Tag Archives: movies

I’m That Guy Who Had His Phone On At The Movies

1 Aug

Remember that annoying dude in the movie theater who seemed to be constantly tapping away at something on his phone during the movie? Yeah, that was me, but if you do remember me, then chances are you were doing the same thing while watching Late Shift at AT&T SHAPE.

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AT&T SHAPE was a 2-day event held at the Warner Bros. Studios in LA that explores the convergence of technology and entertainment. Late Shift bills itself as “a cinematic interactive movie experience,” and promises to be the decades-delayed wish fulfillment of every kid who grew up reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and wondered, “Wouldn’t it be cool if movies worked like that?” I wandered through the iconic streets of the studio’s back lot toward the stunning and luxurious Steven J. Ross Theater to find out.

Screenshot_20170714-201155.pngThe setup was surprisingly simple. Guests were asked to download the lightweight CtrlMovie app on their smartphone, connect to a specific WiFi network in the theater, launch the app, and be patient. Introducing a “bring-your-own” technology requirement into an entertainment venue is always a gamble, but the folks at CtrlMovie deserve a lot of credit for making the process irreducibly simple. Nevertheless, that didn’t keep me from feeling like a dirty philistine for brazenly having my phone on and in my lap as the lights went down.

Despite our fascination with technologically sophisticated entertainment experiences, we generally don’t want the entertainment to be upstaged by the technology, and often prefer the latter to be “invisible.” As a feature length proof of concept of the CtrlMovie technology, Late Shift was clearly designed to enhance, but not totally up-end the familiar moviegoing experience. Even with about 500 people in the audience, the sea of low-profile black screens was fairly unnoticeable. So far, so good, but I knew the real trick would be in how they would pull off the actual interactivity.

Screenshot_20170714-202332Late Shift tells the story of an innocent guy who gets caught up in a heist gone wrong. At various points during the movie, a small subtitle appears on the screen providing 2-3 choices for our hero. These same choices also appear in the mobile app, allowing viewers to vote for what they want the hero to do. After a few seconds, the subtitle is updated to indicate the option chosen by the majority of the audience while the movie continues along the chosen path. The process is completely intuitive and requires no training, and the entire decision sequence lasts 6-7 seconds.

Probably pretty much what you expected, but the magic part is that as this is happening, there is absolutely no awkward pause, technical glitch, or sloppy cut to indicate that anything out of the ordinary has just happened. After I was a few dozen choices in and had gotten the hang of it, I tried to pay closer attention to how they pulled it off, but it generally refused to give up its secrets. Through a combination of classic misdirection, clever shot planning and editing, and expert timing, I was happy to end up falling for the seamless effect each time.

For the first few choices, the audience was giddy and even giggled aloud at the novelty of our seemingly godlike powers. As the movie progressed, we directed our hero’s destiny with the second-nature reflexes of deity savants. I was surprised at how seamless it was to bounce back and forth between the two modes of experiencing the story. I’ve justly railed against terrible second-screen efforts, but this one was surprisingly effective.

As I tapped my way through the movie, I observed the interactivity starting to develop its own identity rather than just serving as a bridge between the technology and the story. I was getting involved in the story in ways that may not have been intended by the filmmakers, and was approaching each individual decision with a different motivation. These various motivations seemed to feed off each other in a bizarrely interconnected way, and developed a parallel significance with the on-screen narrative developments. I’m still on the fence about whether this meta-experience is fundamentally at odds with the filmmakers’ intentions, or an inadvertent side effect that might turn out to be a good thing. Here’s a quick stroll through the garden of forking paths.

Social
: A visit to the movies already has its own unique social dynamic, even if it’s essentially a murmuring undercurrent of common courtesy. Late Shift is unequivocally a group experience though.  When you make a choice, you’re well aware that you’re either in the majority or the minority of those around you. Whether I had a string of “wins” or “losses” or a mix of both, I found myself momentarily reflecting on the mysteries of groupthink. It was a realtime trip into the eye of the social hurricane of opinions and trends and likes that are usually just a dull and distant roar in the background.

Atlanta Falcons Fans Watch Super Bowl LI Against The New England PatriotsSport: The audience would often react to various outcomes with the types of “YEAHHs” or “AWWWs” that you would expect from a football game. Disappointment makes sense since you can easily convince yourself that a better version of this movie exists and unfortunately, you’re not watching it. Kind of like rooting for the Falcons during Super Bowl LI. It’s also ironic since being able to watch the movie your way is one of the selling points of this experience, but see Social above and welcome to the human experience.

Fantasy: The plot of this movie doesn’t pull any punches, and it doesn’t take long for our naive hero to get in deep doo-doo. As someone who’s calling the shots for him, it’s natural to strongly identify with him. At first, I really wanted to help him, because I was approaching each decision based on what I would do, which was generally along the lines of: these are the types of bad people that my parents warned me about, and I should get the hell away from them. Then, I remembered I was watching a movie, and went in the total opposite direction, basing my choices on what would be the most bad-ass thing this guy could be doing right now because I wanted to see it on screen and live vicariously through him.

Prince_of_Persia_1989_Traps
Sadism: It didn’t take long for the sense of fantasy to evolve into something darker. Once it sank in that me and the guy on the screen were in fact two different people, and that my vicarious enjoyment of his pleasure was tangential at best, I went in the other direction. Seeing him as a helpless pawn under my (partial) control, I wondered what kind of horrible situations I could maneuver him into. It became less like a story and more like one of those video games with irresistibly grisly scenarios that are perversely satisfying to watch play out.

Moral: After binging on competitive, delusional fantasies of grandeur and sadistic spectacle, it was time to consider the consequences, In other words, Vegas at about 4:12 AM. Our hero was in pretty deep, and what had started out to a coerced participation in a Robin Hood style heist had turned into a disaster, and it was basically our fault. The trope of an innocent person perched on a slippery slope of morally questionable decisions provides the engine for powerful narratives from Hamlet to The Godfather. For the last few thousand years, we have tried to understand how and why it is that stories like this can touch us at a deep level. Even though Late Shift drew on similar themes, I felt that some of the climactic impact may have been dissipated in our role in reaching it. I’m fascinated by these stories because I DON’T want the moral responsibility of figuring out what happens to the hero. Or rather, I want to experience an artist’s thoughtful perspective on it, and evaluate it against my own inclinations. It’s that interplay between a story and our reaction to it that allows it to speak to us even over the gulf of decades and centuries. In this instance, it felt like we had been tampering with the engine and that as a result, our mileage would vary.

ee5036d62d34ed78c8047dce5e8b666bI kept trying not to “go there” by overanalyzing  it, but I always enjoy experiencing something that makes me think about storytelling in a new way. In what I initially perceived as shortcomings, I saw opportunities and questions for further exploration. Would this be more/less fun to watch alone? How about a group of your closest friends? How about as a form of speed dating? Would it work better as a 10-minute short? Are some genres and stories more compatible? Does everything just work when you remove the moral weight from the narrative? Does this need to take place in a movie theater at all? I look forward to experiencing or helping to create some of the answers to these types of questions. In the meantime though, the phone’s going back into my pocket.

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