It was cold, I was drunk, and I was covered in blood. Luckily, it wasn’t my blood, and it was the price I was willing to pay for the night of my life.
It all started with an email, one that featured .gifs pulled from the movie “Blade” and promised a sneak preview of an upcoming event called “The Blade Rave.” Of course, an invitation like that is not to be dismissed, and the next thing I knew, I was in Brooklyn, watching faux blood get sprayed on strangers by two people with hose wands. This was my first exposure to BBQ Films, a NYC-based immersive theater company, and that’s when they revealed their wicked plan: they would take over Manhattan hotspot Terminal 5 during New York Comic Con, and feature an interactive re-enactment of the bloody opening scene of “Blade,” raining blood on partygoers as The Crystal Method played the remix of New Order’s “Confusion.” And just like that, I was all in.
As a longtime resident of New Jersey, I know just how damn difficult it can be finding new, interesting experiences, especially if you’re not living in a major metropolitan area. That goes double when alcohol consumption is out of the equation, which is more-often-than-not the case considering I’m often hauling myself to and from anything fun and exciting. So if I’m going to spend my valuable time and little expendable income out and about, I have to make damn sure it’s worth it.
I know I’m certainly not alone in the matter. Studies have shown millennials have been drifting towards homebody lifestyles as the convenience of streaming, Grubhub and video games provide a cost-effective alternative to expensive dinners and bar crawls. That’s not to mention the growing costs-of-living causing young adults to balance multiple jobs, as well as the anxiety of social interaction in the age of interconnectivity.
By providing unique, intimate experiences in larger, more familiar settings, companies such as BBQ Films, Bottleneck Immersive, Counts Projects, Alamo Drafthouse, Fringe Immersive, and Nitehawk Cinema are paving the path for a future in which adventure is not only still possible, but unforgettable.
Although I had often indulged in the realm of Alternate Reality Games (ARG) thanks to my fandom of “Lost”and “Cloverfield,” my first major exposure to the realm of immersive events was my experience at the 2015 Stanley Film Festival, in which the duo of Landon Zakheim and Dylan Reiff- who would later partner for Bottleneck Immersive and begin The Overlook Film Festival- provided an interactive game that would plunge all involved into their own personal horror movie. Representing Fangoria, I vastly underestimated just how immersive this game would be: I would randomly receive clues and instructions from passerby’s, have to follow ridiculous tasks like painting an ankh in fake blood on a coffin, and even find myself face-to-face with cult members at 3 a.m. in my hotel room. But it was all in good fun, especially as I had friends old and new playing the game alongside me, including a filmmaker named Garrett, who was premiering his new short at the festival.
That was until I learned that Garrett was not who he said he was; he was a part of the game all along. In an instant, my reality was shattered, and faced with an existential crisis, I found myself running with dozens of fellow film nerds, including Elijah Wood, around the Stanley Hotel at 2 in the goddamn morning, looking for a man who doesn’t exist. Needless to say, I loved every second of it.
But what really stood out about the immersive event from the Bottleneck folks is how effortlessly it offered a new perspective on entertainment. There’s no TV show or video game that could match the thrill of bursting into a stranger’s hotel room, getting confronted by a hooded figure, and running out to a dig up a potential grave site in the middle of the night. It’s the personality of it all that gives immersive events their charm, as it feels completely tailored for you, even if you’re only a cog in a much bigger wheel.
Of course, just a few months later, I would find myself at Terminal 5 with the BBQ Films crew, doused in faux blood, dancing for the first time in seemingly ever. During that night, I watched roaming performers act out scenes from “Blade,” complete with lookalikes of Deacon Frost, Whistler, and -you guessed it- Blade, as well as sword-fighting demonstrations, live music, and seeing in-person FX make-up sessions for those with VIP passes. It was a marriage of improv school, clubbing culture, and horror nerdery of the highest level, and I couldn’t get enough.
Following that event, I found myself wanting to know more about BBQ Films, attending their braintrust meetings and learning more about their past events. BBQ Films was already making a name for themselves around Brooklyn with immersive theatrical events for films such as “Back to the Future,” “Empire Records,” “American Psycho,” and “Weekend at Bernie’s.” By offering the chance to not just see the movie, but live within the universe of those films if only for a few hours, BBQ Films was getting film nuts out of the house time and time again.
“I like to think what we are doing as ‘Social Cinema’,” says BBQ Films co-founder Gabriel Rhoads. “BBQ films began on a rooftop back in 2010 with the idea to get together, watch movies we enjoyed together, and experience those movies. It was very simple in those early days: you would enjoy a beer, a burger, and “The Blues Brothers” under a summer moon. But what we noticed, was that the environments that we created, which were send-ups of those films, allowed people to experience the movies together in a fundamentally social context. People weren’t just there to watch the movie; they were there to interact with each other and interact with the story. You can’t do that at home, and you can’t do that without other people. It’s a part of our human nature to interact, and we realized this experience brought a lot of joy to people.”
In the months since my “Blade” experience, BBQ Films has offered immersive events for “Beetlejuice” (featuring wire stunts, living dioramas, and actual marriage), “Ghostbusters,” “The Fast and the Furious,” and “Mean Girls.” Yet even beyond the chance to live within these films, the company also provides an opportunity to gather with like-minded fans of these properties, mixing the fun of a raging party with the community of a convention. And social media dominating our lives these days, there’s no bigger bragging right for a nerd than taking selfies with Beetlejuice, Zuul, and Blade.
Yet immersive experiences aren’t the only way these groundbreaking entertainment companies are reviving the extroverted lifestyle among millennials, as the likes of the Alamo Drafthouse and The Nitehawk have redefined the theatrical moviegoing experience as well. By now, most people might at least be familiar with the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain, which has expanded nationwide to offer moviegoers a chance to indulge in fine food and beverage in a respectful, talk-and-text-free environment. Furthermore, Drafthouse locations have also been somewhat of a sanctuary for true blue film buffs, who can still find repertory and independent screenings almost every day of the week.
Of course, with surging multiplex prices, obnoxious audiences, and tired studio fare at the local box office, an Alamo Drafthouse can be a godsend to a specific film community. With a mind towards preserving the cinematic experience, Drafthouse has given many jaded viewers a reason to go back to the movies while providing the opportunity to consolidate the dinner-and-a-movie date night experience for couples. Likewise, with most theaters moving towards digital projection, Drafthouse locations are virtually the only locations where one can still experience cult classics like “Return of the Living Dead,” “Freddy Got Fingered,” “Event Horizon,”and “Stone Cold” on gorgeous 35mm film.
But just because Drafthouse is the most well-known of these dine-in theaters shouldn’t count out the even littler guys. In Brooklyn alone, cinephiles have the opportunity to check out no less than three dine-in theaters on a given day, including Bushwick’s Syndicated Bar/Theater/Kitchen and Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema. In the case of the latter, the dine-in element has breathed new life into the art house theater experience, and allowed for more out-of-the-box programming decisions. Furthermore, the Nitehawk has also become an essential part of Brooklyn’s film culture, providing healthier food options as well as showcases for short films, both local and international. By incorporating their sense of community into their showcases, Nitehawk has transcended the theatrical label to become the area’s cinematic hotspot, and with a second location opening in the near future, the brand looks to keep getting audiences of all ages out of the house for years to come.
“Our audiences are really reflective of the neighborhood, whether it be older audiences checking out movie such as “Network” or “Rocky,” or our midnight showings, which tend to draw a younger crowd,” says John Woods, Nitehawk’s Director of Programming. “It’s true that we have healthier food options; you can get a veggie burger if you want, or a kale salad, which we have as well. But you can also get chocolate, popcorn, a hot dog, or a steak sandwich if that’s what you want. There’s something for everybody in our food selection. But what’s really telling is how much people love it, even people who were hesitant at first because they thought it would ruin the moviegoing experience.”
Perhaps one reason why these dine-in theaters have become so valuable to consumers is that they represent a progressive mindset towards the cinematic experience, one in which most corporate theaters have turned their back on. While corporate theaters have done their best to make more convenient theatrical decisions, from reclining chairs to diverse concession options to rewards programs, they have also scaled back on some of their more exciting developments, shuttering legitimate IMAX screens in favor of compact, IMAX-branded screens at nearly 1/3rd the height, rejecting innovations such as D-Box and 4D technology, and raising prices for 4K 3D and Dolby Atmos upgrades. However, with AMC already finding strong numbers for their dine-in locations, one could expect AMC will attempt to hone-in and expand on that marketplace in the near future, although their lack of repertory programming could hold them back from threatening the likes of Drafthouse and Nitehawk.
But for those looking for something more interactive than dine-in theaters and more challenging than immersive film events, the burgeoning business of escape rooms will do just the trick. For those unfamiliar, escape rooms are essentially walk-in puzzles, where you and a group of people are forced to solve interactive riddles within a certain time limit in order to escape. And in recent years, escape rooms have gone from corporate team-building exercises to cultural sensation, becoming one of the most popular pastimes for millennials and older crowds alike.
While consumers can find almost any theme of escape room that they could dream of, from spy thriller to horror movie to jungle temple, there are some venues that have taken their aspirations beyond the autonomous escape room experience. Somewhere between the worlds of escape rooms and immersive theater lands Counts Projects, the creative arm of artist Michael Counts, who has made a name for himself as a visionary in the world of interactive entertainment. By crafting intricate, captivating storylines within the confines of a living, breathing puzzle, Counts is changing the way audiences can experience narrative storytelling by, in essence, building a cinematic experience around them.
“There’s a saying: ‘If you don’t see the art that you want, make the art that you want,’” says Counts. “I think that’s what draws a lot of people to innovation in general. There’s an interesting cultural theory that has emerged in the last decade that says people born since 1970 are a part of the demographic known as ‘The Game Generation.’ That theory says that the people who grew up playing video games are accustomed to being at the center of the action and, effectively, being the protagonist in entertainment. The stories that play out are their stories; they had to use their abilities, their wit, and their guile. Yet the generation before them was the television generation, who grew up with passive entertainment, it was the story of others.
“Globally, our desires as audiences have changed dramatically in the last few years,” Counts continues. “I think that people want to be transported; the film producer Jerry Bruckheimer once said that he considered himself to be in the transportation business, meaning that he was transporting people from their lives into an adventure or a thrilling fantasy of what life can be. Film was certainly the entertainment of the 20th Century, but I think immersive entertainment is the art form of the 21st Century because not only do people want to be transported, they want to be at the center of that experience.”
Perhaps Counts is best known for his work on “The Walking Dead Experience,” a walkthrough extension of the ultra-popular Walker Stalker Convention in which participants could place themselves into the world of “The Walking Dead” as either a survivor or a zombie, complete with professional-grade undead make-up for the latter. For those who elect to be survivors, one has to face a series of trials, including digging keys out of gaping wounds on reactive actors, silently walk through a pitch-black room full of zombies, and attempt to help survivors who may be trapped with the undead behind locked doors. For those who choose to be among the dead, you have the opportunity to scare unsuspecting players, populate the aforementioned pitch-black room, or join a horde of like-minded performers during the final stretch of the experience. Complete with actors, interactive sets, and plenty of gross-out gags to go around, “The Walking Dead Experience” captured the essence of the genre property whilst offering a thrilling, one-of-a-kind immersive theatrical experience.
Counts would later bring that same sense of dedication, paranoia, and passion with “Paradiso: Chapter One,” a terrifying and claustrophobic science-fiction escape room experience in which an unsuspecting group must work together to unravel a deadly conspiracy located in the heart of Manhattan. From freeing handcuffed hostages to crawling through air vents to de-activating a ticking time bomb, “Paradiso” throws you headfirst into a futuristic spy thriller, and if your team doesn’t work together, you could find yourself face to face with a malevolent villain as certain doom looms over your shoulder. Whether you’ re a lifelong moviegoer or a millennial looking for new kicks, “Paradiso” is unlike anything you’ve ever quite experienced before, especially once you’ve gone from typical problem-solving puzzles to trying to open a hidden passageway in a narrow, dark hallway.
Yet Counts’ brand of interactive entertainment is reaching new heights with his next project, the Nashville-based August Moon Drive-In. Launching in 2018, the August Moon Drive-In will be a perfect replica of a 1965 country drive-in experience, constructed over 60,000 feet in a climate-controlled dome, with elements of immersive theater, dine-in cinema, and interactive experiences over the course of the night. It’s a potentially game-changing experience, one that turns the art of the interactive event into a must-see entertainment destination.
At the end of the day, the media landscape will continue to evolve and grow in unpredictable directions, but the age of convenience will also give birth to new, alternative perspectives to extroverted experiences. Of course, with virtual reality touted as the next stage of media consumption, content creators around the globe looking to compete are putting on their gloves and breaking new ground in their respective fields. But as long as there are new frontiers to be explored within the realm of fiction, audiences both young and old will find them, eager to change their tired perspective on pop culture.