Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on November 4, 2012
Going to the movies has long been considered a mostly passive experience where you quietly sit in darkness to be carried off by a visual experience. A growing number of small exhibitors, however, are changing their tune. Instead of telling their customers to stay quiet during the film, they have been actively encouraging everyone at specific shows to sing-along, quote-along, and even share their texted heckles to hecklable-ready films via HECKLEVISION. There will, of course, always be new ways to have fun at the expense of poorly made films, but I’m more interested in the first two categories because of their celebratory nature. To sing a song from a film with other devotees, or to quote its lines in chorus, these add a rather touching and joyous element that one can easily imagine would warm the hearts of those who worked hard to make the film in question. Having missed my chance to attend a recent Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along, I’m looking forward to a pending screening in my area, made possible by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, of a Labyrinth Sing-Along. I recently had the opportunity to ask Greg MacLennan, the Director of Interactive Programming at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, some questions about some of the other films that are currently enjoying revivals thanks to different forms of crowd participation.
K) Is being Director of Interactive Programming at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema a full-time job?
Greg) It is a full-time job, and when I’m not busy coming up with ideas and creating shows I also do video editing full-time; editing our promos, montages and such.
K) Could you describe some of your favorite interactive programs, and what all was involved?
Greg) Some of my favorite interactive events are The Labyrinth Sing-Along, The Monty Python Holy Grail Quote-Along and our Willy Wonka Quote-Along. Labyrinth I won’t spoil too much, but it’s a lot of fun and you will get down with it. Holy Grail is funny because you have a theater full of people sword fighting and banging two coconut halves together and Wonka is just great because you got candy, interactive props and it just all kind of heightens that magic that already pops off the screen with that classic. I also really enjoy our Tough Guy Cinema series where we do live in-theater pyrotechnics to bad ass tough movies like Commando and Robocop.
K) At a time when, nation-wide, ticket sales for the cinema are dropping to alarming levels, is it fair to say that Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas‘ formula for adding interactive activities is the biggest factor in helping them to buck the trend, or does that come in second to the craft brews and food that the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema offers?
Greg) I don’t know if it’s as much interactive programming saving the day as much as it is having a really amazing group of programmers at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema who truly care about the programming they are doing. Anyone can show The Goonies in a theater and try and snatch up some of that nostalgia money, but a programmer who truly cares throws himself into it and tries to make the event more than himself or just the movie, and create a communal experience for everyone to share in.
K) For the uninitiated, could you describe Sing-Along films vs Quote-Along films (I’m assuming a bouncing ball is seen in the former, but not the latter, for example), along with what titles have proved especially popular in both categories?
Greg) Well Quote-Alongs are your movies that have lived in your lexicon for years. Whether it’s Anchorman or The Princess Bride there are things we all heard that we have regurgitated over and over. What a Quote-Along does is give you a good reason to sit in a room full of people as devoted to that movie as you are and quote to your hearts content as the lines pop up on screen in white before a character actually says them, and then highlights in yellow, kinda karaoke style, as you should be quoting along. Now we don’t include EVERY SINGLE quote, but the shows are always changing and evolving to try and get all the good stuff up there. As for a sing-along these take on multiple forms, because we have shows like Labyrinth and Moulin Rouge where you totally see all the lyrics and belt your face off, but traditionally we reserve the term sing-along for our music video collection shows. These can range in theme from anything from Justin Timberlake to 80s Movie Anthems and it’s basically a collection of music videos, with every lyric subtitled and the audience wails, dances and basically participates in an interactive dance party complete with props….also lots of people generally dress up for both types of events.
K) At the last Telluride Film Festival, Lobster Films screened a rare sing-along short of Ain’t She Sweet (1933) directed by Dave Fleischer, starring Lilian Roth:
With that in mind, can you give readers a brief sense of the popularity for such interactive programs over the years? Most people, when thinking of interactive films, will talk about the rituals and actors accompanying The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or the spoons and footballs that populate The Room, but surely there are many more examples that fill the course of cinematic history… or?
Greg) That’s the thing that’s hard to explain to people about Quote or Sing-Alongs. They always immediately ask you if you do Rocky Horror and you say…no. Rocky Horror is more for the theater crowd who wants to strut their stuff, whereas these types of shows are for everyone. We all love these songs and movies and we aren’t all the best singers or the funniest jokesters, but these events give you the opportunity to participate in the movie that you’ve loved for years. Yeah, you might walk out of Singin’ In the Rain with a song in your heart and a bounce in your step, but imagine if you could take that incredible feeling and share it with a roomful of total strangers. Think of it as anonymous group karaoke where you start out awkwardly and quietly and by the end you have your arms around each other as you wail out your Don’t Stop Believing. What’s the cinematic history of it? I mean yes there are instances of interactive cinema, but what Sing and Quote-Alongs are are rooted in the experiences you have with your friends in a living room or at a bar and translated to a grand scale to be all inclusive and engaging with some props and pyrotechnics thrown in for fun.
K) Are there some good YouTube clips that you can share that you feel do justice to the spirit behind interactive events?
Greg) Here’s a sizzle of our Justin Timberlake Sing-Along:
… but there’s a bunch more if you ever just google “Alamo Drafthouse Quote-Along” or “Alamo Drafthouse Sing-Along”
K) Are emcees always, usually, or ever involved? Similarly, how does it normally work, and do you feel that there is a critical audience mass needed to properly launch an interactive event?
Greg) When possible we like to have the programmer of the event there because as I said anyone can recite a script or work a crowd, but earnestness is the most difficult thing to fake and our programming comes from a really sincere place, because if I didn’t luck out and get to do the job I do, I’d be right there in line with everyone else. We also record our programmers and send those out to other locations which hopefully help communicate our enthusiasm. But you really do need some form of communication before the show to let people know how this type of show works, what you are supposed to do with your props and maybe play a game with folks beforehand. You’d think that a mass audience would be necessary for a shows success, but some of my favorite experiences at a show have come from when for whatever reason we didn’t have one and you just got to make that experience a little more intimate and fun. If the show clicks with a person it doesn’t matter if they are surrounded by 1 or 100 people. They just get into it, because the theater is dark and they are connected to the movie/music they love.
K) Was there ever a Sing-Along or Quote-Along attempted for some random title that went over like a lead balloon? Are there areas where such interactive activities do exceedingly well compared to, perhaps, other cities or towns across the nation where it simply doesn’t work as expected?
Greg) One time for Shark Week we did Cabin Boy with Chris Elliot as a total joke… expecting it to bomb. We had maybe 30 tickets sold to that one… but the crazy thing was… no matter how bad we expected it to sell, we never expected those 30 people to get as into as they did. So you can call it a failure because it didn’t make any money, but to me that was the best because we got to cater ourselves to a very specific guilty pleasure and share that with people. They also let me do a Once Sing-Along one time that I fully expected to flop. It didn’t sell out every seat, but the heartfelt emotion and singing that came out of that pretty full crowd was completely amazing. Needless to say we sold a lot of whiskey that night and a lot of people left with tear streaked faces. As for our gangbuster titles those are your Moulin Rouges, Holy Grails, Anchormans, Labyrinths, Goonies, Princess Brides, Justin Timberlakes, Ladies of the 80s, and Spaceballs. There are lots more of those evergreen titles, but those of some of the ones we get asked to do over and over again and for some reason people just keep coming.
K) What makes the Labyrinth Quote-Along one of your favorites?
Greg) Well Labyrinth is one of those weird hybrids of a Sing and a Quote-Along. It’s a movie almost everyone is familiar with, love the songs in it and know at least a handful of quotes to. Everyone knows and loves to sing to dance magic dance because A) David Bowie is amazing and B) That song is a total jam, but the film is also peppered with wildly memorable and quote-able lines and everything is infinitely more fun to say in a whiny Sarah voice, a muppet voice or in your best breathy David Bowie impression.
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