Quiet in the theatre? Not a chance

LOS ANGELES – They came dressed as Pink Ladies
and Beauty School Dropouts. They cheered Danny Zuko at Thunder Road. The
rama-lama ding-donging? Deafening.

No, this wasn’t a karaoke club. It was the
premiere here for “Grease: Sing-A-Long,” a re-release of the 1978 musical
starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. By adding lyric subtitles,
Paramount Pictures hopes to inspire audiences in places like Texas and Michigan
– clad in costume, preferably – to trek to multiplexes and sing about summer
lovin’.
“The goal is to create a true event,” said Adam Goodman, president of the
Paramount Film Group. “How do you get groups of young people going to the
movies and having a great time?”
The key term is “young.” Older moviegoers may still prefer to sit in silence,
but younger audiences – the ones studios work hardest to motivate off the sofa
– are increasingly programmed to interact and multi-task. Sitting quietly in a
theatre starts to feel like a drag when you can watch the DVD at home while
texting a friend, playing a video game and posting witty comments on Facebook.

Despite 3-D blockbusters like “Avatar” and
“Alice in Wonderland,” movie going in North America is in trouble. For the
summer period, which typically accounts for 40 percent of annual box office
receipts, attendance is down by about 3 percent, to 309 million tickets,
compared with a year earlier. Years of sharp ticket price increases have
papered over the problem – revenue for the summer is up about 4 percent – but
movie studios and exhibitors are now starting to fear a consumer push back.
Since at least “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” moviegoers have created their
own events around films – wearing costumes, bringing props, singing along and
generally treating the theatre as though it’s their own den. Now it is the
multiplex chains and film studios that are trying to manufacture audience
participation as a way of coaxing a certain crowd into theatres. Just bring
your friends, they say, and buy a lot of candy.

The strategy depends on creating an
excitement that was once organic, and it could easily backfire, said Matt
Britton, the managing partner of Mr Youth, a New York social marketing agency.
“You don’t want to force a cultural habit on people, especially young people
who are very savvy about being manipulated by marketers,” he said. “But it’s
definitely savvy to try and make the movie going experience less linear and
more interactive.”

There are signs, at least in the short
term, that audiences are responding. The “Grease: Sing-A-Long,” which features
some minor lyrical changes to the make songs less crude, opened recently in
limited national release and has been selling out in cities in California, New
York, Texas and Florida.

Arriving at a Los Angeles screening, Inthia
Seabrooks paid homage to the movie’s “Beauty School Dropout” number by dressing
in a silver smock and wearing a headdress made out of an empty KFC bucket. “If
you’re going to get all dolled up and go out to the movies, they had better
offer you something special,” said Seabrooks, 28. “This is special.”
In addition to signing on for “Grease: Sing-A-Long,” which at the very least is
a way for Paramount to keep milking a 32-year-old cash cow, AMC Entertainment
has been busy hosting participatory “Twilight Saga” marathons. AMC, one of the
largest theatre chains in North America, handed out collectible lanyards at the
$30 triple feature and encouraged customers to root for their favourite lead
character by wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob.”

“Everyone together laughing or crying or
cheering – that’s why you go to the movies, and we want to really reinvigorate
that experience,” said Sun Dee Larson, AMC’s vice president for film and product
marketing.

For Walt Disney Studios, all of this
multiplex festivity leads back to one thing: Chihuahuas. To promote “Beverly
Hills Chihuahua,” released in fall 2008, Disney invited Chihuahua owners to
bring their dogs to a series of screenings. The goal was to attract a few dozen
people, but hundreds turned out – many with their dogs dressed in outfits, like
tiny little tuxedos.
Pictures from the event became a hit on the Web, helping to turn the movie into
a success. The lesson for movie marketers was in the Twitter age, you can
easily convince people that movie going is a party with a simple promotional
event.

So Disney, aiming to create a group-fun
vibe around “Alice in Wonderland” last spring, staged a similar shindig at a
Los Angeles mall. The studio invited MySpace to stream video of the event and
told guests to “dress in your best Alice costume.” A crop of Mad Hatters and
Red Queens showed up and – presto – moviegoers started popping up in similar
garb at theatres across the country.

Next up: Elvis. On July 29, National
CineMedia will present a compilation of concert footage called “Elvis on Tour:
75th Anniversary Celebration” in more than 450 theatres. “I’m sure Elvis fans
will arrive in full costume,” said Michelle Portillo, a National CineMedia spokeswoman.
“We receive several calls from Elvis impersonators about it a day.”
National CineMedia also organizes multiplex sing-alongs (“Forever Plaid”) and
simulcasts sporting events (patrons dress in team colours and cheer as if they
were in a stadium).
Feeling bashful about behaving this way in a theatre? To encourage reluctant
singers, Paramount layered a recorded audience’s voice – like a sitcom laugh
track – into the musical numbers in its new “Grease.”

But beer helps, too. Dale Hurst, marketing
director for Carmike Cinemas, said his chain hired caterers with mobile liquor
licenses to service theatres for these kinds of events. “Some people really let
loose,” he said.

Betty Henderson, 67, acknowledges that it
took her awhile to warm up to the idea of singing during a movie. “I just
thought it sounded a little strange,” she said. But before long, Henderson was
belting out “Summer Nights” with the best of them.

“The energy of the crowd was so great that
it just made you feel good,” she said afterward. “I’ve never experienced
anything like that.”

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