Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Super-Fan Diaries, vol.1

[ The following post is archival material, written for another site/platform, but never published until now. While the text has been reviewed/proofread, it is presented here in its original, unexpurgated form. ]

My name is Ian, and I am a Cineworld Super-Fan.

It wasn't always this way of course. When I was younger, I'd go to the movies when something took my fancy or a big, event-film dropped, but it was an irregular, even occasional past-time. Then a brand spanking new cinema opened in my town, courtesy of The Cineworld Filmographic Projection Co, and never had the magic of celluloid been so readily accessible. Better still, word was going round that Cineworld also offered some manner of subscription-card, whereby customers could watch as many movies as they wanted, and at any time for a monthly fee which was less than the price of two regular tickets. As many as I wanted. Imagine that.

It was then, in 2007, that Cineworld became 'my local'.

I'd go two or three times a month at first, making sure I at least got my money's worth from the card, but as the months and years strode on I visited more and more. Comedies, thrillers, horror, animation; I'd give any promising-looking flick a try, I just needed film. By 2013, I'd even upgraded my membership to cover Cineworld's West-End London locations, a 45-minute train ride away. With a bit of canny scheduling, I could zip into the capital and watch three or four films back-to-back; works which were too indie or niche to be shown at my local 5-screener. And all the while still making two or three weekly visits to my local.

I was in cinematic free-fall.

Then, early in 2015, I received a direct-message through Twitter. It was from Cineworld themselves. I'd tweeted them before as I'd taken to 'checking in' when I sat down to watch a movie, and they'd favourited the occasional judgement of mine on those reels, but here they were, contacting me, unbidden. What could it be about? "Would you like to take part in something special?" they asked. It should go without saying that the answer was a resounding yes. "Great! More details will follow…" they replied and with that, signed off, leaving me wondering what I'd agreed to.

When the invitation arrived, the crisp black envelope held within it the words that no friends, no family, even no cinema-staff could say to my face. "You are one of our Cineworld Super-Fans!" the card beamed. Like any cineaste in my position, I could only accept, and not deny, this fact. If wasn't a judgement or an opinion, just a fact. But wait, the card went on to invite me (and a tantalisingly unspecified number of other Super-Fans) to London for 'a special day' at the O2 (formerly the Millennium Dome) in Greenwich. Again, I unquestioningly confirmed my attendance, travel arrangements were made and a sunny Saturday in July set aside. All the details were finalised, except for the actual contents of the 'special day'.

After the now-familiar journey into London, I travelled the insanely hot Jubilee Line to North Greenwich, my nerve-insured punctuality causing me to arrive over an hour early. Cineworld's helpful staff (but then, they unfailingly are) pointed me in the direction of the bar-area, where members of the PR team were already preparing.

We sat and chatted movies, work, movies, life and movies, and I gently (clumsily) attempted to mine more information about the day ahead. Just how many Super-Fans were there? After all, we'd been mysteriously summoned to one of Cineworld's largest, flagship cinemas. 150? No. 100? No. 50 then? No, 10. Ten. I represented one tenth of the Super-Fandom? Apparently so. Wow. How's that for special?

Gradually my fellow Super-Fans and their plus-ones arrived, each from farther afield in the UK than myself. Once assembled, we were shown into a specially reserved auditorium and thanked for our attendance. Yes, Cineworld were thanking us. A goodie-bag awaited each of us (and I'm not talking about a carrier bag with some money-off vouchers, this was a branded messenger bag containing a t-shirt (no, not a Cineworld one, they don't want us posing as staff), a book, two DVDs, some of that high-end popcorn and a proprietary enamel-destroying soft drink). A behind-the-scenes tour followed, including the projection-area (it'd be unfair to call it a room, as it's the lengthy hub which links all eleven of the screens) and a walkaround of the largest 3D screen in Europe. This is all very geeky, naturally, but let's not forget why we were all there.

Oh, yes. Why we were all there. This was another previously raised and enigmatically unanswered question. Giving us our welcome/introductory briefing, Cineworld's PR told us (and I'm paraphrasing here, but not too much) "We've seen what you guys have been doing on social media, we like it very much and we wanted to say thanks". Cue a collection of fewer than twenty film geeks thinking "…yeah, I thought that's what you said. You're thanking us for loving what you do when you're the ones doing the work to make it great?". As gestures go, it's pretty hard to beat. The Super-Fans programme, we were told, was to run from July to December, with a surprise for us every month, this being the first.

And the other major component of the day's surprises was to be a special advance screening of the new Pixar movie, Inside Out, with unlimited complementary refreshments (and if you've bought any refreshments in a cinema ever, you'll appreciate that this in itself is a big deal). Of course, once you're told you can go wild at the concession stand - particularly with everything else that's being laid on for you - you do the sensible thing and don't go wild. I'm not sure if social experimentation was part of Cineworld's agenda for the day, but it would have made for an interesting study.

And so after our guided tour and lunch at Frankie & Benny's (no, seriously, spoiled rotten), the Cineworld Super-Fans were the first public audience in the UK to see Inside Out (an online embargo was placed on discussion/reviews and duly observed here at Blackout Towers, but we were only a week ahead of the full release, and I happen to know that Picturehouse were running a students-only screening the very next day. Nevertheless, words were typed, but duly withheld). It's is a very good film; funny, thoughtful and intelligent. A story told for the reasons of the narrative itself, rather than a blatant ruse to try and sell spin-off merchandising (although, this being the twenty first century, there's plenty of that, too). While I'm aware that it certainly connected with others far more than it did with myself, I still got a lot out of it, and can see the value of the brightly-coloured psychological analogy on display; Freud in felt-tips, if you will.

After this, the gathered Super-Fans were offered the chance to watch a 3D screening of Ant-Man, with added D-Box enhancement (short version: shaky-seats). Not an exclusive screening obviously, but consisting of complementary seats reserved right in the centre of the auditorium and the aforementioned mega-snacks, certainly a welcome addition to the day's proceedings. And as much as the D-Box is a total gimmick, it's a gimmick which works perfectly for a movie like this, with the audience in the special-chairs feeling every swoosh, sway and punch thrown throughout the film.

After Ant-Man, though, it was early evening. The Super-Fans thanked their hosts sincerely, and began the arduous trek homeward, laden with all the merch and snacks they could carry. Not me, of course. I think we've established by now that I rarely use the words 'cinema-going' and 'restraint' in the same sentence, unless it's one designed to highlight their disparity. Having travelled the shortest distance to be at the O2, I still had time to slot in another movie which wouldn't be playing at my local and still make it home at a reasonable hour. That movie was The Gallows, and while it was hardly my favourite of the day, I'm still glad I watched it in the environment it was meant to be seen in; a Saturday night multiplex full of shrieking viewers. Somebody enjoyed it, at least.

That, my friends, was my first day as a Cineworld Super-Fan. And I'd been assured it wouldn't be my last. I'd like to say that I swapped details with my cinematic comrades that day, and that we all had plenty to discuss and dissect on social media afterward. Unfortunately, I'm atrocious at actual human-networking in meat-space, so other than brief and polite chit-chat, I didn't really get to know the other Super-Fans as much as I'd have liked. No matter; in the intervening hours, I'd at least managed to glean that we'd all be meeting up again for another event in two-to-three months time. Networking could wait. My homebound train, on the other hand, couldn't.

And at the end of all this, as I type these words before daring to go to sleep and losing some of the day's lexical momentum, I'm still actually no clearer as to why this all took place. What's in it for Cineworld other than preaching to the choir? It's a question which several people had asked me on the run-up to the day's events, and one I'm no more qualified to answer after the fact. But the fact that it did take place is more than enough.

My name is Ian, and I am a Cineworld Super-Fan.

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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