Since the mid-noughties, the resurgence of communal film-watching and the phenomenal popularity of pop-up cinemas has been hard to miss. Londoners can’t seem to get enough of them, with popular urban events from Pop Up Screens, Secret Cinema, Rooftop Cinema, Hot Tub Cinema, Future Cinema and others. Even big industry names have caught on: Film Four runs outdoor summer screenings at Somerset House, and the BFI’s recent Monster Weekend brought revellers classic horror films in the courtyard of the British Museum.
So you’ve booked a ticket to a pop-up cinema. The email confirmation has come through. Update your Facebook status to let your friends know just how cool you are, bask in your trendiness as the likes come pouring in. But as hip and wonderful as these events seem, it is painfully ironic that the one thing often done badly is the most important – the film screening.
You arrive and queue at the bar, get your food, set up your blanket if you’re outside and prepare yourself for the evening’s fun. Then the film starts. The music is turned off and – if indoors – the lights are turned down in whatever venue you’ve found yourself occupying. A few observant attendees spread a ‘shhh’ that dissipates after a few metres, often resulting in 90 minutes of struggling to hear the echoing movie dialogue over pockets of noise and laughter coming from all directions.
Don’t get me wrong – I understand how these events work. Pop-ups do not and should not have the same etiquette as the cinema. They are social gatherings, occupying a liminal space between a music festival, a party and an art house. Although, of course, they don’t screen art house movies; pop ups show classics because a) people have already seen them, love them, and want to see them again, and b) showing new releases at a pop up event just wouldn’t make sense from a commercial point of view. The general attitude is that people don’t mind missing parts of the film, chat throughout, check phones and swan off to the bar because they’ve seen it already. Some pop ups just seem like an excuse to have a party and get drunk. This ITV report on one pop up event sums it up, especially when two interviewees readily admit: “We’re not really watching the film, we don’t even know what film it is!” But then why bother showing a film at all?
Pop ups come in all shapes and sizes: I’ve sipped cider in hot tubs to Love Actually; watched the DeLorean speed through time in an old gym; even watched Casablanca by moonlight on a racecourse. All were enjoyable for the most part, especially either side of the actual screening. But when watching a film is marred by excessive noise or even in some cases bad projection and sound, it’s a bit like paying £20 for an exclusive club night that promises amazing music, only to turn up and find it’s just an empty bar with some weirdo playing Rudimental off their phone. It’s just a bit rubbish.
I once attended a pop-up screening of La Haine where everyone was seated on wooden chairs in an old hall. When the film started and you had to read the English subtitles, if you weren’t in the front row you couldn’t read them thanks to the backs of people’s heads: a perfect example of a badly planned event. Pop ups may be just that – pop up, quick and temporary – but that’s no excuse for not providing a decent screening on par with a small cinema. Sometimes, a wonky projection of a DVD just doesn’t cut it.
As admirable and trendy as the pop-up experience is, if you want to see a film for the first time – or even just properly revisit a classic – save it for the real cinema. Or maybe even a certain film festival that starts on 25th September.