If movie marketing’s most outrageous stunts for the much of the 20th century focused on the salacious (teen nudity, skywritten breasts, and pseudo-sex-education), the gimmicks from the ’70s onward tend more toward the experiential, as audience members are provided with various ways of feeling like they’re part of the action. Want to experience an earthquake or join the cast? Read on.
Earthquake (1974): Disastrous Rumblings Feel Real With Sensurround
This disaster hit introduced Sensurround, a short-lived gimmick that used high-decibel bass and large speakers to create tactile vibrations in the audience. Accompanied by low-frequency rumblings, the movie’s scenes of the destruction of L.A. by earthquake ended up earning it an Oscar for Best Sound. Only three other movies went on to employ this technology: The all-star war pic Midway (1976), the summer thriller Rollercoaster (1977), and the feature-length TV pilot for Battlestar Galactica (1978). Three serious detriments to Sensurround’s popularity: Costly speaker installation, potential structural damage to old theaters, and disruptions in adjoining theaters.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): Birth of the Midnight Movie
Writer-director Jim Sharman’s movie adaptation of this hit musical bombed when released. Repositioned as an interactive midnight movie (with fans dressed as characters acting out scenes with props), the film achieved cult status and is now considered the longest-running midnight movie of all time. Other off-beat, low-budget flicks from this era to find success via midnight theatrical screenings or late-night television broadcasts include Night of the Living Dead (1968), Targets (1968), El Topo (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), Pink Flamingos (1972), and Eraserhead (1977).
Deafula (1975): Sign Language in a Horror Film
This nationally-distributed black-and-white B-movie marks another unusual milestone: It’s the first (and only) fright flick to use American Sign Language for all its dialogue. (Marketing referred to this as Signscope; Deafula was originally shot with neither sound nor spoken dialogue.) A monotone soundtrack was later added, loosely translating the sign language for a hearing audience.
Snuff (1976): The Snuff-Film Publicity Hoax
Grind-house directors the Findlays — a husband-and-wife team — marketed Snuff as depicting real-life murders. Their disturbing film was eventually revealed to be a major hoax, but not before protests had added to its notoriety and boosted ticket sales. For the most part, the movie is composed of footage from the Findlays’ previously released, crudely made exploitation flop The Slaughter (1971). Allan Shackleton’s Monarch Releasing Corporation rereleased the film, hoping to capitalize on the Manson murders by tacking on a brief epilogue containing a pseudo-snuff killing. (The movie’s most outrageous footage features the disembowelment of a female cast and crew member.)
Clue (1985): Different Endings in Different Theaters
The three separate endings shot for Clue (a movie based on a Parker Brothers board game) were initially screened in different theaters to encourage multiple viewings. Each ending provided a different solution to various murders. The home-video release contained all three endings: Two of them presented as “What if?” scenarios, the third as the true ending. Some newspaper ads specified ending A, B, or C, but most viewers were frustrated by the ambiguous clues and the arbitrary nature of the murders’ explanations.
The Blair Witch Project (1999): The Advance of Viral Marketing
With a web site launched two years before the movie’s debut, this pseudo-documentary was able to generate belief in its story’s authenticity, and thereby attain astronomical financial success. It became one of the first independent blockbusters and the most profitable film in Hollywood history. Budgeted at about $30,000, The Blair Witch Project grossed $249 million worldwide. Another notable movie that used viral marketing and a cryptic trailer months before its release date was Cloverfield (2008), a monster movie composed of handheld home-video footage shot during a rampaging of New York City.
The Sound of Music (2000): Karaoke Meets the Classics
The audience-participation version of The Sound of Music (1965) was first screened in the U.S. in 2000. A quasi spinoff of the Rocky Horror Picture Show phenomenon, this interactive screening was built around nostalgia, as lyrics were captioned to facilitate sing-alongs, while response kits (called Fun Paks) allowed the audience to wave fake white flowers during “Edelweiss” or set off party poppers when the Captain kisses Maria. Moviegoers are actually coached to react (boos for Nazis, hisses for the Baroness).
House of Wax (2005): Celebrity’s Staged Death As Promo Campaign
The horror-film remake of House of Wax (1953) featured a unique and notorious marketing campaign to capitalize on the star power of one of its characters, with the spoiler tagline “On May 6th…See Paris die!” printed on posters and T-shirts. The advance publicity referred to the gruesome death of celebrity Paris Hilton. In her first major theatrical film appearance, she is pursued and impaled with a sharp wooden spear thrown (like a javelin) into the center of her forehead.
Fast & Furious (2009): D-Box Puts You in the Passenger Seat Near Vin Diesel
The D-Box, a vibrating movie-theater chair, was invented by a Montreal-based company and used for the first time for the release of Universal’s Fast & Furious. For a surcharge, select chairs installed in L.A.’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and another theater in Surprise, Arizona, offered an enhanced viewing experience by vibrating, leaning, tilting, and shaking based on the onscreen action.
Monsters vs Aliens (2009): 3D Meets CGI
A DreamWorks scifi spoof of ’50s monster movies, Monsters vs Aliens is the first computer-animated feature film to be shot directly in stereoscopic 3D, dubbed the Ultimate 3D. Previously, 3D CGI films were made in a non-3D version and then “dimensionalized.” Other 3D computer-animated films would also debut in the new format: 20th Century Fox and James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), Disney’s Christmas Carol (2009), Pixar’s Up (2009), and, soon, the rerelease of Toy Story 3 (2010).
Tim Dirks is Senior Editor and Film Historian at AMC, an educator and film buff who created the landmark, award-winning Filmsite.org in the mid-’90s and continues to write original reviews and features spanning all the years of cinematic history.