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Breaking the screen: cinemas smash the fourth wall

Melbourne cinemas are revelling in alternative cinema experiences that invite audiences to become a part of the action. Spencer Gilder-Smith reports on the unique experiences being embraced by cinemas and audiences alike.

The space is filled with wizards, ghosts haunt the bathrooms, letters are flying everywhere, and butter beer is being poured.

No, this is not Hogwarts (well, not technically).

Rather, Lido Cinemas have transformed their eight-screen boutique cinema in Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn to immerse audiences into the world of Harry Potter for their eight-film marathon celebrating the boy wizard. While many cinemas have paid tribute to Potter through similar events, Lido takes audiences’ immersion to the next level through their commitment to extending the Potter experience beyond the cinema screen.

Lido’s manager, Cassidy Thomas, points to the Potter marathon as an example of the ways that her cinema transforms traditional filmgoing experiences through additional supplements.

“I loved the Harry Potter Marathon. We got really into it as a site… it was magic. Staff dressed up, we made 9 ¾ platform signs on the cinema and it was so much fun,” Thomas says.

Thomas says that the Potter marathon event is just a taste of the alternative programming offered at Lido as the cinema strives to provide progressive and fun experiences.

“We provide an environment that makes it seem like we can do it all - and we do! We love to be a tasting plate of so many things!” Thomas says.

“We try to bring back retro content and we have had DJs before preview screenings, nude screenings and many micro-film festivals”.

Lido cinemas are not alone in their embrace of alternative, interactive, and novelty film programs across Melbourne.

In the northern suburbs, Cinema Nova have found a regular audience with programs such as regular night-long Twilight marathons, a Cinema Fiasco program that celebrates so-bad-it’s-good filmmaking (accompanied by in-cinema commentary), and their monthly interactive screening of Tommy Wiseau’s cult hit, The Room (2003),

Filmgoer Robbie Nicholson (right) says that attending a screening of The Room at Cinema Nova is likely his favourite alternative cinema experience.

“It felt like it was catered to real movie-lovers,” Nicholson says.

“The Room's standing as the worst film ever and it's infamous one-liners are not things that are well-known to the average filmgoer”.

Closer to the CBD, ACMI beckons audiences to their cinemas through unique programs hosted by Cinemaniacs and their own team, often led by Film & TV curator Reece Goodwin.

“Novelties and supplementing the experience of going to the cinema is a really important thing for cinema,” Goodwin says.

Goodwin explains that much of what appeals to him about supplementary cinema is highlighted in Polyester (1981), which recently screened at ACMI accompanied by scratch-and-sniff cards that allow audiences to smell what is depicted on-screen.

“It (Polyester) bleeds into the history of supplementary cinema but it also makes fun of it. It pays homage to this late 50s-early 60s craze in cinema, (which was) supplementing (films) with kitschy novelties. It really leans into that in a huge way. It's fun, funny, and adds something extra.”

Goodwin says that his earliest memories of non-traditional filmgoing are associated with the use of 3D in films, citing Avatar (2009) as a landmark in its use of supplements.

Avatar being released in 3D was a really big deal because it made cinema something that you couldn't experience at home,” Goodwin says.

The importance of Avatar’s 3D elements in its overall success can be seen in its box office numbers, with Box Office Mojo reporting that nearly 81 percent of the film’s all-time-high box office gross is from 3D presentations. Leading up to the release of Avatar: The Way of Water (2023), the franchise’s director, James Cameron, also emphasised the film’s impact on 3D cinema by reporting that since Avatar’s release, the amount of 3D-capable screens worldwide has grown from 6,000 to 120,000.

Avatar: The Way of Water again relied heavily on its 3D supplement in its overall box office success, with CNBC reporting that more than 56 percent of tickets sold for the film were for 3D showings. This brings into focus the position of supplements such as 3D as a commercial tool.

However, Reece Goodwin says that there is an artistic value in film supplements such as 3D.

“Some films have only been made because of the 3D component. They’re often (supplements) ingrained in the filmmaking process from the beginning, and they are part of the creator’s vision of how the film will be screened,” Goodwin says.

Robbie Nicholson also says that because he generally trusts filmmakers to make a considered decision of how 3D can positively enhance their work, he sees 3D cinema as a harmless example of the vast possibilities in filmmaking.

“There are definitely existing issues with crowd-pleasing movies and their detriment to the art of filmmaking,” Nicholson says.

“However, I consider the experimentation of different interactive screenings a necessary venture to keep cinemas fresh and exciting”.

Still, Goodwin says that there is often a commercial element in decisions to enhance traditional filmgoing experiences.

“The act of going to a commercial cinema is a commercial choice and quite often; supplementing a screening with 3D is a commercial decision”.

According to Cassidy Thomas, cinemas need to provide more than traditional film screenings nowadays to draw audiences.

“We want to give people a cinema-going experience, not just a movie night,” Thomas says.

“Everything is expensive now. Offering something extra in addition to a regular movie experience is the enticing element (for filmgoers)”.

Nicholson agrees, saying that these offerings may prove vital to the long-term success of cinemas.

“As cinema competes with a myriad of other entertainment mediums, I believe that these screenings are beneficial to bringing exciting twists to your standard cinema experience,” Nicholson says.

“Although it may send the shiver down the spines of some movie traditionalists, it may be the key to keeping cinemas thriving across the world”.


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