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Interactive movies turn the cinema into the coliseum

When the special sing-a-long version of <em>Grease</em> opens this Fridayin select markets, it’ll give fans of the super-cheesy 1978 musical achance to dress up as their favourite characters and belt out the hitswith the help of onscreen subtitles.

When the special sing-a-long version of Grease opens this Friday in select markets, it’ll give fans of the super-cheesy 1978 musical a chance to dress up as their favourite characters and belt out the hits with the help of onscreen subtitles.


But while the official Grease Sing-A-Long may be having its Canadian premiere, participatory films are hardly a new phenomenon. Such screenings are business as usual at a number of independent theatres across the country.


Ottawa’s 78-year-old Mayfair Theatre is one example of a cinema that actively promotes audience interaction with certain titles.


“We encourage people to leave their cellphones on, stop sitting on their hands and go a little bit nuts” says Lee Demarbre, a well-known indie filmmaker (Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter) who also works as one of the Mayfair’s programmers. “The idea of getting together in a big group and watching something that you love is very appealing to our fans.”


The audience talk-back phenomenon probably began with 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film explicitly designed to foster a cult following. Alex Chisholm, who works for the Rio Theatre in Vancouver acknowledges that Rocky Horror is a staple, but also tries to mix things up a little bit. The theatre’s recent midnight-movie selections include the so-bad-it’s-good melodrama The Room and also The Good, The Bad and The Ugly -— a ’60s Western widely considered to be a true classic.


“Some of these films aren’t what you'd call traditionally call-and-response-type titles,” he says. “We like trying things out in that Roman Coliseum atmosphere. We give out a discount for best costume, so for (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) we had 250 cowboys wandering around, cat-calling Clint (Eastwood). "


Expanding demand


The Grease Sing-A-Long has been marketed extensively using social media, with fans across North America voting online to bring the film to their city.


Paramount previously used this strategy to open the 2009 horror film Paranormal Activity by issuing an open challenge: If the film received one million votes on eventful.com it would get a nationwide release. It did, and ended up grossing more than $100 million worldwide, making it the biggest indie-horror hit since The Blair Witch Project.