• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

A Surprise Movie Is Good For the Soul: In Praise of Blind Screenings…

A number of major Irish and British cinema chains have begun offering “Secret” or “Surprise” screenings over the past few years. ODEON have their “Screen Unseen” brand, Omniplex have their “Secret Screenings”, the Irish Film Institute have their “Mystery Matinee”, Cineworld have their “Secret Unlimited Screenings.” This is to say nothing of what might be the biggest example on the cinematic calendar, the Dublin International Film Festival’s long-standing “Surprise Film”, which famously originated when Michael Dwyer discovered that he had accidentally left a gap in the original programme.

The basic premise of a “Surprise Film” is simple. The audience buys a ticket to the screening, often at a discounted rate compared to usual ticket prices. The audience is not told what the film is to be ahead of time, instead trusting the organisers of the screening to produce something interesting and compelling. The audience then gets to experience the movie completely blind, without any lead-in and without any hype. It is something to behold, a rare opportunity to see a movie completely blind in an era of heavy media saturation and social media gossiping.

Of course, the quality of these screenings is highly variable. Over the past year, Irish surprise screenings have included films as diverse as I, Tonya, Lady Bird, Snatched, The Florida Project, Ghost Stories, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Unsane, Battle of the Sexes, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Mindhorn, Baby Driver, The Big Sick. That is an eclectic list of films, and it is almost certain that there is something for everybody in that list and also something that will repulse everybody on that list. But that is the thrill of such screenings.

There is something to be said for the willingness of a movie goer to open themselves to new experiences, to step outside of their comfort zone and to take a risk on something that they are not anticipating. Even if those films are occasionally terrible, and especially if they were not films that the audience member would choose to see on their own terms.

The appeal of such screenings to cinemas and distributors is obvious. With these secret screenings, cinemas are afforded the opportunity to sell patrons something more than just a movie ticket; they can sell patrons an experience. They are selling customers the possibility that the screening could be literally anything that they want it to be, and there’s no way to know until the lights go down. Imagine the embarrassment missing that movie you really wanted to see, at a cheaper price and an earlier date; better buy a ticket to be safe. There is also something exclusive in getting to see a movie early.

Of course, it should be noted that a certain type of film is largely absent from that long list of surprise and secret movie screenings. Audiences attending these sorts of events are highly unlikely to see a blockbuster in this slot. Films like Ready Player One and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi are highly unlikely to ever play in these sorts of surprise slots, in large part because their publicity cycles are so tightly regulated and controlled. When films have publicity campaigns in the tens of millions, they don’t need to hold disguised or secret screenings to build anticipation.

For distributors, this is the appeal of these sorts of secret screenings; a chance to build audience enthusiasm and word of mouth. From the perspective of the distributor, the ideal outcome of a screening of Lady Bird or The Killing of a Sacred Deer is that a bunch of people who may never have bought a ticket to a screening of either film come out and immediately start evangelising the film. For relatively low-budget films without an established fanbase, word of mouth is vitally important, and secret screenings like these are an important way of building word of mouth. (If they go right, of course.)

However, secret screenings also have an appeal for audience members beyond the obvious twin promise that it might be the movie that you really want it to be and the chance to see it early. Indeed, surprise films work much better if the audience can put their anticipation aside and accept that it almost certainly won’t be the movie that they want it to be, unless they have very carefully and precisely controlled their expectations of the event. Instead of judging such screenings on what they might possibly be (but almost certainly won’t be), why not embrace them for what they are?

The internet and social media are marvelous inventions, which have done a lot to bring people together and to enable better communication. However, they have also created a suffocating hype cycle. Films are no longer announced with a single trailer a few months before release and scattered television spots. Instead, potential audience members are subjected to years of publicity announcements and think pieces and gossip. There are official twitter accounts, viral memes, frame-by-frame analysis of the latest trailer, plot speculation, teaser trailers for the trailers.

It is exhausting and draining. Sometimes, even whole movies can feel like advertisements for movies yet-to-be-released. It can be difficult to separate a film from the experience of the movie, to divorce what is on screen from the cacophony around it. Naturally, some people lean into that and embrace it, while others try to navigate around it. However, there is no escaping it. This is true even for critics, who often double as entertainment journalists and so have inevitably been following these movies from their inception to the screening.

Of course, this arguably applies as much to some of the films screening in these secret screenings. It seems highly unlikely that many of the Irish audience members catching the secret screenings of Lady Bird were seeing it entirely blind. Similarly, the screenings of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water both took place at the height of awards season, where it would be impossible to escape their shadow. But there is a tangible difference between watching these films by accident and going through the ritual of planning to see these movies.

Of course, not everybody has the freedom to take these chances. There are people who do operate on a tight budget or a demanding schedule, for whom a trip to the cinema is a very demanding endeavour. After all, it costs a lot of money to go to the cinema these days, particularly when transport and concessions are factored in. It is entirely reasonable for an audience member to choose to see a particular film, especially if they only have limited access to a cinema. However, for those with readier access to a cinema, with disposable income and free time, the surprise film can be an enriching experience.

It is fascinating to sit in the dark before these screenings, even after whittling down the possible candidates and producing a plausible list of what it might yet be. In the dark of the theatre, even knowing what cannot be waiting on the other side of the age rating certificate, there is something thrilling and exciting in the surprise. It is basically film Christmas, with the present wrapped up in a big red bow. Even if the outline of the present provides some hint, and even if the audience member recognises it with the first tear of the paper, that thrill is still felt.

More than that, there is something to be said for the opportunity that such screenings afford audience members to step outside of their perceived comfort zones. The target audience for The Florida Project is unlikely to be the same audience that wants to see Baby Driver, just as the audience for Mindhorn is unlikely to overlap significantly with the audience for The Big Sick. However, there is value in seeing movies that audience members would not otherwise see, whether they like them or not. It is always good to expand an audience member’s palette.

It might lead to startling discoveries, films that become favourites (or at least fond memories) that would otherwise have been missed. After all, it takes a certain amount of effort to see a particular film, both in terms of time and energy – to pick the screening, to arrange the schedule, to actively seek it out. In contrast, there is an appeal in having a movie served up without expending that effort in pursuit of that specific film. It is similar to the freedom in seeing the movie free of the hype cycle, of booking the screening rather than the film and judging the movie outside of that.

After all, how does an individual develop their taste, beyond trying new things? How can we be convinced to try new things when locked into the familiar patterns of genres that we like and films that we expect to like? There are ways to break (or at least bend) this routine, from overwhelming critical praise to an earnest recommendation from a friend, but the “surprise film” offers the perfect opportunity. It is a leap into the unknown, a bold step past the threshold of the familiar.

This is particularly true of the kind of the kinds films that tend to screen as surprise films, hard-to-quantify oddities like Ghost Stories or Mindhorn or The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It can often be hard to figure out what the target market is for a given film, particularly those that defy easy classification and which shade their genre trappings with dashes of other cinematic flavour. There is something of the act of discovery in a surprise film, the cinematic equivalent of eating a meal while wearing a blindfold.

Of course, not all of these surprise movies are classics. Even looking at the list given at the start of the post, some of those choices are underwhelming. In those cases, there is some small argument to be made in favour of occasionally sampling a bad film, if only to properly understand the curve on which most films exist. There is something interesting to be found in most failures, imperfections that often reveal a great deal beyond the particulars of a given feature film. More than that, there is the simple fact that cinema is inherently subjective; it is entirely possible that the viewer might disagree with such an assessment.

The “surprise film” is a welcome and refreshing contrast to a film media environment where it feels like the audience has already seen too much of a film before it has even been released. Some times a little mystery is a good thing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: