Why you should care

Because 4D is better than 3D, and the smell of your grandma’s cooking is even better than that.

In our occasional ¿por qué no? series, OZY looks ahead and asks “Why couldn’t this be in our future?”

Just like successful entrepreneurs, sometimes the best ideas have to fail a few times first. Maybe it just wasn’t their time yet, or folks just didn’t realize their full potential. Remember the Urbania from the 1960s? Probably not, but you know the Smart Car. MGM once even told Walt Disney that Mickey Mouse would frighten women.

Which brings us to scented films. That’s right, movies with smells. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? But it’s an idea that has been tried, and abandoned, repeatedly. The best-known attempt came in the 1950s, when Hollywood and theater owners dabbled with AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision in an attempt to lure viewers away from their newfangled TV sets. Both entailed injecting scents through the theater’s seats or air vents, and both failed miserably. They were riddled with technical problems, caused nausea among audience members, and received harsh reviews from critics.

The smell of a high school sweetheart’s perfume or cologne on a random passerby tells you: scents are a powerful trigger for memory and emotion.

So what makes us think that Hollywood should ignore the lingering stink of repeated failure? For one thing, as anyone who has smelled their high school sweetheart’s perfume or cologne on a random passerby can tell you, scents are a powerful trigger for memory and emotion. And it’s no accident: the layout of the brain’s sensory cortex — with the closely linked olfactory bulb and amygdala (emotional memory) — pretty much guarantees that certain scents will spark a fit of nostalgia. Moreover, studies have shown that smells can trigger an adrenaline rush, lower pain, and produce a host of other physiological responses. It’s like tattoo-ing a feeling onto the brain, a feeling that can be elicited, Pavlov-like, every time the smell is re-introduced.

Scented Cinema

Source Brian Klutch/Getty Images

Perfume companies know all about this. Movie theater chains do too — buttered popcorn anyone? Marketers call it endorphin branding, which is the targeted use of smells to help build brand loyalty and fatten the bottom line.

How would this play at the multiplex? Well, the technology for scented films is already out there. South Korea released Avatar in 4D, complete with sprinkling water, wind, and the smell of explosives, German and Brazilian theaters are experimenting with scented commercials, and a French company is developing a SMELLIT device for home use with movies and video games.

In addition to new scented film epics (are you listening, James Cameron?), Hollywood could lure film lovers back to theaters in droves to relive their old favorites as never before. Imagine getting a whiff of the chocolate factory in Willy Wonka or the freshly cut Iowa grass in Field of Dreams — without having to wear stupid glasses. When Dan Ackroyd’s character in Ghostbusters asks, “Listen … You smell something?” the answer would be “yes!” And these films would add a whole new dimension to product placement — another potential gold mine for Hollywood.

What do you think? Would it get you off your couch and into a $6 tub of popcorn? Does it pass the smell test?

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