The Internet is cluttered with running jokes about “movie logic” — things that always happen in movies, never in real life. The meme website Funsterz.com best illustrates the idea of movie logic with funny, but accurate examples such as “It is always possible to park directly outside the building you are visiting” and “Dying characters always have just enough time to say exactly the right words.”
But on Wednesday morning, while almost everybody else worried about Harvey Weinstein, Paramount Pictures played host to a serious experiment in film logic and a technology that could use it to re-charge the movie-going experience in the near future. Specifically, Tom Hayes, Paramount’s senior vice president for new media, invited about a hundred executives, film students, interns and others to view a thriller called Late Shift. Produced by Kino Industries through its CtrlMovie unit and others, the film is directed by Tobias Weber, stars Joe Sowerbutts, and is the latest in a string of attempts to create satisfying interactive theatrical entertainment.
What’s fascinating is that it actually works, thanks largely to what veterans in the interactive field call its “velocity of choice.” Using a simple cell phone app, viewers make choices, large and small, about where the film will go next. The decision points come hot and heavy; there are about 180 of them in the film, a dozen major, the rest fairly minor. Viewer voting is so reflexive, and fast, that the movie never misses a beat — it simply goes where the majority of the audience tells it to go.
Conceivably, that could make for a dull experience. After all, don’t we watch movies to get out of our own heads?
But Late Shift, at least on Wednesday, didn’t turn out that way. Instead, the viewer choices turned into a telling lesson in what makes film plots tick. Sometimes, the choices were inevitable — even the audience laughed out loud at its own predictability: “Kiss?” “Don’t?”
Of course, Sowerbutts and his heroine, played by Haruka Abe, will kiss. As the wags at Funsterz.com observe, “stalk a girl who hates you with psychopathic persistence and suddenly she will love you!” At least, in the movies.
But there were subtler lessons built into — and to be learned from — the Late Shift experience. For instance, it becomes instantly clear that movies are an exercise in point-of-view. To keep things grounded, nearly all of the choices here are made on behalf of the protagonist, a young urban Everyman trapped in a conspiracy he only slowly begins to understand. The world in which he is embedded can’t be changed much. But the protagonist, as Weber explained in a brief talk after the show, “becomes the worst version of himself, or a better version of himself,” as each audience chooses.
Since Wednesday’s audience was larded with film sophisticates, Sowerbutts’ character became one of the worst possible versions of himself. The movie ended with a sharp, existential vulgarity, but not before the hero had used an available pistol to shoot another character, point-blank. “I’ve seen this maybe nine times, and you’re the first ones who ever shot the old man,” said one of the hosts as the screening ended.
Normally, that would be a spoiler. But, of course, there are no spoilers in an interactive film, because the audience telegraphs choices as it goes. According to an on-screen road-map of possible decisions that appeared after the showing, there are seven possible endings to Late Shift. The range of plot routes is relatively narrow in the early part of the film, but branches widely, like a delta, in the final 40%. The running time might be as short as 72 minutes, or as long as 94, depending on the audience. Wednesday’s viewers, for example, showed a distinct inclination to draw things out a bit. Every time they were faced with a choice that allowed them to cut short a situation, or to prolong the suspense, they took the long road — probably a good lesson for anyone writing a thriller.
After the screening, Hayes took an informal poll of the audience, asking how many would be willing to pay a small up-charge to see an interactive version of, say, a Paranormal Activity film. Virtually every hand shot up. For the moment, Paramount, like other studios, is just looking. But we may all be looking, and dictating movie plots, sooner than we think.