Big night out: How movie fans stole the show

A new breed of cinema-goers is here: they dress up, quaff cocktails and applaud the stars. Forget quiet trips to the movies – this is the future, says Alice Jones

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor