Deep in the Hollywood vaults old innovations are being dusted down for new audiences. In the space of a few months we’ve seen Hollywood acclaim its silent movie past, bestowing The Artist and Hugo with Oscars and cinemas launch 4D vibrating seats. So what’s the future? In both cases the answer might be simply: the past.

A History of Silence

In recent years Hollywood has been scorned for resorting to repetition. In 2011, Box Office Mojo recorded a record 27 mainstream sequels; prequel or spin-off releases (see The Year of Sequels). In this context, Oscar recognition for Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (a black and white silent movie shot in a traditional 1.33:1 aspect ratio) and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (a hymn to director George Melies and the birth of cinema) might appear to mark a refreshing change of direction. What do viewers think? Box office has been respectable if unspectacular – The Artist had grossed $77,664,969 and Hugo $120,692,764 worldwide, according to boxoffice.com at the time of writing.

Some critics have been swift to interpret the success of The Artist as a timely, romantic riposte to an ailing 3D market. Whilst 3D movies have boosted revenues – Mintel’s Movie Theaters US July 2011 report showed that the 3D market dove up the average ticket price by 15% between 2007 and 2010. ticket premiums had generated an estimated $600 million in profits in the US alone in 2010 – their appeal appears to be fading.

A study from Samsung has found that watching 3D films causes eye strain (see The Pains of 3D) and in the UK at least audiences are showing a degree of fatigue towards donning the glasses and shelling out the extra cash required: whilst UK box office figures grew 4.5% in 2011 according to Rentrak EDI, 3D revenues generated just a fifth of revenue and were down 6% in a year.

Out of the Past

This Oscars ‘death of 3D’ theory founders on two rocky points: namely the fact that Hugo is actually a 3D movie and that the process is as old as the Hollywood hills. Its ‘stereoscope’ process was invented by David Brewster to take ‘3D photographs’ in 1844 and by 1915 3D moving pictures were upon us. It wasn’t until the 1950s that 3D reaped rewards for studios – via Bwana Devil, House of Wax and Dial M For Murder – but the point is informative: 3D is nothing new and fashions shift.

From what we’ve seen on Inspire, 3D might have more cache outside the cinema: – we’ve seen Futuresource Consulting predict that 10% of US and Japanese households will be ‘3D-enabled’ by the close of 2012, whilst at Live Park in South Korea, visitors create their own avatar to engage with “mixed reality architecture” – a combination of 3D video, holograms and augmented reality – in a personalised narrative, brought to life by RFID wristbands and Kinect sensors (see Powered by Augmented Reality).

Feel the Magic

So what lies beyond 3D for cinema? 4D obviously. In Mintel’s Cinemas UK May 2011 report 27% of people said they’d be interested in watching 4D films (namely ones that combine 3D with physical sensations) and now their wishes have come true.

In March, the Cineworld Chain in Glasgow debuted vibrating D-BOX seats at screenings of John Carter and more UK cinemas are set to follow suit. Yet as with 3D, the concept is nothing new.

In 1959, William Castle’s horror flick The Tingler used the gimmick of ‘Percepto’ – buzzers wired in to cinema seats - during a scene when Vincent Price warned audiences that the titular beastie was actually loose in the cinema. In 1974 for Earthquake Universal Studios installed ‘Sensurround’ in theatres – a speakers system pumping “infra bass” sound waves at 120 decibels – having ditched their earlier plans to drop Styrofoam rubble on audiences heads.

Back to the Future

It doesn’t matter that cinema’s innovations are nothing new. After all the very cosiness and familiarity of cinema’s format is intrinsic to its appeal. It’s one of the few entertainment capsules in the modern world where people can focus and disconnect for two hours.

Hollywood keeps remaking past hits – be they titles or sensory ‘innovations’ – simply because they are fresh to new generations of audiences. The genius behind this is that a concept as archaic as a ‘silent movie’ becomes something ground breaking and a cultural ‘must see’. This isn’t nostalgia because cinema’s key demographic of 16-24s is too young to recognise such a feeling of its comfort factor.

However the role of the internet – in this case ostensibly YouTube – as a digital museum is nurturing knowledge about and creating interest in music and movies that people never experienced first time around. This is making it possible for young people to carve out niche expertise in everything from silent movies to Bebop without having to work as hard – or get their fingers as dusty – as previous generations of geeks and trainspotters.

However back to cinema and not everything is as rosy as it seems. Mintel’s Movie Theaters US July 2011 report shows that admissions plummeted 8% in 2010. No wonder producers and cinema managers are so fixated on reviving past glories.

We’ve seen how a young audience is receptive to getting ‘their’ version of previous attractions. There are numerous opportunities to re-release concepts like usherettes, drive-ins, touring screens and regional gala premieres with star attractions.

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