You’re sitting down in the cinema to watch a film. The protagonist on screen is about to make a life-or-death decision. But what if you could influence that?
That’s the concept behind CTRLMovie, a game-changing interactive technology that could revolutionise the moviegoing experience. This week, film fans in the UAE will get the chance to tap "Yes" or "No" with the release of Late Shift, a Bafta-winning heist movie concerning the theft of a priceless piece of Ming Dynasty porcelain.
The film, in cinemas from Thursday, is inspired by the bestselling Choose Your Own Adventure fantasy book series, which allows readers to page-turn to different destinies.
“Late Shift is genuinely the first ‘choose your own adventure’ film ever made,” says its Lebanese producer Chady Eli Mattar.
In 2017, he teamed up with Tobias Weber, the Swiss-born director of Late Shift and inventor of the CTRLMovie technology, to form Kino Industries. The company now strikes deals with major studios as Hollywood begins to explore this vibrant new format.
The concept is simple enough: ticketholders can download an app on their phone, which is then used during the film to vote on story points at vital moments in the narrative.
“Obviously the choice goes to the majority, and then it changes the storyline,” says Mattar. “You never watch the same film twice. You have almost in the billions of possibilities.”
With 180 “decision points”, more than four hours of filmed material and seven alternate endings, the pathways through Late Shift do indeed seem almost unlimited.
British actor Joe Sowerbutts stars in the film as Matt, a student who becomes embroiled in a theft at a London auction house. It has already been released in Asia, appearing in cinemas in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and even at the Beijing International Film Festival. At a time when cinemas are struggling, owing to the rise of streaming platforms and the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s a novel way to entice people back to the movies, says Mattar.
“It’s the core heart of a communal experience. You really have to see it in the theatre with people to believe it because the reaction is off the charts.”
The film is also available on gaming platforms – meaning you could theoretically sit at home and entirely influence the decision-making process. This is hardly new in the gaming universe, with PlayStation titles such as the film noir Heavy Rain (2010) and Beyond: Two Souls (2013) having already experimented with the format.
Similarly, Netflix produced interactive episodes of Black Mirror (2018’s Bandersnatch) and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2020’s Kimmy vs the Reverend), allowing users to influence the outcome via their remote control.
The difference of watching in cinemas is that it plays into the idea of the communal experience. Already, says Mattar, the team behind the film have witnessed groups of friends return for a second viewing, this time with bigger numbers to “overtake the house” and influence the outcome of the story.
“We’ve seen it many times,” he says. “It becomes of this rivalry … we’re going to take over and we’re going to do whatever we want.” Those who have seen the film already can also influence the party. “They’re like ‘Don’t make that choice! Why would you choose this?’”
As a business model, CTRLMovie technology bucks the idea that the cinema isn’t designed for repeat business. In essence, audiences watch a film and rarely come back for seconds – although Hollywood’s love of sequels, prequels and spin-offs has been designed to create brand loyalty.
“But what if you have the opportunity to actually go back to the same thing you loved so much and alter it, play with it and dive deeper into it?” says Mattar, who points out that Late Shift has an average viewership of 3.7 times. “That’s higher than Avatar repeat business.”
The question is, however, is this a gimmick or the start of a big-screen revolution? The answer could be both. Cast your mind back to James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar and you’ll recall that the 3D format was set to dramatically shift the cinemagoing landscape – and for a while it remained hugely popular. But audience tastes change. Then again, it’s easy to see CTRLMovie becoming a theatrical staple, alongside singalong screenings of musicals or broadcasts of live concerts and plays.
Whether cinema chains – already beleaguered after the financial disaster of closed screens amid the pandemic – will be brave enough to show Late Shift remains to be seen.
“I think exhibitors … to differentiate themselves and make themselves more valuable and [more] into the 21st century and digital world, they have to take in new technologies, they have to give their users experiences and reasons to come back to the cinema,” says Mattar. “Everybody has a big screen now. Everybody has access to great content. Exhibition needs something new.”
He pays tribute to Middle East cinema chain Vox for being forward-thinking in this regard. “I would say Vox is, right now, the leader of this in the world.”
At a time when the theatrical box office is being cannibalised by simultaneous streaming releases – as seen with Disney films Cruella, Black Widow and Jungle Cruise – Vox’s stance is certainly innovative.
“They will be taking CTRLMovie in Saudi Arabia and I think that will set a flag that is just incredible.”
As far as the future is concerned, Mattar believes Late Shift is just the start. Already in talks with Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin, as well as major Hollywood studios including Paramount and Disney, Kino Industries is developing interactive movies in myriad genres.
With everything from romantic comedies and a Christmas-themed movie to – believe it or not – a documentary and biopic, there’s even an animated series aimed at children and inspired by the Choose Your Own Adventure series.
Remarkably, Kino Industries has also developed software to allow studio executives to read scripts in the same interactive fashion.
“You could theoretically have written your script on [screenwriting program] Final Draft and you import it into our software, and it basically creates those [narrative] branches for you,” Mattar says.
The “all-encompassing” technology is ready; but will it catch on? Mattar is convinced it will. “We believe this is going to be the future in entertainment.”
Late Shift is at Vox cinemas in the UAE from Thursday