Everything That’s Wrong With ‘Event Cinema’

If you believe what you read in The Guardian, the traditional cinematic experience is dying. Odeons across the country are gathering dust, people are downloading the latest releases illegally from The Twitter rather than paying for cinema tickets and the $400,000,000 that Inception has made in three weeks at the global box office is merely the result of an elaborate money laundering operation set up by Christopher Nolan to up his street cred.

As a result, film exhibitors are looking for new ways to entice audiences to pay for films, and it seems the promise of a life-threateningly hilarious Orange Wednesdays advert is no longer cutting it.

More and more events are popping up (especially in London) promising a ‘new spin’ on cinemagoing. Often this new spin consists of a change of location, because obviously what people are really bored of about traditional cinemas is not the inflated prices, rude staff and endless adverts, but the really fucking annoying things like the comfort, convenience and quality of seeing a film in a building designed to show films.

Hence anyone who wanted to see Spike Jonze’s short film I’m Here when it screened in London earlier this year had to traipse off to an oh-so-exclusive screening in a damp NCP car park in Soho (how gritty!) while the premiere of the surprisingly-amazing Banksy doc Exit Through The Gift Shop took place in a tunnel near Waterloo (cos dat is werr ppl do grafiti yeh?). Both probably made for a few great Twitpics but I don’t imagine either provided the ideal atmosphere to watch a film in.

Personally, I saw Exit Through The Gift Shop on a Monday morning at the Curzon Soho. The seats were comfortable, there was air conditioning, and the soundtrack didn’t sound like it was being amplified through a chain of megaphones. Maybe you had a great time at the tunnel, and feel free to comment if you did, but I’d wager that the cinema wins out.

These one-off events are bad enough, but at least the majority of critics aren’t desperately writing them up as the future of the world and everything in it. For that kind of hysteria look to Secret Cinema: an organisation that exists partly to plan monthly cinema events and partly to give Time Out journalists something to masterbate over.

When it began, Secret Cinema wasn’t entirely a bad thing. The concept - a monthly screening of an unannounced film in an unusual location - was a relatively novel one and although screening conditions weren’t necessarily optimum, they at least put the effort in with all the extra crap: a pop-up skate park for Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, a staff made up entirely of astronauts for Alien, etc. etc. etc.

Innocuous enough, right? WRONG. For their Bugsy Malone screening, held at East London’s Troxy ballroom, the big surprise was a massive custard pie fight, to be synchronised with the one that features at the end of the film. Apart from the fact that the smell must have been unbearable about ten minutes later, my real problem with this is that it sets a dangerous precedent: the willingness of the organisers to ‘pause’ the film, or at least distract an audience’s attention from it, half-way through. OK, Bugsy Malone isn’t the most ‘worthy’ film ever made, but who knew what might be the next film interrupted by Secret Cinema?

As it turned out, it was Blade Runner and I was there. Like the previous events I’d read so much about, the design and activities were pretty good: they’d built a massive futuristic Chinatown in the Canary Wharf warehouse where the screening was to take place and we were invited to hold snakes, explore the ‘strip club’ and, of course, buy some waaaay overpriced beer.

But such pleasures were soon a fleeting memory when the film started up. The dialogue was almost inaudible as it echoed around the massive room, and the seats were so cheap and rigid that a half-hour episode of The Simpsons would have been difficult to endure, let alone a two-hour sci-fi epic. The final injustice came towards the end of the film as two actors, suspended on wires and lit by two massive spotlights, mimicked the actions of Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer’s characters during the iconic ‘Tears in Rain’ speech. The film was ignored, the mood was destroyed and above all, the message was clear: Blade Runner on its own is no longer good enough - it needs a few cunts on strings to make it entertaining.

After I reviewed the night for my blog, a PR agent told me that I was the only person to give it a negative write-up. Total Film called it a ‘roaring success’, The Guardian said it was ‘truly innovative’ and cited the ‘exciting moment’ when the film was interrupted, even the normally stoic Sight & Sound this month published an article describing Secret Cinema as an ‘excellent way of engaging viewer interest’. An upcoming screening of my favourite film Blue Velvet looks set to be just as popular, but who knows what kooky shit they’ll unleash on the audience when they decide the film’s getting a bit boring…  Am I taking the whole thing too seriously? Maybe, but I don’t think I’m alone.

Thankfully, a small proportion of ‘event cinema’ organisers are avoiding the stunts-and-gimmicks approach and instead focusing on creating events in which the film is central to the audience’s enjoyment, rather than supplementary. Film4′s Summer Screen series at Somerset House (currently ongoing) takes the familiar unorthodox-setting route, in this case Somerset House’s large outdoor courtyard, but ensures that projection quality and audio clarity are always at an impressively high standard. The 2000-strong audience are enthusiastic but respectful, and the programming choices are refreshingly daring (they’re doing Mulholland Drive this Friday).

I saw a double bill of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Enter The Dragon there last Friday and the audience were transfixed. As the gunshot rang out announcing ‘The 4th Film from Quentin Tarantino’ and Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) effortlessly filled the massive courtyard, there was no Nancy Sinatra impersonator in front of the screen, no team of acrobats running around the audience, just 2000 people starring at a movie under the night sky.

It might just tempt the teens away from BitTorrent.

P.S. While we’re on the subject, I might as well do a bit of shameless promotion for my own form of ‘event cinema’: the monthly Ultra Culture Cinema at the ICA in Central London. We do plenty of quirky shit before and after the film but hopefully nothing than distracts from the amazingness of sitting down and watching a film with 200 totally awesome like-minded individuals. A few tickets are still available for our Scott Pilgrim night on August 25th. Hope to see you there.


  • tehTrunk August 3, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Well said that man

  • youvegotredonyou August 3, 2010 at 10:21 am

    You're not alone, it sounds fucking stupid. Nearly as fucking stupid as sing-along-a-Wickerman. Surely the whole reason that cinemas are dark, (ideally) comfortable and soundproofed is to cut out distractions and leave you engrossed in the film. Why would people in their right mind choose to have it obstructed by the sight of “cunts on strings” or the sounds of karaoke. It might be okay if you were already familiar with the film and were going for some kooky novelty (although thinking about it that really isn't okay), but imagine if you were trying to watch it for the first time. Ruined.

  • Guest August 3, 2010 at 10:21 am

    I've no probs with you not liking 'event cinema' but some stuff sprang to mind. 2001's Mulholland Drive is a staple, it's not 'refreshingly daring'. And Exit Through The Gift Shop was shown in an auditorium, not a tunnel. It had proper cinema seats and a popcorn and drinks vendor. 'The Lambeth Palace Picture House' was actually once of the best 'cinemas' in which I've seen a film. I also like the Curzon - which does 'event cinema' too with it's monthly midnight movies, where folks dress up, bands play and themed cocktail from the night's drink sponsors are swilled. I'm heading to Somerset house this Saturday for the vampire double bill, more for the talk by Kim Newman than anything - I heard the ground there is butt-crushingly uncomfortable. Disclaimer, I don't work for any of the above companies but I do like cinema and, despite your anger at having a film (you've presumably already seen) paused, just can't share your misplaced hate here.

  • Lost-at-home August 3, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I'm not interested in going to any of these vents, but hopefully they'll get enough attention so that the multiplexes can step up their game and I don't have to sit down to watch the first half hour of Toy Story 3 in my local odeon completely out of fucking focus. Seriously those places really need to hire more projectionists.

    • Alex August 3, 2010 at 11:59 pm

      If you don't complain immediately then what's the point. If the screen is out of focus don't just sit there. As stated in one of Charlies articles it's a bit like eating a sandwich and complaining after you've finished it.

      Cinemas don't need more projectionists they just need to do away with the incompetent ones

      • Lost-at-home August 4, 2010 at 7:42 pm

        Of course I complained immediately, but the projectionist had ten other films to set up before coming back to our screen.

      • Ultra Culture August 5, 2010 at 1:32 am

        I don't remember making that sandwich analogy. I hope I did though, it's a beaut'.

  • Thelazecontactlist August 3, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    is right lad

  • Miles Maker August 3, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    There's a fine line between events enhancing the cinematic experience and distraction attractions. However in the case of classic movies that most have already seen-I doubt they'd attract an audience if the distraction wasn't part of the attraction.

  • TheBigLumbowski August 3, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    It's called event cinema for a reason - you go to these for something more than a regular cinema experience, something a bit different. If you just want to watch Blade Runner, watch it on your big TV with the lights out or wait until it's showing again in a regular cinema. The Secret Cinema just gone was altogether outstanding and I can't understand your hatred of the “cunts on strings”… it was part of the event (that would be in bold italics if I could do that). I agree the audio could have been better, but to say it was almost inaudible is just wrong.

    Last point: how comfortable is it sitting through a double bill on the hard stone of Somerset House courtyard? Give me a chair anyday.

    You're almost always spot on, Ultra Culture (I read your site every day and really enjoyed the Bad Lieutenant screening you put on) but this shows you simply shouldn't be going to event cinema, you should be watching films in your own hermetically sealed screening room.

  • James August 4, 2010 at 9:09 am


  • dj.jazzy.owen August 4, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    I'm not opposed to the concept of 'event cinema', but the idea of doing this kind of stuff WHILE THE FILM IS SHOWING is shocking. It's like treating the film as background noise instead of the main event. For an example of this done right, have a look at what the Alamo Drafthouse has done with their Rolling Roadshow in the US. Then again, that's run by people who actually have a passion for the films they show and not a bunch of art students who want to play fucking dress up.

  • Ike August 11, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    It's not really about the film, it's about the experience. You want “just” the film then go to the cinema or rent the DVD. It's about doing something different with classics that anyone with an appreciation of movies has seen tens of time before. If you've ever been to a Punch Drunk theatre production you don't complain that it isn't like sitting through 3 hours of a Faust play with acts and an interval or watching Masque of the Red Death in reverent silence, you enjoy an amazing and unique experience for what it is. Secret Cinema is like that but on a much smaller scale but I admire the ambition and I hope they can develop it to more resemble the likes of a Punch Drunk affair.

  • Theo August 12, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Whilst I think people should be free to put on whatever kind of events they want, I totally agree with the criticism here. Even if you do live in London, it's not as if there is an abundance of high quality repertory theatres like there are in Paris. When an organisation like Secret Cinema screens an older film, it might be the only chance you're going to get to see it on the big screen for years to come, if not your whole life. So people understandably have high expectations.

    Secret Cinema is not cheap, and describes itself as being for those who love challenging and groundbreaking cinema, which suggests a certain level of dedication to the integrity of the films being shown. If I paid twenty quid for a ticket to film that I might never otherwise get to see in the cinema, and if I showed up and the film was intentionally interrupted part way through, without any prior warning that such a thing might happen, I think I would be justified in being kind of pissed off.

    • Ike August 12, 2010 at 12:45 pm

      It's a secret cinema, you don't know what you're going to see so the notion of spoiling a film you have paid to see on the big screen is a bit silly. You've paid to be part of an event, not just to go to a cinema and watch a film and if you don't like the idea of experiencing something more than just the film itself then don't buy a ticket, check out the listings of the cinemas instead. There IS an abundance of cinemas and smaller venues showing older films in London, it's cheaper, you'll know what you're going to be seeing and there'll be no people in fancy dress to spoil it for you. Leave the Secret Cinema for those that wish to experience something a bit different.

  • hooker$oncrack August 16, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    What the fuck is all this barmy nonsense about :”it's not really about the film, it's about the experience” or “You've paid to be part of an event, not just to go to a cinema and watch a film and if you don't like the idea of experiencing something more than just the film itself then don't buy a ticket.” Please, the whole Secret Cinema experience is as exciting as going on a coach trip around Europe with a bunch of arty pensioners and as anticlimax as trying to fuck an oversized inflatable doll that keeps deflating no matter the amount of eastlondon hispterical spin you apply to it. Avoid like the plague.or anything by Mumford and sons / Laura Marling.

    • quiet August 30, 2010 at 9:35 am

      You're trying too hard.The forced similies, the username, the disparaging references to pop music. It's about as funny as [insert angry but not funny reference here] Have a cup of tea and relax.

  • dunlopmaxply September 9, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    Yup, I went to the Banksy film in the tunnel. Sat in comfy armchairs at the front and ate grapes. It was great.


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