Senses and audiences: How to put the magic back into cinema

While other performance disciplines experiment with their form through technology and participation, cinema risks being left in antiquity. Adam Ley-Lange explores its options.

Secret Cinema

The guy behind is kicking the back of my seat again. I feel like turning round, yanking off one of his shoes, and throwing it at the couple two rows down; the ones who haven’t stopped talking since the opening credits. I also need the toilet, and am considering relieving myself into my £10 five-gallon bucket of Pepsi. It’s at this point that I start to ask myself “why do I even come to the cinema anymore?”

Up to now, the main draw of the cinema has been threefold: the exclusive nature of a new release meaning that if you want to see it first, you have to go to the cinema; the screen that’s as big as the façade of your house; and the sound system that registers on a seismograph. The problem is that these differences between watching a film at home and going to the cinema are differences of degree, and home cinema is beginning to close the gap.  It’s now possible to stream films from online sites on the same day as their box office release. It’s becoming more common for people to invest in large television sets, or even projectors. Bigger screens are being paired with bigger speakers and surround sound systems.

How can cinema increase its lead again? Specifically, what can the industry do to make seeing a film in a theatre a significantly more immersive experience than watching it in the comfort of your own home? Whilst 3D films arguably promised a new age for cinema, each year since Avatar’s release in December 2009, revenue for 3D films has dropped by 1%. Though not a huge decline, BFI are already stating that “Initially audiences were attracted by the novelty of the new technology, but have become more selective about the films they watch in 3D, and choose 3D where the effect makes a perceived contribution to the experience.”

3D is a strange phenomenon in that it gives the illusion of breaking through the barrier of the cinema screen. In other areas of the arts, the boundary separating the audience from the action has been properly smashed long ago. From Tom Stoppard plays to the interactive promenade theatre of Punch Drunk and New Movement Collective, it becomes clear that mainstream cinema has been left behind, still very much caged by its medium.

Away from the big Hollywood releases though, organisations like London-based Secret Cinema have been set up expressly to provide immersive cinema experiences that expand the performance beyond the screen. Not only do their productions increase the amount of audio-visual stimuli, they also appeal to senses that traditional cinema has ignored: smell, taste, and touch. Secret Cinema screens classic films accompanied by live music, food, live actors, and costumes, which recreate the setting of the film that is being watched. Secrecy is integral to the project, but there are official press releases that give some idea of what audiences experience. The trailer for their production of Shawshank Redemption sees people being bussed to what looks like a prison, ordered around by guards, changed into prison uniforms and eating in the prison canteen.

As well as appealing to all the senses, Secret Cinema productions highlight the importance of movies as a communal experience. Whereas cinema audiences – with their seat-kicking and their conversations – are often the irritating element of theatre-going, Secret Cinema makes the audience integral to your enjoyment of the movie. Though a film can be watched again and again, as with live theatre what can’t be recreated is the immersive, ephemeral edge of the performance. It’s entirely possible that you might squeeze a hundred people into your living room, but it’s unlikely that you can create that feeling of being swept along in the emotions of shared experience. Much like when watching a gig or a football match, you find yourself laughing and crying with total strangers, and at the end feeling like you know them because you’ve shared something.

The problem, of course, is money. A typical Secret Cinema event will set you back £50.  Furthermore, such screenings are very much “one off” events (which is part of their appeal) and you couldn’t put on such productions for the length of a typical cinema run. Even if audiences are happy to pay, there are the production costs to think about. And since cinema isn’t technically losing money (BFI indicate the number of seats filled in cinemas is at its highest in 40 years), it’s unlikely that mainstream cinema will spend large amounts of money on a new venture.

An easy way to compromise is to incorporate certain elements of the Secret Cinema ethic into the cinema-going experience. One organisation that is already doing this is New Media Scotland, with their research project Atmosphere. They host “expanded screenings” which include multimedia, multi-sensory and live elements. I was lucky enough to go to their screening of anime classic Spirited Away. It involved audience members being given a beautiful origami box, which was opened at designated moments during the film. Inside were different kinds of food which we ate during the relevant scene. Just in front of the stage, two girls mixed colourful liquid concoctions in a huge glass bowl. These gave off different scents to recreate the bathhouse scenes in the movie.

It isn’t quite the costumed extravagance of a Secret Cinema event, but for the same price as a cinema ticket, you get a feast for the senses. At the finale, when a storm of confetti was released into the cinema, there was that rare spectacle of wide-eyed and smiling adults lifted out of the ordinary and feeling something a little magical.

On their website, Atmosphere states that it takes its inspiration from reimagining “the concept of Atmospheric movie theatres from the 1920s and ‘30s.” These were theatres that painted their ceilings to give the audience the impression that they were sitting under burning stars in a clear night sky, thus transporting people out of the Depression era world and to somewhere away from drudgery and dull routine.

It appears they got a lot right in the cinema of the ‘20s and ‘30s. At present, it feels like we’ve lost something. As well as the attention paid to the surroundings of an atmospheric cinema, there’s also the long-forgotten live musical-accompaniment. Though a necessity then, due to under-developed technology, coupling cinema with live music has been explored in more contemporary settings. Bands like Minima and 65daysofstatic have performed live soundtracks to films. Introducing a stage or an orchestra pit would be a simple way of enhancing the cinema-going experience, recreating the live energy of going to a gig.

These are small lessons we can learn from Atmosphere and Secret Cinema, but it’s a big screen, so maybe it’s time to think big. New Zealand’s Live Live Cinema recently performed at the Barbican with screenings of Carnival of Souls and Dementia 13. The films were complemented by live actors doing voice overs, whilst musicians and sound engineers used live sound effects to recreate the film’s audio. It doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine members of the audience being brought on stage to provide their own sound effects, or to ad-lib lines. Something like this would be interactive and playful, and would make each performance unique. Francis Ford Coppola has already started to explore the idea of “live editing” with his film Twixt. Based on audience reactions, the editor tweaks the film to add scenes or take them away. In the film, for example, if the audience respond well to the star Val Kilmer, they get more Val Kilmer throughout the film.

There’s the scope for being irreverent with films. Anyone who’s been to a showing of The Room will know how creative audiences can get with a movie. With the dubious honour of being “the worst movie ever made,” The Room draws an audience that provides their own sound effects, greet characters as they appear in shot, and throws plastic cutlery at the screen. Imagine Live Live Cinema geared up for audience participation. Imagine being put in front of a microphone, given a kazoo, and asked to deliver the immortal line “Here’s lookin’ at you kid.” Or being handed a watermelon and having to provide the sound effect for the Death Star exploding.

Whilst cinemas are still pulling an audience, it seems a good time to think about how they can be more engaged. From the small steps of getting more of the senses working, to the ambitious idea of removing the screen as a barrier, there’s a wealth of possibilities. Maybe the guy behind me is kicking my seat because he has nothing better to do with his legs.

About Adam Ley-Lange

Adam Ley-Lange lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is primarily a short story writer. Along with his partner, Adam runs the website The Rookery in the Bookery, which reviews literary works in translation.

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