Is going to the cinema the new big night out? The first sign that something strange was happening in the nation's multiplexes came with the release of Sex and the City earlier this summer. Going to see the film on its first Friday of release after work, I found myself surrounded in the harshly lit, popcorn-littered foyer of the Islington Vue in north London by flocks of girls dressed to kill in prom skirts, oversized corsages and teetering heels in sweet homage to their heroine Carrie Bradshaw.
A few weeks later came Mamma Mia!, an opportunity, it emerged, for the more mature cinema-goers to raid their wardrobes, donning their best Seventies spandex and proceeding to sing along to the Abba hits which propel the flimsy rom-com narrative. And on Saturday night, watching The Dark Knight at the Odeon in Leicester Square in central London, I found myself part of the most excited audience since, well, Sex and the City. So excited in fact that they applauded the trailer for Ben Stiller's upcoming farce Tropic Thunder, whooped when the certification screen flashed up before the film and roared with appreciation at that (excellent) moment when Batman emerges from his malfunctioning Batmobile on his roaring Batpod. And at the end of each one of these films, the audience clapped as long and as hard as if it had been a West End or Covent Garden first night.
So when did the traditionally quiet option for an evening's entertainment become an excuse to dress up, quaff champagne and maybe even offer a tearful standing ovation? Perhaps the answer lies in the credit crunch. "We always found that cinemas, when times are hard, are a good place to escape, get away from everything and watch the silver screen for a couple of hours," says Chris Hilton, the general manager of Odeon Leicester Square.
But given the cost of a cinema ticket (anything up to £15) and the inflated prices slapped on the supersize refreshments, this is only half of the story. This new buzz around cinema is linked to the audience's desire for a different kind of movie-watching experience – one that might allow them to interact both with their fellow viewers and with the film itself. Dragging up for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, hiring a Stormtrooper outfit for a Star Wars screening or lustily taking part in SingalongaSoundofMusic have been popular fringe activities for years, but with this latest batch of releases, it's moved into the mainstream.
"Certain films are communal and lend themselves to dressing up and taking part. Often it's films that are not necessarily going to get brilliant reviews but offer happy entertainment. It's like going to a pantomime, the engagement with something that is a bit silly," says Ian Nathan, executive editor of Empire film magazine. "It's not just a female thing either. Tom Hanks has a Godfather party each year where he invites all his male friends – including Alec Baldwin – round to his house to watch the film. They sit there and recite every word together. People like the idea of an added dimension when they're going to see a film. And it's a trend that film-makers are spotting."
At the Odeon Leicester Square, where The Dark Knight took over a quarter of a million pounds in its first four days, some die-hard fans turned up in costume – "there were a few capes and bat ears in the first shows," says Hilton – and full flaky Joker make-up. But in the case of Sex and the City, dressing up like Carrie and co reflected the aspirational nature of the characters and their lifestyles, rather than any geeky fandom. According to a survey carried out by the movie website Fandango, 80 per cent of women going to see the film planned to hold some kind of themed party first.
One friend of a friend emailed round an "SATC itinerary" to her 17-strong group, outlining an entire evening timetable, from makeovers at a Benefit beauty salon before the film to cocktails afterwards to discuss its themes, and setting out the all-important "dress code". A dress code? To go to the cinema? "Sad as it is, I was one of those who dressed up for Sex and the City", says Nancy Groves, a 26-year-old writer from south London. "I saw it on its first night at the Chelsea Cinema with the whole of the rest of London female-kind. I'm the sort of person who usually catches films in a blind panic on their final weekend. But in the case of SATC, which I went to with one of myclosest girlfriends, it seemed right to mark the occasion in style, after all the hours we've spent watching and rewatching the box sets. I put on my best vintage sun-dress and my friend wore her only pair of designer heels and an oversized corsage. It felt like pantomime. But Manolos or not, it was clearly event cinema for every woman there. The movie didn't start for half an hour after its designated start time, it took so long for everyone to totter in on their heels."
Meanwhile, the Electric Cinema on London's Portobello Road held special screenings where, for the price of £80 per two-seater sofa, viewers were offered two Cosmopolitan cocktails along with canapés, while waiters were on hand to top up drinks with carafes of Cosmos and bottles of champagne throughout the film.
Even in the less rarefied atmosphere of the 1,679-seater Odeon in Leicester Square, wannabe Carries drank the bar dry of champagne. "We got through a lot of champagne – that seemed to be the favourite tipple," says Hilton. "The Dark Knight is more of a beer film and a very big popcorn film. Mamma Mia! was more of a bar film than a popcorn film, which reflects the age that it comes from, I suppose."
As well as film-appropriate drinks before the show, these days the experience doesn't stop when the lights go down either. In place of the hushed, darkened auditorium is a far more interactive, theatrical experience. "Certainly for Sex and the City, there were cheers when the film started and there were cheers when each character made an appearance, like they were watching theatre," says Hilton. "It was as though the characters were there on stage. That happened with Mamma Mia! as well. People were singing along."
And when it's all over, how about giving a hand to the two-dimensional characters who have entertained you for the last couple of hours? "It's daft if you think about it, because no one's there to hear it," says Nathan. "Who are they clapping? Maybe it's each other. If you get emotionally involved in something, you want to share it. It's just a human response to having a good time. These kind of films have liberated people to express themselves a bit."
It might be daft but while politely abstaining from the dressing up and singing along, I'm a full convert to cinematic clapping. A bout of spontaneous, genuine applause is worth 10 times more than the polite ripple that greets even the lamest theatrical production and it lends an admirable sense of occasion to catching a movie. An evening at the cinema is no longer the quiet option it used to be – and all the better for it.