How to make an event out of a movie screening in order to make it more appealing? Transmedia expert and SylC guest blogger Christy Dena takes a look at successful examples of event-based screenings and offers SylC readers some insightful hints...
A few years ago I was on a panel with an executive from Twentieth Century-Fox, and we were talking about creating "events" around films. He piped up and said they do that all the time. They tell audiences "this is the movie you HAVE to see this year", and then next year they tell them "THIS is the movie you HAVE to see this year". But this isn't what I mean when talking about creating "events" around your screenings. Instead, this article is about making the actual screening an event so that there are more compelling reasons to attend other than "it is on the big screen".
What makes a screening more appealing? Sometimes it is the nature of a venue - an arthouse cinema or 3D venue. But oftentimes it is the type of film coupled with the cinema. Cult films, old classics and so on are often well-matched to a beautiful classic surrounding you can share with others. Of course there are also outdoor venues. Drive-ins and "pop-up" screenings are in included in these. The Australian Film Festival, for instance, held a screening of Jaws in the water at Bondi Beach. I cannot think of anything more terrifying than lying in an inflatable in the water while watching Jaws. Sometimes the "pop-up" screening is more impromptu in a forest, street, or backyard. These are often screenings of niche independent films that are more exciting when paired with a similarly guerilla setting.
We've also seen the rise of organised themed screenings, such as the Ghostbusters-themed screenings held by UK's Secret Cinema- where attendees arrive in costume to a previously undisclosed prop-filled space. As you can see in the videos below, the events are entirely curated, adding elements that lovers of that particular film would enjoy experiencing.
But these are examples of fans (or organisations) creating a themed environment around a film to create an event. One of the shifts we've seen in the last few years in particular is the rise of filmmakers putting their own hand to creating these events. What this means is that the environment becomes an extension of the creative process. Of course, this is not a uniquely contemporary phenomenon. The “scare-tactics” of horror filmmaker William Castle in the 1950s and 1960s are of note in this case. Castle (who produced Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby) used “gimmicks” such as having ambulances on stand-by outside the theatre in case the theatre goers were scared to death. This tactic, it should be noted, was also used by many exhibitors during the 1920s and 1930s for comedy (laugh yourself to death) and horror (scare yourself to death). But for Castle, these were ways the theatre experience could be interweaved with the film narrative.
For instance, in his 1959 film, The Tingler, the Tingler is an alien creature that grows on your spine. If you feel a tingling, the alien is there and growing. The only way to stop the Tingler is to scream. At a moment during the film, the pathologist (played by Vincent Price) is attacked by the Tingler, and then just as he is about to secure the creature in a container the film goes black. The voice of Vincent Price (and the sound of women screaming) alerts the audience that the Tingler is now loose in the theatre. At this moment, some of the theatre seats are then activated with a buzzing machine (which Castle called Percepto!), simulating the growth of the Tingler in the moviegoer’s spines.
More recently, horror filmmaker (or“story architect”) Lance Weiler’s 2006 production of Head Trauma continues this tradition, but now includes narrative and game elements in what he calls a “Cinema ARG”. Head Trauma included—among an interactive comic on the website and an alternate reality game— cinema events. For one of his cinema events, which was developed as a way to make the theatre a unique experience in itself, Weiler started the experience in the streets. “As people were making their way to the venue," he said, "we had written some software that allowed all the payphones up and down the block to ring” ("Creating a Storyworld", Seize the Media). Weiler put fragments of conversation on the payphones, so if people answered them the content would foreshadow the story of the film. Attendees then encountered a street preacher. The preacher was “spouting fire and brimstone and handing out these small religious comics”. The comics are on the film's website (www.headtraumamovie.com), but importantly also feature in the film: the protagonist finds a comic at a payphone. Once at the cinema, patrons also find a tent. The tent is “an iconic image that’s used within the movie itself”. The soundtrack was played by musicians live, and once the patrons left, characters would send messages to their phones. For Weiler, what is “really important is making elements of the story tangible for the audience”. He wanted “to create something where the movie comes to life”.
Of course, nothing beats a Q&A with the cast, crew, or even related significant personalities. The same principles also apply to documentaries. I've spoken with many documentary makers about creating an event out of their screening. We ask questions such as "what does the audience want to talk about after seeing the documentary?" or even "what action do we want to encourage them to take?". But one of the biggest problems of creating such "events" out of screening experience is that it isn't scalable - it cannot elegantly adjust to increased demand. That is why we're seeing filmmakers providing "kits" that enable others to run screenings, and when they can also participate from afar via Skype or some other technology. Kevin Smith is using satellite to be a part of distant screenings to help create a screening event that has qualities a DVD cannot copy (read more here).
But why do this? In a world of on-demand, digital entertainment, anything that explores the affordances of a medium is more appealing to "consumers". In this case, event as medium provides a way for people to share their screening experience with others (something that will never go out of vogue), and have an experience that cannot be duplicated in any other media and even any other venue. This means it can help bring twenty more people to your screenings, and potentially earn more income. But there is also another reason why some filmmakers do it: they see the experience of their film as being bigger than the screen itself. And so their skills then stretch further than filmmaking into experiential design. Indeed, the augmenting of an event is often what I discuss with clients who wor.... We discuss what the pre-, during, and post-experience can be for their work. This article has concentrated on some of the ways the "during" experience can be enhanced. Whatever your reason, and whatever your approach, thinking about how your screening -- your event at a particular time and place -- can transcend normal viewing is another option that is wholly compelling to audiences.