Interactivity is the latest innovation in a long history of storytelling – but how can cinemas embrace it? Nicola More opens the new chapter
Stories have been a part of human culture since prehistoric man first drew pictorial representations on cave walls – signs of “the beginnings of the modern human soul”, as Werner Herzog eloquently expressed it in his acclaimed film Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The earliest stories served less as entertainment and more as instructive tales of faith and morality. Through ancient religious texts, we adopted beliefs, rituals, codes of behaviour, laws and ethics. The great philosopher Plato famously set out his theories about the nature of human existence through a series of allegorical tales, and in medieval times fables provided miniature lessons in morality. In those early days of literary development, our storytelling was bound up in the pictorial and the performative, passed down orally through generations.
It was only in recent centuries that ‘literature’ as we know it now began to emerge as a serious field. The term ‘culture’ itself was only coined in the 19th century, prior to which culture was to do with cultivating crops. The industrial revolution and technological advances made literature more widely available than ever before. By Victorian times even the lowest classes could access cheap novels or read novels serialised in the newspapers of the day. (Authors then were paid by the word, so we have the papers to thank for Dickens’ wordy prose!)
By the 20th century, film came along and spawned a lucrative industry based on popular storytelling accessible to all.
So what’s next? Many people would not readily associate gaming and social media with storytelling, but both have the potential to revolutionise the art of the story. Consider for example award-winning PS3 game Heavy Rain. Modelled on film noir, the game is a dramatic thriller following the story of the Origami Killer. Players’ decisions and actions throughout the gameplay directly affect the narrative, leading to a variety of alternative scenes and endings. Or there’s Rockstar’s latest effort, LA Noir, where players must read the facial expressions of characters and formulate hypotheses from various clues to solve the case of an LA serial killer in the 40s. Even advertising has cottoned on, most recently with BT creating a series of TV ads linking together to tell a love story, and viewers voting for their preferred ending on Facebook.
Interactivity, it seems, is the latest evolution in storytelling. But how can cinemas embrace the potential of audience interaction?
Next month’s Sydney Film Festival sees the premier of Scenario, billed as the first ever interactive 3D film. The action plays out on a 360-degree panoramic screen with motion sensors tracking the audience’s movements, which directly affect how the narrative (a rather icky Josef Fritzl-inspired thriller) unfolds. Read more about it here.
Of course, this example is pretty futuristic, and most indie cinemas do not have state-of-the-art motion sensor technology stuffed in a cupboard somewhere. But there are more modest ways in which cinemas can provide an immersive experience for audiences – here are some simple ideas:
It’s a very trendy term among ‘meedja’ types, but pretentious as it sounds, 360-degree programming is big news. Independent cinemas across Europe are looking beyond simply the screening of films to also consider how they can create an experience. This might include themed programming, food and nibbles inspired by the film choice, informal talks or seminars from film professionals, educational workshops and discussion forums.
It may be one of the oldest working cinemas in the UK, but The Electric in Birmingham has embraced the modern trend of cultural democracy. Customers can hire a room in which they can show a film of their choice, accompanied by olives, scones and chocolates. If you time it well, there is even an in-house orchestra playing along to a live screening from time to time. What’s more, they have an absinthe fountain. Now that’s an interactive experience!
Even if your content is of the traditional narrative variety, transmedia opens up a world of opportunities in marketing – from user participation on twitter and facebook to viral campaigns. This is a whole blog post in itself, but there are a few ideas in my previous post about using social media as a marketing platform. Or take some time to explore Hide&Seek, the London development studio that creates social games and playful experiences. A quick browse through their projects provides a wealth of inspiration for joyful ways to reach out to people and fresh approaches to traditional media (like the clever Boardgame Remix Kit).
A cinema is as much a gathering place for like-minded folk as it is a receptacle for film. Why not facilitate the creation of a film club, adding a social aspect to film appreciation? Or engage new audiences by inviting creative responses to a film, such as drawings or poems inspired by a highly-anticipated release. Okay, so it may not work for The Secrets In Their Eyes but it could provide a great hook for lighter screenings like The Illusionist. Thinking back to the classic Amelie, it would be great fun to challenge a community to do their own good deeds for the week leading up to the film release, with a small prize for the most kind-spirited of participants. A whole army of cute-haired, French-speaking, guardian angels – how lovely!
Image by Bollesbiggestfan1 on Flickr under Creative Commons license