Bringing Interactivity Into the Theater

Manatt Digital

Interactive cinema is not a new concept. In 1992, Loews released I'm Your Man, a 20-minute interactive film that premiered in a special retrofitted theater in New York City. Equipped with seat-mounted controllers, the in-theater technology developed by Interfilm allowed audiences to vote between three options at six different points in the movie. The audience voting would determine the decisions made by the main character, resulting in different endings to the movie. While initially praised by mostly teen audiences and expanded to 42 retrofitted theaters across the U.S., the initiative never gained enough traction with audiences, and the equipment was pulled from theaters in 1994. (When the Film Audience Controls the Plot, NY Times, January 13, 1993.)

While there have been other attempts to deliver an “interactive cinema” experience, most of the in-theater focus has been on technological innovation in the theater surroundings, such as surround sound and 360 degree screens—at least until recently, when Swiss-based start-up CtrlMovie entered the market.

With a focus on providing a seamless experience for moviegoers, CtrlMovie has developed a patented technology platform to efficiently create “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style movies that audiences play on their phones. To demonstrate the effectiveness of their technology, the company debuted its own film, Late Shift, a fast-paced crime thriller shot in full HD across London.

Developed by CtrlMovie and written by Michael R. Johnson, author of Sherlock Holmes (2009 film), Late Shift has over 180 decision points. Using their smart phones, audiences make decisions on behalf of the main character, Matt, such as “Does Matt steal a car?” or “Does he follow or disobey orders?” Each decision is made in seconds while the film continues to roll. There are no pauses and no looping footage.

According to Johnson, what attracted him to the project was “the idea of a truly interactive film. It’s been attempted before with limited degrees of success, but what I feel puts Late Shift ahead of the pack is bringing the player into the experience in a very intuitive way. I like the fact that rather than saddling the viewer with a series of arbitrary ‘go left’ or ‘go right’ choices, Late Shift instead puts you into the shoes of an actual character—Matt—and the decision-making process always draws on Matt’s ongoing experiences and train of thought. You feel that each separate decision is weighted with careful consideration and the possibility of multiple consequences, good or bad.” (Press Release: Late Shift: A Cinematic FMV Crime Thriller Coming to PC, PS4 and Xbox One, Gamasutra)

The audience experience is engaged from start to end, as even a small decision can change the entire outcome. At a recent screening in LA, audience members reacted to the crowd-sourced decisions, which play out in real-time, with groans and applause and the occasional laugh.

While interactive cinema has struggled to find its footing, CtrlMovie is an interesting company to watch as theater operators grapple with declining audiences and look for ways to connect with younger tech-savvy consumers. CtrlMovie’s technology offers an attractive draw for younger audiences and, with the valuable data it will access, could provide additional marketing and monetization opportunities both in and out of theater.