Think Fast: Interactive Filmmaking Puts Consumers in the Spotlight (Or Is It Just an Illusion?) MIND(s that filled) THE GAP(s) [XI]
In 1967, the cinephiles attending that year’s edition of Expo Montreal were left with the experience of a lifetime, having been submerged into a new dimension of film-making. Radúz Činčera’s vision brought the audiences a new perspective, as his new movie, Kinoautomat, enabled the viewers to take a stand on the chance to direct the scenario by themselves. Thus, the trajectory of the film could be chosen and so, the viewers used voting buttons to decide the course of events in One Man and His House, a black and white satire on democracy written and directed by members of the Czech New Wave cinema (BOZAR 2020). A few generations later, as the technological revolution is unfolding, so does the shift towards a more digitized shape of the interactive movie. The now-renowned director’s daughter, Alena Činčerová, has carried on the work of her father, having restored and adapted the voting system by making it wireless, thus allowing any intrigued viewer to choose his own plot from the comfort of his home.
Still overthrown by video-games?
Czechoslovakian Činčera’s pioneering has since opened the path for more initiatives in the “industry” of interactive filmmaking, with several proposals for cinematography such as Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, or 1992’s first interactive motion-picture for North America, I’m Your Man. Still, various video games have recently been referred to as interactive movies. While the player can alter the game’s narrative through different options, changing the character itself or its personality is not possible, hence making the gaming experience similar to viewing a sequence of cut scenes.
Therefore, the video-game sector should be rightfully acknowledged as the primordial source of inspiration for directors in this area. Indeed, Netflix’s Bandersnatch provides clear evidence that introducing the concept of “interactive movie” to a broader audience is only successful in the case of a popular streaming platform: one that ensures visibility and whose efforts use comprehensive marketing campaigns. So, until new investment opportunities arise and directors come forward with the ambition to create such masterpieces, gaming giants may still dominate the market for a long period of time. For instance, CD Projekt Red, a Polish company, changed the way gaming is perceived with The Witcher series and plans to astonish the world of gaming in September 2020 with the long-awaited Cyberpunk 2077. yet another “breathtaking experience”, in the words of Keanu Reeves, who stars as a voice actor and model in the game. There is also, of course, the game Quantum Break, a shooter from 2016 by renowned Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment, which blended genres by attaching live action video cutscenes in the style of a TV series to a shooting game, where the cutscenes themselves changed according to predetermined choices during gameplay.
Ready, set… where to?
To read about Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, choose one of the following options that you prefer:
- Are you interested in what the artwork actually attempts to convey about the deeper meaning behind interactive filmmaking? Go to #2.
- Do you want to learn about Netflix’s business model? Go to #1.
- Are you intrigued and wish to gain insight into the film’s plot? Go to #3.
- Since changing their core business model in 2010 from delivering DVDs to monthly subscribers to unlimited movie and TV series downloads and streaming, Netflix has established itself as a game-changer in the industry. By increasing consumer power with regards to the way they consume content, the company has achieved something unforeseen: irreversibly altering consumption patterns, expectations and creating the now-infamous “binge-watching” behaviour. Suddenly, people had access to a library filled with thousands of movies ready to be accessed, just one click away. Needless to say, the next “logical” step in an avid film fanatic was the following: consume it all. Netflix quickly acknowledged the power that readily-available content wielded and began solidifying its position as a producer and distributor of original content.
So, when you add a global phenomenon such as the Black Mirror series to your online platform, you get regular people and international media talking. Thus, every new episode is awaited and “celebrated” like an important wedding in your family. All of these characteristics lay the groundwork for the success story of Bandersnatch.
- For weeks on end Black Mirror fans worked on decoding the film’s narrative branches, analysing its symbolism and attempting to uncover the meaning behind each ending of the story. Throughout the film, Bandersnatch makes statements about the use of technology and reflects on its own interactivity. As noted by Joshua Matthews (2019), one of the most basic points is that, in fact, consumer choice is an illusion. While viewers are given an array of options, they are not “free” to choose whatsoever – they are limited in their actions. The one that is actually in control is “The System”: the production team. Even though the consumption of interactive filmmaking shifts the viewer from a passive to an active user, no spectator is fully in control. Meta commentary on “free will vs. determinism” within a film or a book is far from being something revolutionary. However, in this case, innovation arises from the intricacy of the web of decisions in non-linear storytelling, the slight nods towards Netflix and how people consume television nowadays, and consumer engagement.
Todd Yellin, Netflix’s Vice President for Product, stated that “If bad things happen, you’ll feel even more crestfallen, because you were responsible. If the character is victorious, you’ll feel even more uplifted because you made that choice” (Streitfeld, 2020). It all boils down to the idea that personalized feature art and interactive push will engage consumers, making them more mindful about the fate of the characters if they are complicit.
- Black Mirror: Bandersnatch follows the story of a computer programmer, named Stefan Baxter, who aims to turn his favourite “choose-your-own-adventure” book into a video game. Without giving anything away, the viewer is exposed to different alternative realities and give numerous directions (remember: pre-defined by the creators of the show) that can take Stefan through various occurrences: suicide, fighting, self-harm, or even murder. Throughout the movie, the mentally-disturbed main character experiences an intensifying feeling that someone is watching and controlling him (a double-entendre, if you may).
The average viewing time is around 90 minutes, which is a rather normal duration for a typical movie. Depending on the “choices” a viewer makes, the film can even end after 40 minutes. In contrast, a complete viewing that would translate to experiencing all available options and reaching all alternate endings would take many hours.
Interactive films vs. Non-interactive viewers
New technologies are taking over our lives as we speak and not a single day passes by without hearing about it. They have already changed the aspects of how we live and work, whether we like it or not. Hence, why all industries were quick to acknowledge that they must update and upgrade their practices in order to survive on the extremely dynamic market.
Having a look at the evolution of the film industry, it is rather clear that fast-paced technological advancement enables producers to deliver unique viewing experiences to their audience. 3D movies are no longer making an outstanding appearance on the market as we can already talk about 7D or even 9D-cinema experiences. However, what is quite intriguing is that filmmakers are adopting a fairly sceptical attitude towards using these breakthrough technologies in their creations. In an era in which most of the industries and sectors are striving to keep pace with tech development, the film industry seems to stick with traditional production methods. The philosophy behind it is not much of a… philosophy. Not only are the (opportunity) costs immense for producing interactive content, but viewers do not appear to be willing to encourage the trend either.
Interactive, “choose-your-own-adventure” types of movies are produced at great costs. Clearly, the financial investment of delivering high-quality content is already high even without adding all of the extra costs associated with producing interactive storytelling. Each decision made by the viewer at key points in the movie requires a whole different storyline and ending, implying more time devoted to writing the narrative as well as shooting differing scenes from different angles. This “stop-and-go” interaction is vulnerable to constant interruption and loss of attention on the part of the audience. Thus, studios have to make additional efforts to avoid exposing viewers to a fragmented experience. With more interactive elements introduced throughout the story, producers have a hard time competing with the linear storytelling everyone is accustomed to. The larger public still leans towards winding down and passively watching the story on their screens, from the comfort of their own couch or bed.
Surely, having (what seems to be) control over what characters would do or say might create a sense of belonging to the plot. However, this new concept proves to be unpleasant when the viewing experience becomes tiresome from all of the interruptions. Likewise, the audience tends to lose interest when the outcome is not what the viewer expects it to be, despite having the chance to influence the story.
We are still experimenting with the future of entertainment. Although key players in the industry have already started investing in novel experiences for their consumers, it is still a long way until interactive content becomes a favourite among viewers. After all, the director of Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, Robert Thompson, made a great point by claiming that “the fact remains that one of the reasons we pay Hollywood writers, producers and directors so much money is because they are presumably better at it than the crowd” (Lee, 2018).
Although the future of such endeavours is uncertain, Činčera made a long-lasting impact on the movie industry. The success of Bandersnatch and its format could have the potential to transcend fads. For Netflix, interactive filmmaking may become a new revenue stream that could easily become the “new normal”, similar to the adoption of the “binge-watching” consumer behaviour. Despite its high production costs, innovative filmmaking has some clear advantages: it is difficult to pirate due to its multiple storylines, its “puzzle” nature increases consumer engagement and the data collected from users expands a company’s marketing infrastructure and endeavours.
Will other technological advancements, such as Virtual Reality (VR), shape the way we consume video content? What is the future of at-home entertainment? As previously mentioned, one is not fully in control of the outcome. The System is.
BOZAR (2020). Kinoautomat. [online] Available at:
https://www.bozar.be/en/activities/1912-kinoautomat [Accessed 29 April 2020].
Lee, W. (2018). Netflix to experiment with interactive TV, letting viewers choose an ending for ‘Black Mirror’ film [online] Los Angeles Times. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/business/hollywood/la-fi-ct-netflix-black-mirror-20181228-story.html [Accessed 24 April 2020].
Matthews, J. (2019). Netflix review: Bandersnatch.
Streitfeld, D. (2020). Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Is an Experiment on Us – Netflix Explain Why the Interactive Episode Is the Grimmest Yet. [online] The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/black-mirror-bandersnatch-netflix-interactive-charlie-brooker-interview-a8701626.html [Accessed 29 April 2020].