The once sunken Surprise Movie rises again

One of the highlights of my teenage life was going to the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) with my dad.  For a number of consecutive years we travelled from the west coast to east coast to attend one of the premier film festivals in Europe.  We were astonished one year to discover that they screened a Surprise Movie.  To pay premium for something that you might not like – what a risk, what a thrill!  Greatly encouraged by the promo blurb, which told us that it was during one such screening that the first ever UK audience got to see Pulp Fiction, we snapped up the tickets, knowing that the intelligent folks at EIFF had better knowledge of how we should part with our cash than we did. This was my first foray into ‘event’ cinema.

The two Surprise Movies that I saw at EIFF were Analyse This (1999) and Planet of the Apes (2001). You may think, what a disaster, but we didn’t think so. We had travelled to the capital, had a coffee and cake (pre Starbucks boom in Scotland), sat in the cinema with like minded people, and were treated to an international star introducing their film.

The anticipation was immense; the lights in the auditorium go down, the first bars of music rise, a name appears on the screen (bloody casting agent), more words and names appear and we try to piece together their meaning, the puzzle offers up clues, murmurs of recognition rise (not from this teenager and her dad), some people are clapping now (smug bastards), the film’s title appears on the screen and you smile at each other – so much excitement and the curtains have just been drawn!  In such a situation, you can even forgive Tim Burton for letting down both himself, and a story of huge cultural and political significance; and Robert De Niro for his continued belief in himself as a comedic actor.

The audience at the Surprise Movie is a director’s dream – eagerly awaiting their entertainment, ready to laugh at the mere hint of humour, and less discerning that regular festival goers, as many have clearly panicked in the face of so much choice and checked their free-will at the door with their ticket stubs.  The Surprise Movie held weight at festivals for many years, as it was media worthy, appealed to film buffs and regular cinema goers alike, and was often high profile enough to gain sponsorship, for example, The List Magazine’s involved in Edinburgh.  It seemed important niche in-knowledge for film fans to find out what was screened and to discuss said choice.

However, some duff options over the years, as well as some too-close to release date options, resulted in the Surprise Movie in Edinburgh losing its credibility.  In the meantime, festivals were adding more and more ‘event’ cinema to their programming.  The Surprise Movie seemed less relevant, with EIFF making the decision to pull it from their programming between 2010-2012.

I’m pleased to see that EIFF 2013 has announced the return of the Surprise Movie following the hiatus. Whether the film turns out to be a hit or not, it is a screening that really epitomises the spirit of a good festival, where you should have to take chances on screenings and shouldn’t have mass aggregated knowledge of each film you see in advance.  It was my first experience of the heightened excitement that can arise from the communal anticipation of ‘event’ cinema.   Welcome back old friend!

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