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Empire Big Screen – A Day Out At Comic-Con On Thames

August 17, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in Festivals with 2 Comments

Live from London’s O2…well, I say ‘live.’ Really, I mean, last Saturday.

As anybody who’s seen the increasing hysteria and hype surrounding San Diego’s Comic-Con will know, movies are the new music – and movie conventions are the new Glastonbury. Or something. The UK now has its own three-day mega-event, Big Screen, organised by Empire magazine and promising to be something new and exciting in the country’s cinema calendar.

Owing to the kind of clerical error which did for poor Mr Buttle in Brazil, I somehow blagged press accreditation so I wandered down to the O2 on Saturday to check out the event that precisely nobody but me has started to call Comic-Con on Thames.

First things first – the emphasis in Big Screen is on the “Big.” This thing is fucking huge. The entire Cineworld complex has been stuffed with screenings, showcases and celebrity panels, while the ground floor is home to ‘Hollywood Boulevard,’ a mind-boggling mix of exhibitions and activities. Oh, and the whole thing is patrolled by Imperial Stormtroopers.

With so much to do, time management is of the essence, so clearly I didn’t bother with planning my day and just wandered around, dipping into whatever I found. To wit:

Showcases

These really aren’t my thing: I’m a bit cynical about showing spoilery clips and extended trailers, for reasons eloquently expressed in this blog by Byron Pitt. And when the first ‘exclusive’ of the day is a crap swordfight from The Three Musketeers, introduced by Paul “Not T” Anderson with the claim that the stunts were 100% real (apart, presumably, from the CGI sparks), then it only reinforces my feeling that it’s nowt but PR gubbins. A necessary evil – this event couldn’t happen without the support of studios and distributors – but a bit grubby nonetheless.

That said, later on, I walked into a preview of Kill List – three scenes that stopped me in my tracks despite being out-of-the-context and a wee bit spoilery. I now really want to see this film, and hopefully others will too. Probably, therefore, my knee-jerk hatred of showcases is unfounded. A showcase is only as good as the film it’s promoting, and if you can stomach sitting through the trailer to Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (money shot – Nic Cage pissing fire) then you might find more gems like Kill List.

Panels

These are much more my thing, and the two I saw provided plenty of insight and debate. “Do Film Critics Matters?” brought together seasoned pros (and one spicy amateur in the form of The Incredible Suit) to ponder on the point of why we like to write and read film reviews. A surprisingly good laugh, largely thanks to Karen Krizanovich’s stories of awful film screenings, and some decent factoids on the industry.

I also caught the Masterclass with David Arnold, composer of five 007 scores (soon, maybe, to be six – he confirmed and denied in equal measure that the Bond 23 gig was in the bag) and tons of others. I hadn’t realised quite how prolific he was, and as a commentator on his industry he’s superb: a Hollywood insider with the natural wit and sarcasm of a punky British outsider.

During the day, I also caught snatches of interviews, Q&As and press conferences with directors as diverse as Guy Ritchie, Ben Wheatley, Nicholas Winding Refn and Shawn Levy, which shows how broad Empire’s audience is: A-listers, up-and-comers, cult auteurs and a bona fide Hollywood hack! At one point I walked past the entire cast of Attack The Block. It was that kind of day.

Screenings

By hook or by crook, I managed to catch two previews, which by sheer coincidence turned out to be the same film. Seriously, Ruben Fleischer’s 30 Minutes Or Less and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive were separated at birth. Both involve robberies and violent crime, feature a hero who drives way too fast but who monitors himself with an in-car stopwatch, and include characters bigging up their threat level by wearing surreal masks. The only difference: one is a coarse, amiable comedy, the other is a sleek, very cool thriller.

However, in order to see both of these films, I had to submit to the vagaries of Big Screen’s arcane, ambiguous planning – and that gave me an insight into the audience experience that I wouldn’t otherwise have had as a freeloading press type. Yes, my magic badge gave me access to a lot, but the popular (nay, massively over-subscribed) screenings meant I had to muck in and queue…or – in the case of Drive – actually purchase a ticket.

With Front Row Reviews’ Alexander Rowland for company, I arrived at 30 Minutes Or Less a good 30 minutes (no less) before its stated time – and a whole hour before I actually got in. Huge delays throughout the day had already blown the timetable wide open, and the sheer number of people wanting to get in needed to be herded into some semblance of order. Some had tickets, others had day passes or ‘Diamond Tickets’ that gave them first dibs on any unclaimed seats, and then there were a few of us journos.

Nobody really seemed sure how this allocation was prioritised – least of all the members of the public who had paid top dollar for the premium Diamond Tickets. They thought, wrongly, that by paying for the most expensive ticket they could see whatever they wanted. Not so: that only guaranteed a seat in the showcases. For anything else, to be 100% sure, you had to pay for a £10 ticket same as anybody else. With judicious planning, you could see five or six entire movies over the weekend, for the same price as a wristband which gave you five-10 minutes of 60 films but no actual guaranteed entire film.

I hope I’ve understood this correctly – to be honest, the Big Screen website is unfathomable. But this is certainly the view of the four or five people I heard arguing with the staff. They all felt they’d been missold on the Diamond Tickets, complaining that the small print wasn’t clear about hidden extras. The only way to get into a preview was to queue up well in advance…which of course meant missing other stuff.

That’s nothing compared to Drive (the day’s ‘Secret Screening,’ although so many people told me it was going to be Drive that it wasn’t much of a secret). This was genuinely sold out, and neither press nor standbys blagged their way in as far as I can tell. The only reason Alex and I were successful was that we overheard a father and his teenage son trying to get a refund on tickets which, because of Drive’s 18 certificate – they were unable to attend.  Presumably, at one point, Drive’s participation really was a secret so they didn’t know they’d be showing an 18-cert – but thatopens a massive can of worms about ticketing for the event. Maybe age limits should have been put in place before that family invested time, money and anticipation in coming to Big Screen?

Long story short, Alex and I bought those tickets off the family cash-in-hand. But arriving at the screen, we were told that the Drive queue (in reality, a labyrinth of trial and error) was outside the O2. Half an hour later, we were frogmarched back in, Stormtroopers in tow, and whisked into the screening – without time to grab any food or drink. Fortunately, we’d already bought some, but it seems that the only choices on the day was to carry around your bucket of popcorn for hours, risk losing your seat, or go hungry.

I don’t mean to sound critical. This was a huge event, the first to be attempted on such a scale, so there are bound to be teething troubles. And I spoke to other paying guests who were having the time of their life. But there was enough evidence, both first-hand and anecdotal, to suggest that confusion (over tickets, over queuing, over event timings) was weakening some people’s goodwill towards the event.

One solution I would suggest is to maybe put previews and secret screenings on more than one screen. It’s easily doable. All weekend, Cineworld 5 was showing nothing but Blu-rays of old movie trilogies, and apparently lucky to get its attendance into double figures. When dozens, if not hundreds, of customers are getting turned away from things they genuinely want to see and/or thought they’d paid for the privilege of seeing, it strikes me that there’s a simple solution to rectifying an imbalance of supply and demand. In turn, this might even made the queuing system less Byzantine.

Otherwise, my lesson for Big Screen 2012 is simply: more please.

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2 Comments

  1. Tim GomersallAug 17, 2011 at 11:17 amReply

    File me under one of those whose goodwill was spent by the end of the day, Simon.

    Whole thing was disappointing, through factors both within Empire's control (the admin aspect) and without (cancellations from a number of panellists).

    I suspect this is the kind of event that will build its own momentum, credibility and investment. Indeed I'm sure Comic-Con's first show was a much less spectacular event. But I'm giving them a few years to get it right before I venture back.

    TG

  2. kinnemaniacAug 23, 2011 at 4:00 pmReply

    Cheers for the feedback, Tim. I don't think you're alone in feeling like that. A blogger for PR Week was particularly damning: http://www.prweek.com/uk/news/gated/1085227/

    But I think you're right about momentum. Improvement will be inevitable.

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