Is high-frame rate the next failed Hollywood gimmick?

JAKE COYLE
Associated Press
This image released by Sony Pictures shows Joe Alwyn, portraying Billy Lynn, on a screen in a scene from the film, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," in theaters on November 11.  The film will only be screened at 120 fps at two specially equipped theaters in North America. (Mary Cybulski/Sony-TriStar Pictures via AP)
This image released by Sony Pictures shows Joe Alwyn, portraying Billy Lynn, on a screen in a scene from the film, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," in theaters on November 11. The film will only be screened at 120 fps at two specially equipped theaters in North America. (Mary Cybulski/Sony-TriStar Pictures via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — It's starting to look a lot like the Fifties at the movies.

That was when theaters, alarmed by the rise of television and newly freed from the ownership of Hollywood studios, trotted out a wave of gimmicks to freshen up the moviegoing experience. Ballyhooed advancements like "Smell-O-Vision" and 3-D raged briefly before —at least for a time — receding into camp.

But many of those gimmicks have been reborn for a more high-tech age with new media anxieties. Now it's cable dramas and streaming networks that are stoking fears that a mere movie isn't enough to draw audiences out of their homes.

For this new era, there aren't brilliant showmen like William Castle who put electric buzzers in the seats for 1959's "The Tingler" and guaranteed $1,000 for any moviegoer who died of fright while watching 1958's "Macabre."

Instead, it's many of the industry's top filmmakers who are pushing new theatrical experiences. The latest purported cinematic savior is high-frame rate, an innovation without quite as catchy a name as 1959's scented "AromaRama." Instead of the traditional 24 frames a second, HFR is composed of many more images per second, lending greater clarity. But so far, the reviews are dismal.

First, Peter Jackson made his "Hobbit" trilogy in 48 frames-per-second, though poor reviews led it to be largely phased out by the final installment. Now, Ang Lee has doubled-down on the format, and then some. His "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," which opens in limited release Friday, was made with 120 frames per second. Critics have, in kind, amped up their doubts about the technology's promise, claiming its hyper-real effect appears artificial or, worse, like a telenovela.

Whether high frame rate will go the way of "Smell-O-Vision" remains to be seen. "Billy Lynn" will only be screened at 120 fps at two specially equipped theaters in North America, and maybe half-a-dozen worldwide. Lee has urged patience. James Cameron, who led the 3-D resurrection, has pledged to make his "Avatar" sequels in a HFR format.

But high-frame rate is just one of the big-screen innovations making this decade look like a digitized sequel of the '50s. Here are some of the gimmicks that have returned, in mutated forms, like creatures from a black lagoon:

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3-D

The golden era of 3-D, ushered in by 1952's "Bwana Devil," lasted less than two years. But the phase propelled by Cameron's "Avatar" and embraced by the likes of Lee, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, has already lasted a decade. It's now a regular, if divisive component of moviegoing: a cherished part of the theatrical spectacle to some, a loathsome surcharge on already higher priced movie tickets to others. Though audience interest for 3-D has at times waned, its grip on theaters seems assured. Cameron hopes to release "Avatar 2" in glasses-free 3-D.

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CINERAMA

The panoramic widescreen format, projected onto a curved and arced screen, first debuted with 1952's "This Is Cinerama." It and other screen-stretching formats such as Ultra Panavision 70, brought widescreen majesty to films like "How the West Was Won" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." Cinerama was closely followed by CinemaScope, the anamorphic lens advertised as "the modern miracle you see without glasses," and the less successful Circle-Vision 360 — something like a forerunner to today's IMAX screens. CinemaScope, big and beautiful, remains a cherished choice for many filmmakers. Damien Chazelle's upcoming, glowingly nostalgic "La La Land" -- an early Oscar favorite and an implicit argument for the glory of movies -- is the latest to bring back CinemaScope.

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SENSURROUND

The 1974 film "Earthquake" launched Sensurround which used low bass sounds to create a rumbling, vibrating effect. (Moviegoers in next-door theaters sometimes complained of the tremors from "Earthquake" while watching other releases that year, like "The Godfather Part II.") Other efforts to transfer sensations on the screen to people in the seats have followed. So-called "4-D," long a theme park attraction, adds an amusement park ride effect to theaters with moving seats, smells and weather effects like fog and rain. A South Korean company has opened "4DX" rooms around the world, playing Hollywood blockbusters. Some of them — and William Castle would appreciate this — even tingle.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP