Unlocking Experiential Cinema

Move over method acting, Jason Solomons argues it's time to embrace "method watching" this summer...

Our beautiful picture palaces aren’t the only cinematic hot spots to have been clobbered by COVID over the last year. The growing trend for immersive movie experiences has been forced to regroup but I’m expecting it to bounce back, stronger and more appealing than ever.

Outdoor movies will be huge this summer as people experience the thrill of being out of their own sofas and watching a favourite film on a giant screen, surrounded by friends and even meeting strangers. From what I can see, there’s hardly a bit of Britain that’ll remain untouched by a big movie event, from a cinema on a Cornish cliff top to a festival in the Shetlands.

And in many senses, these are the sorts of experiences that will save cinema. Under threat from the streaming platforms and the instant hit of arriving in living rooms around the world on the same day, movies are demonstrating that they are, in fact, so much more than “product” and “content”.  They are living, breathing works of art that function best with an audience and that interact with their environment. I mean, Apocalypse Now is a helluva film anytime, any place, even on your telly - but when you watch it on the top deck of boat sailing upriver, like the guys in deepest Vietnam in the movie, it takes on another dimension.

The teams at Secret Cinema know this and have had great success getting audiences to feel part of the movie’s universe, with big sets and backdrops constructed so that the world of the film - from Bond to Blade Runner to Lawrence of Arabia - spills out into your reality for a while, sweeping you up in the action. You’ve heard of method acting, where the actor goes the extra yards in real life to become the character at all times? Well, experiential cinema, with its costumes and themed cocktails and actors all around, is kind of “method watching”.

Of course, you don’t need to be committed to anything other than a great night out and there’s something special about showing movies in unexpected locations. The atmosphere is hushed but not reverentially silent and the whole place gets bathed in a very particular glow. Personally, I like nothing better at such events than going to the bar and ordering, quietly, while huge movie stars are chatting away on the screen - I love looking at the audience gazing up, faces fixed in expressions of intense pleasure.

Partly, it’s a demonstration of film’s communal power, the ability to cast a spell over a large area. The energy of a great story, a big star, a massive dance number or a cracking car chase is magical stuff. From castle courtyards to racecourses, stately homes, drive-ins, rooftops, floating boats on an urban canal basin, a cemetery, a reservoir, covered markets to acres of rolling parkland as the sun sets over a city -  the array of backdrops and settings gets bigger and more inventive every year.

Interestingly, people want the greatest hits. Dirty Dancing is a perennial favourite, as is Grease,  A Star Is Born goes down well, Mamma Mia gets them all singing and Rocketman will have them floating on air. Classics on include Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Pulp Fiction and Moulin Rouge. But audiences also crave blockbusters in these new settings, films such as Joker, Godzilla vs Kong, Joker and Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Panther all benefit from being re-framed: you may have seen this movie, say these spaces, but you’ve never seen it like THIS. Many of these fan favourites are on the billing at Strawberry Moon drive in cinema this summer, where you can add to the experience with a wood fired pizza and can of STRYKK NOT G*N & TONIC or NOT R*M & COLA, delivered direct to your car via their specially developed app.

And it really is a whole new experience, a social gathering, in the dark, but not quite, alone, but not quite, half in the world of the film, half in a new surrounding - it’s all so much better than your living room.

So as the summer season heralds what we hope will be an unfettered, unlocked-down era, there’s no better way to get the buzz of movie back than by diving right into the core of the cinematic experience, a thrill so potent and precious, it glows through the night and into your soul.

To find your ideal movie night out, here are some leading sites who know how to put on a magical event and give a brilliant movie even more shine:
Hideway CinemaThe Nomad Cinema, Rooftop Film Club, The Luna Cinema, Nightflix, Backyard Cinema, Strawberry Moon Cinemas, Summer Screens

Jason Solomons
Jason Solomons

One of the UK's best-known presenters and film critics, Jason hosts the Seen Any Good Films Lately? podcast (supported by STRYKK). With shows about culture and music on BBC Radio London and Totally Wired Radio, Jason is also a regular on TV, reporting on the BAFTAs and the Oscars from the studio and the red carpet on BBC News, BBC World and Sky News. Jason is a festival expert, always at Cannes and Venice, reporting, reviewing and interviewing the stars for BBC arts show Front Row, Cannes’ official station Radio Festival, in The New European paper and on Cinemoi TV. Follow his influential blog jasonsolomons.com


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