Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What is Interactive Cinema?

Whether people want to acknowledge it or not, the world around us is constantly changing physically, socially, economically, and in many other ways. Whether it’s for better or for worse will have to be determined by the speculators and self-proclaimed prophets. The intent of my short prose is not to focus on the world. What I would like to focus on is a world. This one happens to be the world of interactive cinema.

Imagine going to a movie theater and watching one of the most compelling thrillers imaginable. Think about how many times have you watched the plot unfold and thought to yourself, “I would have done this instead of that.” Now imagine that the audience could make decisions and the characters on screen would listen. Well, there’s no need to imagine it because it is a reality and will eventually become a part of the mainstream.

This concept dates back as far as 1966 with the first interactive movie entitled Kinoautomat, which debuted at Expo '67 Montreal. The movie went on to run at HemisFair '68 and a few other expositions. This film is almost unheard of by the average moviegoer, yet it was very much ahead of its time. The technology was scarcely available to make such a film a reality. Regardless of this limitation, Radúz Činčera, chose to take on the challenge and showed his film to an eager audience. The movie ran just like any other movie, but when certain points were reached, the audience was able to vote using a specially designed voting system with a keypad for each member. Although the movie had its final run in 1974, it would make a comeback in several forms.

A few years later, the first “Choose Your Own Adventure” book and the first laser disc game featuring full motion video came into existence. The concept is definitely not a new one, but at the same time is not well known. I do not want to confuse interactive cinema with an interactive movie. The latter is more associated with full motion video being used in a game and has taken on more of a derogatory meaning due to the poorly developed plots and characters.

The interactive cinema concept is a little different. The idea is to use the same techniques with a well-developed story that could stand on its own without the interactive features. The target audience would also be the average movie buff, not gamers. One might ask, “How do we know an audience would be receptive to a movie like this?” We know because it was done in more recent years. In 1995, a movie entitled Mr. Payback premiered in a specially designed theater. When the movie reached certain decision points, the audience could vote on the outcome. While the concept was well received, the movie itself was poorly written and produced. The lack of proper technology also made it very expensive to show such a movie in a theater. Now fast-forward a few more years.

Since Mr. Payback, several production companies have produced interactive cinema projects. A few of them have even been shown in theater settings. Some of the future entries in this blog will be dedicated to highlighting some of these films. Each one has its own group of followers who may not be aware of some of the other films. We hope to change that.

In the spirit of reawakening this genre, I produced an interactive short film entitled Unfocused Clarity. It was posted on YouTube in December of 2009. It will also be released on DVD in its interactive format. Although the plan is to put an interactive film in theaters, I’m not planning to do it with this particular one. I’m sure the question on most people’s minds is how a movie like this could be shown in a theater inexpensively.

The idea is simple. Since most media we watch is now digital, it will only be a few short years that many more theaters will be using digital projectors. How do people vote? The answer to that is as simple as the device you hold in your hand from time to time (constantly for some). People have been using cell phones to cast votes real-time for a number of years now. This also alleviates the need to manufacture voting devices and set up wireless networks in theaters. In the end we will have a truly interactive experience for the audience. Those who want to watch the movie without this feature could attend such a screening.

Suppose that you don’t want a whole group of people affecting what you see. In reality, they already do in regular cinema, but that's a whole other story. An interactive film can be shown on the Internet, a DVD, or On Demand. There will always be the option to watch with or without interaction. As a matter of fact, a good way to determine the version that will be show straight through is to log which decisions were chosen most frequently by the audience.

Future posts on this blog will focus more on interactive cinema and other innovative media related to it. The idea is to further educate readers as more films of this type are produced. It’s not a matter of if this will become a mainstream concept. It’s a matter of when.

References
Činčerová, Alena. "The hit of EXPO ’67 MONTREAL" Kinoautomat. 2008. <http://www.kinoautomat.cz>.

Esser, Teresa. "Mr. Payback crudely exploits theatrical gimmick." The Tech 17 Feb. 1995, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. July 2010. <http://tech.mit.edu/V115/N4/payback.04a.html>