IN THE FUTURE...
YOU WON'T WATCH MOVIES IN A CINEMA
WORDS: ALI PLUMB
You could watch a film by going to a cinema, paying for your ticket, sitting down in a darkened room and staring at a screen for 90 minutes plus – or you could sit in a Jacuzzi (time travel not included), "eat along" with a movie (actual cinema not itself edible) or sit in a park's open air theatre and watch the likes of Goldfinger or Breakfast At Tiffany's under the cover of a few tree branches (bring your own blanket).
The loudest trumpet blower in the experiential cinema world is the increasingly poorly-named Secret Cinema, whose mission is to not just "recreate movies and have a party" – as the phenomenon's creator, Fabien Riggall, explains – but turn filmgoing into an event. Since launching in 2005, Secret Cinema has delivered theatricality in the form of actors, set design, lighting, music and people dressed as camels to the likes of Lawrence Of Arabia, The Shawshank Redemption and If…., refusing to let the 2D nature of sight and sound stand in the way of its ever-increasing ambitions.
"DURING A SCREENING OF WAYNE'S WORLD, I NOTICED THAT PEOPLE WERE QUIETLY QUOTING ALONG TO THEIR FAVOURITE LINES, AND SINGING ALONG TO BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. I SAID, 'WE NEED TO START DOING THIS WITH FILMS THAT I WANT TO SEE.'" PAUL VICKERY, HEAD OF PROGRAMMING AT THE PRINCE CHARLES CINEMABut while Secret Cinema attracts attention for its every-once-in-a-while grand plans (and the odd technical hitch), interactive, audience-involving, as-fun-as-three-bags-of Haribo moviegoing has a more regular home in the form of the Prince Charles Cinema (the PCC) in London's Leicester Square. It's there, just a few steps into the 21st century, that the first big experiential cinema brand came to be: Sing-A-Long-A – and it's there that the future of many smaller cinemas lies.
As the name suggests, Sing-A-Long-A sees its audience members sing along with their favourite films, with subtitles on screen and dressing up very much encouraged. After an immensely successful Sound Of Music opening, Grease, Rocky Horror, Hairspray and many more have been added to the roster, and non-film nights involving ABBA and Elvis also part of the programme. But Sing-A-Long-A was just the beginning of what has started to define the PCC, and so event cinema like it, as head of programming Paul Vickery explains.
"About four years ago, when I was a front of house staff member, Wayne's World was on in the lead up to Christmas, and we had three hundred people in. During the screening, I noticed that people were quietly quoting along to their favourite lines, and singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody. So the next day I went to my boss and said, 'We need to start doing this with films that I want to see.' He asked me which ones I thought we should do, and I suggested Wayne's World, so the first event that I put on was 'Shwing-A-Long-A Wayne's World'. This then sold out in three or four weeks."
Here was an exciting alternative for the PCC and cinemas like it to pull in the punters without having to pay the hefty fees to show the likes of Transformers 4 and other heavy-hitting summer fare. Here was a never-ending interactive film event that drew in the all-important stay-at-home streaming services crowd, and one that gave their 300-seat venue the chance to pack in the punters on the increasingly less popular Friday and Saturday night slots. "The sad fact is that culture of 500 people coming to see Children Of God on a Sunday afternoon has gone," says Vickery. "With our event cinema programme, suddenly we had 100 people upstairs watching a new film and 300 people downstairs quoting along to Wayne's World."
Secret Cinema recreated Hill Valley for their Back To The Future event.
With an emphasis on community, a genuine love of the films they show, an anarchic sense of fun and a desire to keep prices low, the PCC have proved worthy rivals to their big brand Leicester Square brethren, inspiring other, similar cinemas to follow suit. "We certainly get people asking how we put on shows, and about the things we do," elaborates Vickery. "I've been in touch with a cinema in Australia, one in Canada and a few in America. There's also the Alamo Drafthouse in the States, who also have a similar structure to us: core releases and another side which is just fun events."
"Places all over Europe get in touch, asking what this 'Shwing-A-Long With Wayne's World' thing is, and how they can get it into their cinema," Vickery adds. "We set things up so it's much more interesting than just coming to watch it. But then, we also give people the chance to just come and watch them too. We have Wayne's World quote-a-longs all the time, but next week, I think, we just have a normal showing."
The other bonus to these more attention-grabbing nights is that for a lot of people, their first experience of the Prince Charles is through something like the Labyrinth Masquerade Ball. After that, they start coming to just watch the regular films as well. "Yeah, it's like a gateway drug!" laughs Vickery. "It helps us break through that Googling-for-the-latest-release problem. We start popping up on people's radars." And it's not just old movies – sorry Wayne and Garth, you're definitely old now – that are being blessed with interactivity. Behold… the power of Frozen.
THE EXPLOSION OF OUTDOOR CINEMA – ANOTHER PREDOMINANTLY 21ST CENTURY PHENOMENON – HAS RUN PARALLEL WITH THESE DRESS-UP-AND-DANCE NIGHTS, WITH FILM LOVERS GIVEN THE CHOICE OF BEAUTIFUL LISTED BUILDINGS."Frozen has sold more than 3000 tickets so far, and we only started doing it two months ago. We're showing it 11 times over Christmas, and we've sold out every single time we've had it on. It's by far the most successful thing we've done. Sure, it's a little more expensive that the others, but we have goodie bags for everybody, a hosted pre-show, subtitles on the screen with a dancing slowflake following the lyrics… it's a full-on thing, as close to a theatre experience as you can give, but in a cinema."
So where next for experiential cinema? The answer, as Secret Cinema will tell you, may lie outside its physical walls. The explosion of outdoor cinema – another predominantly 21st century phenomenon – has run parallel with these dress-up-and-dance nights, with film lovers given the choice of beautiful listed buildings (Summer Screen at Somerset House, where they turn the fountains off, promise) helicopter pads (Rooftop Cinema, personal helicopter not required), canals (Floating Cinema, luxury barge not required) and waiter-service car parks (The Drive-In Film Club, car definitely required). Then there's the interesting idea of twinning a startling location to a film, thanks to Everyman's ingenious screening of Children Of Men shown at Battersea Power Station.
And "outside their walls" needn't even mean outdoors. The BFI sci-fi season at the British Museum is one such example, while the Prince Charles is exploring the idea of renting a space to show films in a locale that isn't – shudder – the PCC itself. "If we were to show Labyrinth in a ballroom with an orchestra beforehand, would it work?" ponders Vickery. "What is key is that it would always be us doing it, not getting someone else to do it for us. It would always be Prince Charles Cinema first." So watch this space – or, perhaps, another space entirely.