Can 4DX save movie theaters? Only if it can offer up collective joy.


It’s the refrain of the summer. And perhaps it’s true. “Top Gun: Maverick” has broken box office records, making that movie — still only in theaters — Tom Cruise’s highest-grossing film ever. Other big-budget movies, like “Thor: Love and Thunder” and “Jurassic World: Dominion,” have outperformed many pre-pandemic blockbusters. And now Jordan Peele’s latest horror flick, “Nope,” which opens across the United States on Friday, offers more of what these and other films have promised theater audiences, including illustrious stars, delightful jump-scares and breathtaking special effects.

Moviegoers choosing among this year’s theater releases, including “Nope,” will find not just the classic big-screen option but also the opportunity to try something new — most notably, the immersive 4DX experience, a multisensory movie ride featuring rocking seats, flashing lights, smoke machines, misted scents and even “snowfall” choreographed with scenes on the big screen.

Peele’s film, in particular, reflects how much the theater industry has changed after years of scrambling during the pandemic to compete with streaming services, which brought new releases into our homes and sent movie earnings spiraling. In what might seem like a gimmick, filmmakers are offering enhanced theater thrills to lure audiences away from the comfort of their couches and back into the cinema.

It’s not the first time this has worked. A look back at history reveals that, just as we see now, moviemakers of the past pivoted in hard times, using technology, showmanship and scares to inspire movie audiences.

In the early 1950s, greater access to television sets, more TV programming options and new TV viewing habits threatened to move the cinema experience into living rooms. One DuMont Television print ad, explicit in its promise of more intimate entertainment on the smaller screen, featured film star Betty Hutton gazing directly at the viewer and saying that with a DuMont television set, “I’ll be practically in your lap.”

The film and TV industries were battling for viewers, and movies were losing big. American movie attendance had taken a nosedive. From 1951 to 1952, annual ticket sales fell by nearly 50 percent, creating anxieties in Hollywood that cinema was no longer capturing the public’s imagination — or its dollars — like it once had. TV was, it seemed, threatening the monopoly movies had held in visual entertainment over the past half-century. As New York Times cultural critic Bosley Crowther warned, if the movie industry “cannot sell the ordinary picture, it cannot live.”

The industry responded by aiming for the extraordinary.

Some filmmakers doubled-down on the macabre. Horror and film noir were two movie genres that did well in the 1930s and 1940s and continued to thrive in the 1950s because they didn’t yet have equal counterparts in television programming. With few exceptions, early TV entertainment focused on lighthearted fare like quiz shows, Westerns and family sitcoms like “Father Knows Best” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”

But American consumers — especially teens — sought to enter other, darker worlds in which they could explore and release anxieties about a whole host of issues, including gender and sex, science and technology and even the power of nature. From the “Red Scare” to duck-and-cover drills, to the national obsession with heteronormative family units, Americans had a great deal to keep them up at night. Thriller cinema seemed to be one way people chose to cope — and only theaters provided them with that fix.

But experimentation with dark scripts was just the beginning.

Filmmakers, in cooperation with engineers in the industry, found ways to enhance movie-house experiences. By 1953, moviegoers were introduced to stereoscopic cinema, popularly known as 3D movies. After years of alarming declines in attendance, customers were back, lining up for the so-called “3D frenzy.” So promising were box office tallies for the earliest 3D films, including “House of Wax” and “Creature of the Black Lagoon,” that the film trade press, and moviemakers themselves, pondered the possibility that the “dying business would be saved by movies you had to look at through glasses.”

Theaters in major cities across the country also experimented with “Smell-O-Rama” and “AromaRama,” systems that misted scented oils into the room to simulate a film’s “smell track,” which might include banana, grass, perfume or tar. (The sunscreen scent wafting through the theater during the sailing scene in “Top Gun: Maverick” 4DX is a descendant of this feature.)

Most novel, however, were the surprises that horror director William Castle cooked up for his audiences in the late 1950s. For the climax to his film “House on Haunted Hill,” Castle debuted an interactive experience he called “Emergo” — a 12-foot plastic skeleton that broke free from a black coffin affixed to the side of the movie screen and, with wires, whipped across the crowd.

It worked well enough. Audiences responded with delight, even if they tended to snicker rather than scream.

On the heels of Emergo, Castle introduced “Percepto,” a more complicated stunt that required the expense of installing surplus airplane motors to the underside of theater seats. The vibrating devices were activated during precisely-timed moments in showings of Castle’s 1959 scary movie “The Tingler.” A savvy promotional campaign for the film dared thrill-seekers to sit in the Percepto chair and become “a living participant in the flesh-crawling action.” News circulated that Castle was also hiring amateur actors to “faint from freight” in choreographed emergencies during select showings. Displaying his knack for showmanship, Castle earned industry praise for putting the filmgoer “in the midst of the horror.”

Some film reviewers dismissed these movies as mere “gimmick pictures.” The Los Angeles Times, for instance, rated “The Tingler” as a film “beneath serious consideration — except, possibly, as a menace to public sanity.”

But even the skeptics had to admit that new, multisensory experiences were helping to fill theaters. And audiences — whether spooked, buzzed, fooled or simply amused — reported having great fun, which was, for filmmakers like Castle, precisely the point.

The novelties, however, wore off quickly. Some lost their luster after word got out about the unanticipated gags. Other tricks were unable to hold up to aggressive promotional campaigns promising something unforgettable. Even with the notable successes of the era’s film noir directors like Alfred Hitchcock and horror innovators like Castle, and a reliable teenage consumer base, the movie industry was still in peril by the opening of the 1960s.

To the dismay of all those working in cinema, popular entertainment for most Americans had become more private and tied to the home.

It would take another decade and a new crop of bold filmmakers to reinspire moviegoers. Many of those, including Dennis Hopper, Stanley Kubrick, George Romero and Melvin Van Peebles, attracted a younger, more diverse, more rebellious generation of movie fans by pushing boundaries — not in sensory thrills this time but in sophisticated scripts and more daring depictions of race, sex and violence.

Today, as the movie industry reinvests in new multisensory technologies and genre films — including horror — the question has been posed: Can the theater experience maintain its hold on our imagination, especially when films are so readily available to us for home viewing, an option that was not available to movie fans of the 1950s? Will the 4DX experience make a difference?

Maybe. If moviegoers are seeking just a novel experience, such efforts may work only in the short-term, as was the case in the 1950s. But the technology’s long-term success depends on people searching for something else — something that’s just as electrifying and impossible to replicate at home on the couch: collective joy.