Outside, a blustery February wind was cooling thoughts of Valentine romance on Thursday night.
Inside the grand hall of the Wychwood Barns, it was springtime in, how do you say, Gay Paree? A fashionable crowd of a couple hundred people milled about, an accordion player and fiddler played Édith Piaf tunes, while French-accented waitresses swabbed café tables. Free crusty baguettes and pastries were handed out, with $5 glasses of wine. A farmers' market table provided a selection of local artisanal cheeses.
The event was part of 360 Screenings. Part mystery theatre, part movie, with an element of web-organized flash mob, it is part of a larger cultural movement toward bringing a social aspect back to moviegoing. In an era where you can watch a recent movie in a closet on your smartphone, it was a reminder of how much fun it is to see a movie with a crowd that isn't talking about the film's Tomatometer score.
People socializing with other people – it's the latest thing in movie technology. Reports from this year's Art House Convergence, a confab for art-house programmers held each year in Utah the week before the Sundance Film Festival, emphasized the need for vaudeville-like showmanship for alternative cinemas, bringing back live performance along with film on the same bill. It turns out the best weapon against a sea of digital options is to emphasize the human element.
360 Screenings was started last year by Ned Loach, a young arts administrator who started the business with his partner, Sheridan College voice and text professor Robert Gontier. In some ways, the whole business seems back to front: the sell "isn't the movie, but the experience."
In fact, the audience doesn't know what movie they are going to see before showing up. Even the location is kept secret until 24 hours before the event, though ticket buyers are fed a series of clues and instructions. For Thursday night's event, we were told to wear something red, to bring a French phrase book and some extra money for the farmer's market (scratch off Gandhi and No Country for Old Men). The Valentine's Day date narrowed it down a little more. And then there were the on-site clues. Twenty or so actors intermingled with the audience, including a man in a chair, watching soccer on a big screen. The word "revenge" was written on back of his chair, and by flicking a switch behind him, you could watch him go into fist-shaking rage when the screen went blurry. Another man kept looking on the floor and under doors for something. One table had scrapbook materials for the audience to enjoy. There was a photo booth. Before we took our seats on the folding chairs before the big screen, many in the crowd had already figured out the film had to do with something fabulous, about destiny, and probably involved a cherubic ingenue do-gooder named Amelie.
Last year, 360 Screenings included Ghost, Fight Club and 28 Days Later. Fight Club night was held in a fermenting basement in the Distillery District – the audience members got free fake bruises along with lobster bisque (and groaned when a character urinated in the same soup in the film). Mr. Gontier used his own car as a prop, and made the mistake of not locking it; audience members went through his glove compartment, examining gas receipts for clues.
Though the business is not turning a profit yet, they're right on schedule. Part of that plan includes a vigorous commitment to the local community: The venues are transit-accessible heritage sites, and catering is by local businesses. The movies, culled from a list of about 50 cult classics from the past 30 years, must have an identifiable setting. Industrial designer Andy Miller creates the props and sets. Mr. Gontier, who has a musical theatre background, writes the actors' scripts. About 20 actors are paid, with another 20 event volunteers helping out.
Mr. Gontier and Mr. Loach got the idea for the immersive cinema when they were living in England from 2009-2010, where Mr. Gontier was doing his MA at the Central School of Speech and Drama and Mr. Loach was employed at the Freud museum. They would attend movie nights held by Secret Cinema, who stage monthly events in various London locations. Secret Cinema is now franchised in New York and London as well.
The movement toward the interactive and social movie experience has become more widespread in Toronto. Along with the dozens of film festivals put on each year, events such as Open Roof Festival, held in Toronto for the past three summers, encourage moviegoers to ride their bikes to the venue, have a beer while watching a live band before the screening, and and even bring their dogs if they want.
Jesse Wente, the head of programming for TIFF Bell Lightbox, says that in the two and a half years since the cinema centre has opened, it has been clear that attendance jumps when TIFF provides real people with its screenings – whether guest experts, filmmakers or simply interesting spinoffs. For a recent screening of Ken Loach's prize liquor heist comedy, The Angels' Share, they brought in a mixologist to talk about new trends in hard liquor. For their Keanu Reeves retrospective, they've convinced the star to offer, starting on Feb. 22, a series of video introductions to his films.
"We're all about creating dialogue about film through as many access points as possible," says Mr. Wente. "And adding that extra human element is a way of making it something you can't duplicate, so watching a movie really becomes a once-in-a-lifetime experience."