Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

New media is old spectacle

Posted on | January 26, 2014 | 1 Comment

With all this talk of participatory media, I can’t help but think of how much these changes are directly influenced by the spectacles of older American exploitation cinema. Two titles immediately came to mind during the lecture and reading of Frank Rose’s book: Mr Sardonicus and Million Dollar Mystery. Of course, it would be entirely unfair to claim that modern participatory media is a direct continuation of these works, but the seeds had been set in films like these.
Mr Sardonicus, directed by the master of spectacle William Castle, allowed the audience to choose the ending of the film, whether the eponymous character lived or died. While the more modern technology of compact disks which can hold an exceeding amount of information allow for films to become choose-your-own-adventure stories, this film had no such luxury, meaning that only one ending was ever filmed, but the audience was given a sense of agency.
Over twenty years later, Richard Fleischer directed Million Dollar Mystery, which was advertised with a contest with a million dollar grand prize. The viewers had to watch the film and look for clues to find out where the million dollars are hidden. The film ended up grossing less than a million dollars effectively ending Fleischer’s career.
Why was participatory media so impossible to make work back then? It may seem obvious, but in order for such media to work, the producers have to be able to reach a large audience, who can in turn reach each other. There’s a reason why The Blair Witch Project, a film that is often celebrated as the first successful multi-media advertising campaign, became so successful in the early days of the internet. As some advertising campaigns have shown, it is certainly possible to fail even in the age of the internet, but the internet has made it possible for savvy advertisers to make successes out of otherwise guaranteed failures (ignoring films like the Dark Knight, which would have probably earned the same amount, even without the extensive advertising campaign). One has to wonder, could the Blair Witch Project, with its hyperrealistic advertising campaign, have succeeded in a pre-internet world? Why are all of these spectacular publicity stunts making such a comeback? And, as odd as it may sound, would the old methods of Mr Sardonicus and Million Dollar Mystery have succeeded in a world with a more primitive version of the internet or were the methods just not fleshed out enough?


One Response to “New media is old spectacle”

  1. cowdery
    January 29th, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    I enjoyed reading this post, in particular your questioning of how immersive is all of this really? In particular, why are spectacular publicity stunts rearing their ‘ugly baby heads’ again? For me this is where the critical side begins to kick in. Is all of this immersion actually new? Horror and monster movie producers of the 50’s travelled with their films and created publicity stunts similar to the devil baby. While true that some efforts have become increasingly time consuming are they actually more immersive. Is immersive a synonym for time spent? In many of these readings we use this term immersive. The Oxford online dictionary defines immersion as a – “deep mental involvement in something:”. Is this the same as any involvement in something? How much immersion really takes place in whysoserious? Clearly those that found the cell phones have a different level of immersion than those online. I’m not saying that it isn’t immersive, I’m just asking the question what does it really mean? It is beginning to sound like one of those terms in media studies that becomes the source of endless debate. Terms like authentic, real, truth. Perhaps it is jumping the gun somewhat but just as we have perceptual realism (Stephen Prince/ Torben Grodal) we might want to consider a similar position for immersion – a concept such as perceptual immersion.

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