48:e festivalen 24 jan - 2 feb, 2025

Bodies, Spaces & Communities: Experience Design for Cinemas (& VR)

On November 29th in Glasgow, Johanna Koljonen gave a keynote speech at the UK film exhibition innovation conference This Way Up. The conference provided two excellent days of interesting input for the upcoming Nostradamus report; you can find a very good writeup at the BFI and a shorter piece focusing on pricing and VR at […]

48:e festivalen
24 Jan -
2 Feb, 2025

On November 29th in Glasgow, Johanna Koljonen gave a keynote speech at the UK film exhibition innovation conference This Way Up. The conference provided two excellent days of interesting input for the upcoming Nostradamus report; you can find a very good writeup at the BFI and a shorter piece focusing on pricing and VR at Screen Daily. Johanna herself spoke on experience design for cinema, a topic touched upon by the very first Nostradamus report a few years back; the keynote video is above and an abbreviated text of the talk can be found below.

In this talk I will very briefly run through a few experience design basics and the good news is, all of this stuff is actually obvious if you just stop and think about it. You can absolutely hire a design agency like mine to help you with this stuff and, when it comes to more advanced community design for instance, I think perhaps you should. But fundamentally this is stuff we all know. It’s about being human – humaning. Placing the thing at the center in its human context.

So if we think about what affects my choice and experience of a specific film,

conventional wisdom in the film industry would suggest it is a function of the quality of the work and the expectations communicated about it in traditional and social media.

From an experience design perspective it looks something like this: at the heart you have the work, around it the experience of accessing it, in this case in a movie theatre. What kinds of reactions to and engagements with that film it is possible for me to have is determined by norms in the relevant audience communities, by which I don’t mean abstract target groups but actual humans, like my family or the people at a screening or the potential and actual participants in a filmmaker Q&A. And those norms in turn are strongly affected by movie-going culture, which in its turn is part of what we could call film culture, and so on.

When people, even some exhibitors, talk about the challenges cinemas are facing, they often make it sound as though the service provided by movie theatres are exclusive access to the work. Or, if they’re slightly smarter, they will say what especially arthouse cinemas offer is curation – which is indeed very important in an age of abundance.

But when we listen to actual humans discussing how to spend an evening, they very often decide to go to the cinema before even picking the film. The film is not irrelevant, but it is quite often a secondary consideration; and even when it is at the core, the discussion is not about seeing the work in general but seeing it in a specific manner (because you could just pirate it and watch it for free at home).

This all means we should think a little less about films and a little more about experiences. And if your business model involves repeat customers – as of course it must – you are also in the business of building relationships. In other words you are designing communities of people – who have a relationship to you; and ideally in fact also to each other.

Let’s say an experience is a part of time and space, in which something changes. Experience is a part of life which is somehow different from the everyday slog. Experiences often take place in a defined time and space which has different qualities from every day life; we take on different social roles, we act in a different manner, and those actions might have different consequences than in other parts of our lives.

So professional football players interacting inside the magic circle of the football field are celebrated for a level of violence we would frown upon in the parking lot of the stadium. But the pitch is also nested inside the magic circle of the stadium, and while we are watching the game we are allowed to yell words at the top of our lungs that would get us fired if we did that at work.

Similarly watching a film is of course stepping inside a magic circle of fiction, and that is nested in the wider magic circle of the experience of being at a movie theatre. This magic circle too comes with its own behaviours. For instance you’re allowed to turn off your cell phone, and at some screenings – though importantly not all – you are allowed to talk to strangers about the film you have just seen. Code-switching between different contexts is something we humans do all the time; that’s how we handle having different social roles. Not all contexts parse as separate “experiences” in though, so it’s useful to think of an experience as involving some kind of transformation, whether from being uplifted by art or even just from having taken a break from reality.

Designing experiences is about recognising that audience members are not, in this case, abstracted cerebral film fans, we’re physical animals and social beings. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not an unproblematic model but it is a useful checklist. If we want creativity & fulfilment (which happen at the top level) we need to make sure all of the basics are in place first.

On the lowest levels you have things like oxygen, water, temperature, accessibility and – I cannot emphasise this enough – enough bathrooms, which should not be disgusting. Fire safety and making sure there is no need to fear violence during screenings

also belong here. But beyond that humans want to feel welcome, seen, recognised & respected. If you’re running a cultural venue and especially if you want people to be open to new kinds of films,

new experiences or even participatory interactions, all of the low level stuff must work first.

We know from neuroscience that people process experiences in very specific ways. 80% of our memory of the experience is formed by the last 20% of the experience; the rest is dominated by the peak emotions. If we imagine the diagram as a timeline, at the red squiggle we welcome the guests, create a sense of expectation, establish a nice atmosphere, and make sure they have access to enough bathrooms and popcorn and wine – and that there is not too much standing in line and that waiting is pleasant and comfortable. If you look at what separates quality cinemas from big chains, it’s typically the effort put in here. This of course is also where you establish and model any kind of tone, behaviour or atmosphere that is different from what people would normally expect.

Interestingly, we as an industry are terrible at what happens after the screening. We focus so much on selecting the work and getting people in to see it that we completely drop the ball once they have. If the experience of the work has been interesting in the least, audiences at this point will have all kinds of feelings, and they’ve experienced something communal – and they finally get to move or go to the bathroom after sitting down for a long while, which usually puts people in a good mood. This is the moment when we decide to kick them out a back door into an alley next to a dumpster.

This is wasteful, because any conversation or elation that happens after the film is not happening with us – it might happen bar or online, but it doesn’t become part of the cinema experience. The potential for enabling some connection between these humans who have just experienced something together is also wasted. It is also risky, because if anyone has had a bad experience with the film, venue or staff we cannot contextualise or defuse it.

Historically the two innovations in this space were the Q&A and adding a bathroom on the way out. Both of these are great, but I think we can do better! (Again, this is not about forcing people to interact, but inspiring them to want to do it and creating a social environment where it is allowed).

So how do we do that? Basically through design the physical and social environments. You have toengage with both because physical factors like acoustics and the layout of chairs of course control or at least signal what kinds of social interactions are possible or preferable in a space. The physical environment you can really just try – walk around the front of your building, pretend you’re entering for the first time, and see how it feels. Where to go? Why can you do? What is uncomfortable or annoying?

The social environment is a little trickier if you’re not used to thinking about it as something that can be changed, but here are some control questions that you need to ask on behalf of your visitors. You want to know how does it feel to be in the room and among the other people in the room; how do I fit into the hierarchies or behavioural norms, or even appearance norms of the space; what is allowed and are the things which are allowed to others also allowed for me.

An example of this could be the social rules governing who is allowed to be boisterous or laugh loudly in a space. At most cultural institutions, if you’re anything expect white, middle-aged and middle class, laughing loudly will be viewed as a disturbance, but if you are, it will be read as a sign that you understand something clever about the film or exhibition.

In any kind of experience design the first question you should ask yourself “WHAT KINDS OF ACTIVITIES WILL MY PARTICIPANTS BE DOING”. If you are designing a party want people to talk to each other, you can’t also play music really really loud in all the spaces.

Cinemas are generally speaking built to enable the verbs in the left-hand column but a movie theatre is an old medium. Culture has changed around us and all of THAT stuff we can do much better at home. Generally speaking both arts and entertainment are in the process of correcting into a more participatory direction. Especially when we go out to a specific place at a specific time to share experiences we want other verbs. (When you’re thinking about verbs in a design context, it actually helps to try to be even more specific and practical: sit, listen, watch, ask questions, converse, dine, flirt…)

So everything that happens in your cinema, including the emotions of the people who visit it, is a designable surface. And when we talk about design, what we mean is making active choices. Questioning everything in the light of what you’re trying to achieve. Many things are done in specific ways because it is expected, and expectations are certainly a powerful tool in designing behaviours. But use them with intention. Yes, some practices are traditional because they works – I’m not saying change everything! Just make sure your choices aren’t solutions to an earlier generation of challenges.

Tradition is dangerous because human memory is very short. Anything we’ve done for 10 or 20 years feels like it’s always been like that. Exmaple: Movie theatres have not always been optimised for passivity and consumerism. Henry Jenkins likes to show this picture of an early meeting of the Mickey Mouse club in a Los Angeles movie theatre back at a time when crafts demonstrations and singing together could be part of your day at a movie palace. Who can I be here? Not just a viewer and consumer, but a member and a participant.

SO: If you want people to watch movies in cinemas you need the films to be fantastic and the experience of going to the movies to be physically pleasant and socially rewarding. Rewarding in this context would mean a feeling of connection to your institution, and to individuals and communities. Again, this is not about forcing people to interact, but even introverts want to be seen, valued and respected. What kinds of behaviours or communities are even possible for the movie-going audience is of course also a function of movie-going culture on the local and macro levels – as well as the wider culture again both locally and nationally.

But when we think about what a culture is, cultures are continuously constructed out of values and practices; and they interact across all the levels we’ve been talking about. So yes: the kinds of behaviours you can encourage at and around your cinema are limited by the movie-going culture of the UK as it stands this year. But at the same time every screening you host is also iteratively shaping movie-going culture, and therefore the wider culture of this country.

And this makes active design of these experiences a sacred duty, because if you believe that film is important, surely the reason for that is that art can change our beliefs about who we are permitted to be, what it is possible for us to do. If you want to change the world you have to start where you actually have influence; by empowering people in the spaces you control to expand their worlds by engaging with these film individually and together.

It also makes business sense.

And now that you have mastered experience design 101, I thought at the end we should spend two minutes on considering Virtual Reality in the context of movie theatres. It’s an open secret in the VR community that an absolute majority of VR films (confusingly known as “VR experiences”) today are kind of shit. With a few exceptions like the piece you can try at lunch they’re at best beautiful tech demonstrations, at worst like stepping into a screensaver from 2006.

A core reason VR film is not very good right now is that VR makers especially from film backgrounds are not considering the virtual reality they work in as a physical and social room. But it is, and thereby all the issues we have been talking about today are activated.

You can still screen VR successfully if you build an interesting experience around the sort of dodgy pieces in the middle and in the short term this is promising for cinemas (that are good at experiences). In the long term however, which in VR means about two years, VR will offer shared multi-participant experiences – where people can explore the same stories together, without necessarily being in the same place physically.

As VR headsets become more affordable, cinemas do not necessarily have any place in that ecosystem. Unless you as exhibitors become masters of offering physical and social spaces that people want to be part of and where they feel they can belong. While continuing, naturally, as you have always been, to be curators of the very best filmmaking.

Written by: Johanna Koljonen 


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