Say a long goodbye to the multiplex

Reports of the death of film have been greatly exaggerated. It's not the movies we've gone off, just traditional movie-houses. In their place, finds Alice Jones, are screens at festivals, in fields, car parks and sheds, and themed nights at secret locations and in private clubs

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:33
All the fun of the fair: Secret Cinema's showing of The Warriors in London Fields
All the fun of the fair: Secret Cinema's showing of The Warriors in London Fields

In the last few months, I've watched The Warriors as the sun set over London Fields, Blade Runner: The Director's Cut in a pub (complete with interval for buying drinks), Sweet Smell of Success at a film-school speakeasy and Casablanca on a friend's big screen. In fact, the last film for which I made a pilgrimage to the bright lights of Leicester Square was Sex and the City 2 – and the less said about that, the better. I'm not alone, either. Multiplexes, move over: these days discerning film fans are looking for more from their cinema experience than an enormous screen and overpriced popcorn.

If you're looking for a sign that the age of Odeon is over, the current bizarre vogue for tiny cinemas is as good a place as any to start. Here it's a case of the smaller, the better as various shacks, caravans and sheds pop up across the land, vying for the title of the world's smallest cinema and offering viewers an intimate film experience.

At Brighton festival last month, a 4ft square, two-seater cinema shed was installed at the bottom of a garden where it showed, appropriately, the earliest film version of Alice in Wonderland. Earlier in the year, South London art collective artinavan took over a stall at Brixton market, where behind some hastily hung blackout curtains, it showed an edifying programme of shorts and animated features. And at the Tatton Park biennial in Cheshire, artist Annika Eriksson is currently showing her film about identity in a six-seat, battery-powered cinema housed inside a caravan.

You don't need a roof over your head, of course, to enjoy a good film (though a dark sky helps). As summer slowly rolls in, the usual staples of the outdoor cinema season in London – Somerset House's Summer Screen (this year's tempting bill includes Manhattan, Mulholland Drive, Kill Bill and a vampire double-header of Let the Right One In and The Lost Boys, as well as pre-screening talks) and free films at The Scoop on the South Bank (from North by Northwest to Pretty Woman) – have been joined by a raft of al fresco alternatives across the country.

In July, Starlite Urban Drive-In launches its journey around the country in London's Brick Lane. Twenty cars will be parked up in front of either Grease or Twilight with rollerskating waiters providing the refreshments. A more grown-up option is offered by The Berkeley Hotel, whose luxury rooftop cinema will screen The September Issue over martinis and manicures. Depending on the weather, a cashmere blanket or ice-cream are thrown in too, all for, um, £85. At the other end of the scale, the National Theatre will project films from the BFI Archive, including those that WH Auden and Benjamin Britten made for the GPO film unit in the 1930s, on to its Brutalist flytower late at night on Fridays throughout July, free of charge.

Festivals are slowly getting in on the film act, too. Latitude has this year's most impressive line-up. Alongside screenings of music films Oil City Confidential and The Doors: When You're Strange, Chris Morris is making a rare appearance to answer questions before a screening of Four Lions and Bourne director Paul Greengrass will also take questions in the Bafta-sponsored tent. Portishead's Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp's Will Gregory are scoring anew the 1928 classic The Passion of Joan of Arc and rock'n'roll girl band Kitty, Daisy and Lewis will bring The Blues Brothers, the live experience to the film arena.

The latter comes courtesy of Future Cinema, who lead the pack on new cinema experiences with Secret Cinema, which screens classics in unusual locations, using sets, actors and music to create an all-encompassing immersive film event. Since it started in 2007, showing Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park in a disused railway tunnel, it has staged, among others, If in a Bristol public school, Ghostbusters in the Royal Horticultural Halls, Bugsy Malone in an Art Deco cinema, with flapper girls and dancing, and Alien in a Shoreditch warehouse. The secret screenings are spread by word of mouth and online (though how secret you can be with 35,349 Facebook friends and 5,570 followers on Twitter is debatable) and the venue revealed to ticket-holders only a couple of days before along with clues about the film to allow fans to assemble costumes and props, should they wish.

At the screening of the cult 1970s New York movie The Warriors in London Fields, the park was transformed into Coney Island (the location for the gang meeting in the film) with a Ferris wheel, candyfloss stalls and vintage NYPD cars while audience members showed their allegiances with bandanas, afro wigs and baseball bats. Before the film, actors wandered around in costume staging impromptu scenes; afterwards everyone piled into a tent for a Seventies disco.

Since the first Paranoid Park screening, with skater ramp, graffiti and 400 guests, the event has mushroomed. This week's instalment, taking place somewhere near Canary Wharf, is the biggest yet, and will have hosted 6,500 devotees over eight shows by the end of its run on Sunday. It's not cheap –V C ticket prices have risen from £16 to £23.50 – but the events are increasingly ambitious. In keeping with the ethos of the event, you'll find no spoilers here but, suffice to say, the futuristic nature of the chosen film requires the services of an art department of 40, as well as a team of expert projectionists, sound and lighting designers and actors picked from their own 150-strong company pool.

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The brains behind it is Fabien Riggall, who set up Future Shorts in 2003 to give short films the platform they lacked. His masterstroke was to link up with music gigs, playing short films between sets and thus pulling in a cross-section of fans. This grew into Future Cinema, which saw Guillemots re-score Eraserhead live at Latitude Festival and Noah and the Whale pop up to play a surprise gig at a short-film event at the Ritzy cinema in South London before embarking on their Lost Highway-inspired tour. Then came Secret Cinema; it too has an ethos more music festival than multiplex, building on the trend for all things site-specific and promenade in the wake of Punchdrunk's success.

"You wander about different areas and discover different things and occasionally, like Glastonbury, you find yourself in a place you never knew existed," says Riggall. "The idea was to create an event out of a film. I don't want the audience to have any inkling of what they're going to see. It's watching the film within an environment that helps them to think of it in a slightly different way."

At the end of this month, Future Cinema hits New York with a screening of Blow Up in a Brooklyn photographic studio which they'll transform into a Swinging Sixties London pub. Riggall, meanwhile, has grand plans for an event which combines Bat for Lashes with Labyrinth and a Secret Cinema Back to the Future in a high school, complete with Under the Sea dance and working DeLorean (there are only five in the UK, apparently). It's more than just a party, it's a celebration of film and a reaction against the sterility of commercial cinemas.

"It's the mystery and surprise element, the magic of the events", says Riggall. "People want to go out and meet each other and have a reason to talk to each other. So when something happens that's a bit unusual, people to talk to the next person."

Talking is the key, too, at Speakeasy at the London Film School (LFS). Set up last October by film programmer Suzy Gillett, director Josh Appignanesi (The Infidel), director of the LFS Ben Gibson and producer Mia Bays, the invitation-only club for "luminaries and troublemakers" from the film world holds regular screenings in the bijou 36-seater school cinema. Guest speakers – who have so far included Stephen Frears and long-time Ken Loach producer Tony Garnett – introduce the film of their choice before the lights go down (Frears chose If, while Garnett introduced Czech new waver Jan Nemec's The Party and the Guests). After the film, guests, who have paid £20 a head, are allocated seats on tables of six and served a delicious three-course meal with wine by the chef from The Eagle gastro-pub in Farringdon. The idea is to encourage relaxed, democratic discussion of the film; each table then contributes to a wider group discussion of the film. After Sweet Smell of Success, the 1957 film noir about an omnipotent New York gossip columnist (Burt Lancaster) and a wheeler-dealer press agent (Tony Curtis), the debate, through mouthfuls of sausage casserole and custard tart, ranged from McCarthy-era witch hunts to the perils of the blogosphere. "There was a certain frustration that there wasn't really anywhere like it for us to go to", explains Gillett. "We thought, why don't we celebrate cinema in the way that they do in France? Why don't we have a place you can go to and just talk about film without it being a networking event, where you're pushing nothing more than your understanding of the film you've just seen."

Gillett hopes others will be inspired to set up their own speakeasies. I recently joined a film club with around 10 friends. So far we've watched Blade Runner as part of a cult film season at a local bar, David Cronenberg's Spider at the BFI and Casablanca in a friend's living room. The idea is to catch up with classics and cult films we may not have seen, then discuss them informally afterwards. "When I started film club in 2000 there weren't that many and now there are hundreds", Gillett tells me. "People are creating ways to see films. Technology has advanced now so they can have their own home-cinemas and projectors. You can't see all the films that you want to see anymore so places have sprung up in order to feed that hunger. It's an underground battle."

There is a serious side to the fun. While independent cinema would appear to be flourishing, with high-profile successes such as An Education and the refurbishment of smaller screens into plush evening destinations, the tradition of arthouse repertory is dying.

"The explosion of DVD and things like Amazon and Lovefilm where you can get anything you want at any time has significantly eroded the market for rep cinema", says Charles Gant, the film editor of Heat, and a box-office analyst. "And some independent cinemas are showing a more mainstream programming mix than was the case ten years ago. The Curzon Mayfair has been showing SATC2 on its main screen."

While premieres of international and arthouse films might sell out the BFI during, say, the London Film Festival, the same films opening six months later struggle to fill seats. Similarly, director Q&As and live satellite link-ups with stars before a screening may entice cinema-goers to book in for a particular date but without these extras, ticket sales can be too slow to be worthwhile for cinema programmers.

In other words, handing over a £10 note and watching a movie is no longer enough. As experiences taking film out of the cinema flourish, the cinemas are slowly sitting up and taking notice. Some smaller chains have opted for the boutique approach, tempting people in with comfy sofas and licensed auditoriums where waiters bring chilled glasses of white wine to your seat. For "event movie" Sex and the City 2 the Everyman chain offered a Carrie Bradshaw-style experience with a red carpet, shoe sculptures in the foyer and cupcakes.

"In the last five years, a lot of independent cinemas have understood that, in order to retain a place in the market, they have to compete with more mainstream cinemas. A lot have upgraded their facilities with very high-spec sound and projection, more comfortable seats and digital facilities", says David Sin, Head of Development at the Independent Cinema Office.

It's not surprising when there are luxury competitors opening up in hotels, bars and even shops on every street corner. In London, the newly opened Aubin and Wills "concept store", sells its designer clothing alongside artworks in a gallery on the top floor and a luxury 50-seat cinema in the basement. Open to the public and available for private hire, it seats customers in bespoke armchairs, or, if desired, deluxe, two-seater velvet sofas, for £30. The programme, run in conjunction with the Soho House group of members' clubs is a mix of arthouse, mainstream and cult classics, with White Material, The Railway Children and, yes, Sex and the City 2 this month.

Even multiplexes have realised that a cinema experience can mean more than a vat of popcorn and a pint of Fanta. Knowing their market, they are focussing on 3D as the next big thing in film experiences, spending heavily on the state-of-the-art digital technology needed to show it off to its best. Earlier this year, Vue opened its megaplex at Westfield in London, with 14 floor-to-ceiling digital screens and a staggering 82,360 sq ft of cinema space, making it the largest fully digital cinema in Europe. They too offer a premium package for choosy cinema-goers over the age of 18 in three of their screens, with reclining seats, concierge service and a private bar.

Whether it's arthouse in a shed or 3D blockbusters at Westfield, it's a celebration of the art of cinema. Traditionally film is an art-form enjoyed in silent isolation – there is none of the live immediacy of theatre or music, and rarely even applause. These new experiences offer a more human and sociable way of watching. They also offer more bang for your buck, a concept long beloved of Hollywood moguls, with some money-spinners more obvious than others. As the art of cinema advances to even dizzier heights in a post-Avatar age and the iPad makes downloading a blockbuster from the sofa all more palatable, it's up to cinemas to keep up.

"People are more and more interested in film but they want to do more than just see a film and buy a treat," says Gant. "Increasingly people want a bit of an event."

Are you sitting comfortably? Four new ways to watch

Secret Cinema, Various venues

Its website urges people to "tell no-one," but Secret Cinema is rapidly growing from a cult classic into a blockbuster. The pop-up screenings are advertised by word-of-mouth and online, the venue and film revealed to ticket-holders only days beforehand. Unusual locations, actors in costume and themed music all combine for a memorably immersive experience. Recent highlights include "Bugsy Malone" in an Art Deco concert hall with flapper girls and dancing and an atmospheric "Alien" in a Shoreditch warehouse.

Latitude, Southwold, Suffolk

Other festivals are slowly getting in on the film act but Latitude has consistently had the finest line-up in its Bafta-headlined film tent. This year, Paul Greengrass and Chris Morris are the star speakers while "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is re-scored live by Portishead's Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp's Will Gregory, Adam Buxton brings his popular BUG film night to the fields and rock'n'roll girl band Kitty, Daisy and Lewis provide the fun with "Blues Brothers" – the live experience.

Starlite Urban Drive-In, Various venues

Launching with a three-night run in London's Brick Lane before going nationwide, this retro-flavoured evening offers up classic high-school movies "Grease" or "Twilight" in a novel way. You don't even need your own car – 20 air-conditioned beauties are lined up in front of the giant screen while rollerskating waiters provide popcorn.

National Theatre Flytower, London

As part of its summer Watch This Space season, the National Theatre is brightening up its façade with late-night film screenings under the stars in July. To celebrate the BFI archive's 75th anniversary, this year's programme has silent classics with new jazz scores, a sample of the work of WH Auden and Benjamin Britten from their time at the GPO Film Unit in the 1930s, and films about the development of the South Bank. It's also free.

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