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Future Cinema: Where the audience is the star

(Roberta Facchini)

(Roberta Facchini)

Immersive events that transform cinema-goers into participants have become popular nights out in London. BBC Culture’s Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore goes along for the ride.

It is 1980s New York and ghosts have invaded the city. Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters, of course.

Except that on this particular dark and stormy night in London, there aren’t any real ghosts. Just actors dressed up and projections of ghouls on the wall. And the public are paying £35 ($57) a head to be in the show. They are taking part in a Future Cinema event, in which a film screening is combined with live action, so that an audience of hundreds is submerged in the world of the film they are watching.

Founded by Brit Fabien Riggall, Future Cinema delivers an immersive experience that is helping to revolutionise the way we see film. Future Cinema and its more daring younger sister Secret Cinema – which does the same thing but without revealing the name of the film the audience is going to see – transform spectators into participants. Past shows have included Prometheusin which a London warehouse was turned into a spaceship and viewers wore boiler-suits, and Blade Runner, when futuristic characters were shipped to the event by bus, attended to by air hostesses from ‘Utopia Airways’. Riggall’s aim, quite simply, is to put the magic back into the movies.

It works. On the night before Christmas Eve – the last of 16 near sell-out screenings of Ghostbusters – the rain is torrential but that has not stopped the crowds. They arrive at the Troxy, an Art Deco building in London’s East End, dressed in a rainbow of ‘80s paraphernalia, sporting everything from scrunchies to shoulder pads. The venue has been transformed into the Sedgewick Hotel – the smart, snobbish establishment where, in the movie, the Ghostbusters zap their first spectre into sticky green gloop. On sale are hot dogs, macaroni cheese, and popcorn. ‘Scientists’ in lab coats give guided tours of the haunted library while others demonstrate how the Ghostbuster equipment works. Sleazy Dr Venkman is there, as is Dana Barrett, his possessed love interest (the latter replete with curly, snake-like Sigourney Weaver hair).

It’s a world away from watching a film slobbed out on the sofa or on the move with an iPad. Today we are used to immediate, on-demand entertainment, and we often enjoy it alone. While technology has made us more connected, it has also driven us further apart as we bury our heads in our devices. Future Cinema, says Riggall, was “born out of this need to need to take on this over automated world, where there is so much information, there is very little that is mysterious.”

Back to the future

To this end Riggall first launched Future Cinema in 2005, with the screening of the 1947 experimental film Dreams Money Can Buy. In 2007, he held his first Secret Cinema event. The tagline was ‘Tell No One’. Four hundred people signed up to watch a mystery film without knowing anything about the night in store, which took place in an abandoned railway tunnel (it turned out to be the skater murder tale Paranoid Park). With the help of a vast online community of over 2.8 million, numbers have since ballooned. Last year, Secret Cinema’s screening of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil attracted an audience of 25,000.

“Due to the rise of the digital generation, there is this massive hunger for real experiences. There is a sense that we are just spending most of our lives in front of screens. There is this massive desire for adventure, for romance, and beauty,” says Riggall. “And I mean, romance, not like [the dating app] Tinder. People don’t have the same confidence to talk to other people anymore because they spend time talking to them on social media. I think people like [Future Cinema] because it gives them the excuse to talk to strangers.”

“Many people still crave that communal experience,” agrees Chuck Tryon, author of Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence. The number of Americans who went to the cinema at least once a month fell from 30% in 2000 to just 10 %in 2011. But for over a century previously, Tryon argues, one of cinema’s key appeals was that it was a collective entertainment.  “People still want that,” he says, “but they also want something original, something that can’t be easily created [at home].”

Future Cinema’s shows are nothing if not ambitious. In 2010, for example, London’s Alexandra Palace was transformed into an Arab marketplace for the screening of Lawrence of Arabia, with horses, donkeys, and even camels on site. For many, Future Cinema is appealing because it works like a video game: audience members can navigate different rooms to build their own experience and narrative – no-one comes out with quite the same final story. “People crave the opportunity to participate and enter into the world of the movie itself,” explains Tryon. “Look at Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, which features a plot where characters escape their boring, humdrum lives by going into a movie. It’s a very old fantasy.”

This is something that Alexander Van Wingerden-Cross understands. The 28-year-old Londoner and sci-fi fanatic works in a call centre by day but likes to dress up as a Ghostbuster at night. He has spent nearly £1,000 ($1642) on putting together a full Ghostbuster outfit, which he wears proudly to the screening. “What was fun was the actions of the various actors,” says Van Wingerden-Cross. “The characters playing [Ghostbusters] Winston and Peter were annoyed that I was impersonating a Ghostbuster and [asked]: ‘Where did I get the equipment?’ Whereas [the secretary] Janine was more along the lines of: ‘Oh, this is the new recruit’, and talking about techno babble and equipment. I love the way that whatever was going on, no-one ever broke character: they all took it in their stride.”

Blurred lines

Future Cinema’s Ghostbusters event rests on gimmicks – towards the end of the night a giant blow-up Stay Puft Marshmallow Man emerges from the darkness to the exclamations of the crowd. And the audience seem open to tumbling headfirst into the fantasy, discarding any cynicism in the process. Other events, however, have had a more serious bent. Riggall remembers a moment during the screening of Blue Velvet when an actor playing Frank Booth started abusing his (fictional) girlfriend outside the venue. A security guard – unaware that this was make-believe – intervened. “We tried to tell him that they were actors,” laughs Riggall. “The whole thing got worse.”

So far Future Cinema has played in cities across the UK and in some international locations, such as Berlin, Paris and Kabul. They are hoping to launch in Los Angeles and New York this summer. Riggall is also in talks with studios about releasing films simultaneously via Future Cinema and the box office. In 2012 Prometheus, with the endorsement of Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox, ran in both concurrently, taking more at Future Cinema’s screenings than it did at London’s BFI Imax. Riggall believes that this will herald a new future for cinema. “You can go and see The Hobbit in Imax or 3D − or go and see it in the shire that we have created in an abandoned forest,” he says, adding: “We’ll have a massive feast around the fire and we all get killed by orcs.”

Riggall is joking. But the blurring between reality and fiction is what gives Future Cinema its bite. In its Ghostbusters event no-one was really going to be scared of a flying green blob. But in the 2012 showing of The Shawshank Redemption it was a different level altogether. Riggall wanted the audience to feel the humiliation and sheer brutality of being locked up in jail. So he stripped them of their clothes, gave them long johns to wear, and frog marched them through a prison barefoot. And for those souls who found it a bit too much, he had a very British solution. “We gave them a cup of tea and said: ‘It’s fine. It’s not real.’”

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