realize that dollars and scents can mix.