For the Fanatics? – Thoughts on Screen Unseen

In this wonderful vein of honesty, I’m going to continue as I started.

Full Disclosure: I now work at an Odeon Cinema.

You heard it here first folks, I have been employed very recently and I’m taking my first baby steps in the world of film…sort of. It’s a genuinely lovely cinema and I’m very excited to work at a cinema for which I have so many fond memories. What should be noted is that this has is no way changed the opinions that I’m about to go into, the Screen Unseen concept has been something I have wanted to talk about since I first attended it, I’ve just taken a while to get around to it.

Screen Unseen

To kick things off, what is Screen Unseen? It’s a relatively new event that has started in various Odeon Cinemas across the country and involves the screening of a mystery film, for one night and one screening only. The film in question will always be one that has: yet to be released officially to the general public, received critical acclaim, and been classified as anything up to a 15. It’s a wholly tantalising prospect and one sweetened by the substantially reduced ticket price. In the run up to the event, Odeon release a series of five clues relating to the film on Twitter and Facebook which get the cinematic taste buds tingling and prove time after time that the internet can be an extremely powerful hive mind – by clue number three at least 20 people will have worked it out.

That’s the basics and now four films into its run, it’s time to look at Screen Unseen and see how the films shown have matched up to the criteria, who the event is for, and what the future holds for this unique event.

So far, the films shown at Screen Unseen in chronological order have been Nightcrawler, Whiplash, Selma, and It Follows. A quick search on Rotten Tomatoes proves that according to their review aggregator, none of these films have a score of less than 95%, an overwhelmingly positive response and a big check mark in the ‘5-star film’ requirement for Screen Unseen. Having seen all these films I too have to add my own check mark, I wouldn’t say that all of them are worthy of the implied perfect score but they are certainly amongst some of the best to come out in the past year and all worth watching.

The second criteria that I have noticed in the promotional videos for the event is ‘films that get you talking’. I take this to mean more than just one that’s so good people can’t stop going on about just how good it was, but rather one that whilst still being of excellent quality, raises interesting questions about its subject matter. In this respect, all the films shown meet the criteria and delve into subjects in ways that give the audience something to ponder – Nightcrawler looks at news media and its inherent corruption, Whiplash examines obsession and the pursuit of perfection, Selma comments on racial tensions still alive today, and It Follows can be seen as a nightmarish look at STDs. Each one encourages and ultimately rewards viewers who take the time to mull over the issues presented and examine their own opinions accordingly. A glance at social media after the most recent screening showed that It Follows is definitely the most divisive film, but the fact that so many went online afterwards to spout an opinion is proof enough in this case. Some might have thought it was rubbish, but they can’t deny that it got them talking.

The enigmatic nature of Screen Unseen is certainly geared towards the more adventurous film fan, but a film fan nonetheless, which means that a very wide net is being cast. At the two screenings I’ve been to, I’ve seen everything from hardened cinephiles hoping to find the next Citizen Kane to teenagers hoping for a good night out. This breadth is heartening for the appeal of cinema but also creates a small problem in my opinion. When you walk into the auditorium, minutes before the start of the film, you can never be entirely sure of what you’re about to see and you won’t know until the BBFC certificate comes into focus. So you need to be like a Scout. You need to be prepared. Within the classification limit you could see anything; violence, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, you name it. It’s unlikely you’ll see anything extreme but there’s enormous scope in that little red number. You have been warned. It’s therefore a tad frustrating but predominately a shame to see people walk out mere seconds after the certificate appears – they’re clearly not willing to watch anything. What did they expect?

This may come off as harsh so let me say that I do understand that everyone has their limits. Genres like horror are not everyone’s cup of tea, as evidenced by the slightly increased number of patrons who exited the cinema at the beginning of It Follows, but with the clues and open nature of the event readily apparent it’s hard to sympathise. If anything I wish those people had stayed because they would have witnessed a film with an intriguing premise, beautiful cinematography, significant chills, and a brilliant pulsing soundtrack. A film quite unlike anything the average cinema goer is likely to watch.

I hope those people return for the next event, and better prepared because Screen Unseen has a wonderful risk-reward aspect to it that It Follows exemplifies. It’s undoubtedly a well-made film but it sits in a genre that is outside the comfort zone for many people. Your comfort zone is nice, but there’s so much to be enjoyed beyond it, particularly in cinema and I can attest to this myself. I grew up on Disney and Hollywood blockbusters and that was great, but it was only when I risked watching something that I normally wouldn’t watch, that I found some of the best films that cinema has to offer. You could say that I’m splitting hairs in all this and you’d be entitled to that. In the end, the walkouts aren’t really a problem per se, but if you choose to leave your seat you might never know what you’re missing.

In terms of the future of Screen Unseen, one thing we can expect is the unexpected. The four films have proved Odeon has maintained a level of quality in what they’ve chosen and fingers crossed that’ll continue, even when the choices appear to be quite daring. Personally I hope that we see more risks; perhaps a U certificate, perhaps an animation, perhaps even a foreign film, the potential is definitely there.

Looking at the venture as a whole, I think Odeon deserve some credit. The aim is more than likely to try to entice you back to your local branch but in my opinion that’s not a bad thing. Odeon claims to be ‘fanatical about film’, and with this event I think they live up to it. Independent cinemas still offer the greatest variety of films in my humble opinion but in truth I haven’t seen them offer a similar event. My guess is that they can’t match the see-it-before-anyone-else aspect – fair enough – but it’s exactly that, along with the mystery in Screen Unseen that make it the most exciting event to come out of multiplexes in ages, and you can’t get it anywhere else.

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