As indoor venues reopen, I’m looking forward to getting back into the darkness to see stories projected on the wall in rooms full of strangers… But, along with the obvious, there’s one thing I fear… the toxic response from many in the film commentariat to exactly the phenomenon that we’ve all been missing: the mass audience experience.
Sneering, shushing and snack-shaming aren’t new phenomena, but they play a central role in some screen commentators’ supposedly counter-cultural personas, and inspire endless twitter threads about how “some idiot” managed to ruin “my pure cinematic experience”. Worse are the extremes of normally white male privilege that involve hectoring fellow audience members at venues supposedly committed to opening up audiences’ minds to new experiences… My failure to bark back at a guy who loudly tried to shame a woman of colour by muttering “Didn’t you even try to get here on time?!” as she hurried down the aisles while the opening credits rolled at NFT3 still haunts me… Failed, pathetic audience evangelist that I am… but it’s difficult, right?
Now, I expect to be barracked back on this very topic… but let’s take a step back in history. When cinema screens were on every street corner, they were much more owned by their audiences. The art form was entirely a mass entertainment medium and audiences felt that the auditorium was their social space to meet and see stuff together. Screenings could be unruly and films disrupted by intervals and other shenanigans. The move to picture palaces and yes, the arthouse, was a deliberate attempt by the collective screen exhibition industries to shut down these democratic public spaces, drive up the price of a ticket and make cinema going a more ‘exclusive’ experience. Such transitions from ‘low’ to ‘high’ art have also not served diversity in the industry well (an idea from Maddi McGillvray writing in Women Make Horror), driving out women exhibitors and exhibitors of colour who were once much more commonplace but tended to disappear as the industry “professionalised” (read more about that at Women Film Pioneers Project).
These tendencies persist today – with the transition of affordable cinemas into “luxe” venues, and the proliferation of boutique cinema chains (by which we mean £17+ a ticket…). But liberal-minded cultural commentators fail to see how their guardianship of the art form risks creating a toxic environment that can exclude people from the cinema. And this isn’t just about defending the popcorn munchers, it’s also about speaking up for diverse audiences who may have different cultural conventions about how you sit in a cinema and enjoy a movie together.
Two contrasting cases in point: Vue once marketed their 18+ only screenings for films of any certificate with the phrase “same film, no annoying distractions”. Think with horror about what that means… (and how amazingly dumb and harmful it is). From a different point of view, let’s also consider the experience of seeing a crowd pleaser like Med Hondo’s SARRAOUNIA (1986) as part of a season of the filmmaker’s work at BFI… Seeing that film with the largely Black audience was truly exhilarating, full of the kind of whoops and cheers of appreciation you don’t normally expect from the capital’s cathedral to cinematic excellence. Why was this tolerated? Well, some folk from the BFI’s regular crowd weren’t there to object…
Now, that’s not to say audience behaviour can’t be a challenge. One of my most ‘memorable’ experiences was seeing SAVING PRIVATE RYAN in the USA shortly after release at a matinee screening near a major tourist attraction on the West Coast… I’d forgotten how their certification is largely advisory and the audience included families with very young children who had opted to see a new movie from that nice Mr Spielberg in the afternoon comfort of an air-conditioned auditorium… I literally can’t remember the film… But I put that one down to my own stupid fault.
I would also place the blame for audience behaviour (if it’s needed…) in the hands of the exhibitors rather than pick on the ticket-paying public. After all, audiences didn’t invent the super-sized buckets of popcorn and pop – those all came through product testing and market research from the same R&D lab of expansionist capitalism as the ‘ready meal’ and the ‘single use plastic’. I’d encourage film Twitter to follow my lifelong strategy of ‘punching up’ rather than ‘punching down’ (although, as a pacifist, that’s a phrase I also find challenging…). The point I’m making is this: as the cinema experience has been increasingly automated and sold on a cocktail of snacks and technology rather than the shared audience experience (it should be noted, SARRAOUNIA didn’t need Dolby Atmos for amplification, that was provided by the crowd…) a social contract has been broken. And that’s purely a failure of screen showmanship. And it will take skilled showmanship to reconnect that contract, effectively bringing audiences back together again.
Such issues will be hard in the era of automated ticket sales where you can buy a ticket, turn up, see the film, and leave again without connecting with anyone human. Whilst that might be COVID-secure, it also strips something from the art form that I find profoundly worrying. As venues reopen after long months of shutdown, I’m increasingly looking for screen experiences with character based on, you know, actual characters… the indie exhibitors who pour so much of themselves into curating a shared social experience that unifies their audiences and gets us all seeing the world through new eyes.
It’s this thirst for pro-social forms of cinema that I’ll be talking about with We Are Parable and Last Frame Club at an event this week as part of Barbican Centre’s Imagination Exchange (18 to 20 May – FREE online). Our session is called Radical* acts of showmanship: reviving cinema as a shared experience in venues and online and takes place from 10:00 to 10:45am on Wednesday 19 May. Get in touch if you’d like to take part.
*From chemistry: “A group of atoms behaving as a unit.”
“It is truly the audience experience that makes cinemas special.” (Catherine Bray, The Guardian, 08 May 2021)
Amen to that…
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