I like to practice what I preach, so my movie philosophy is not only to encourage others into the cinema, but for me to spend as much time there as possible. Two years ago, I set a target of seeing 100 films in a year, which I hit in mid-December that year, but since then I’ve tried to be more sensible. As with any addict, that can only last so long before temptation sets in, so this year I’ve been swallowing up films again like they’re going out of fashion – as of yesterday, I’ve seen as many this year as I saw all of last year.
But what I’ve been looking to do this year is to enhance that movie-going experience. I’ve already had one trip to the IMAX (for Journey to Mecca), and have a double bill of Inception and Toy Story 3 coming up later this month. Every time I think about that, I can already hear Gary Barlow striking up Greatest Day in my head. So how to top it? Well, I’ve booked a week off work so I can do my local thing, the Cambridge Film Festival, but there still felt like more opportunities.
And for the last two years, I’ve read rather enviously about the Movie-Cons organised by Empire Magazine at the BFI in London. If the visit to the IMAX is like the cathedral of my movie evangelism, and the film festival my devotion or pilgrimage, then surely Movie-Con is all my Christmasses come at once. The chance to see movies early, to wallow in the absolute thrill of the cinema with 400-odd other devotees, felt too good to pass up. Unlike the other two, though, I had the feeling that getting a ticket wouldn’t be as easy.
So when the announcement came up this week, I had the feeling of just wanting to give it a go, but without a huge amount of expectation. When my subscription copy of Empire dropped on the mat this week, confirming Scott Pilgrim vs the World as the closing movie, all of a sudden my Edgar Wright guy love transformed this into a burning desire, and a realisation of just how much I wanted this, for a whole host of reasons.
Problem was, Edgar had also blogged and tweeted about it later on Monday, and I had a feeling my odds had dwindled somewhere way past 3,720 to 1 of actually getting in. Add to that the fact that tickets were being sold at the box office at the same time, and my chances were now tending towards zero.
But as luck would have it, I only had one conference call at 11:30, which I quickly moved to 14:00, allowing me time to make the necessary call. I work from home, and have a headset on my phone which gives me the luxury of being able to keep working while trying to get through to call centres and other such annoying institutions. So with other urgent work business out of the way at 11:30, I dialled the number. Engaged. Unsurprising, I was almost expecting it. So I tried again, and again. Still engaged.
Wondering if anyone else was having this problem, I brought up the Empire forum on my phone. And it looked like no-one was getting through, which was in its own way heartening. Then I saw a photo of the queue at the BFI, just as I managed to get into the queue for the first time. Then the reports of cut-offs started coming through.
And it was quickly obvious that the BFI’s phone system wasn’t designed for the level of demand it was receiving. More and more people were hitting the ten minute limit and being cut off, and it was over 20 minutes before the first report of someone getting through came in. So started a nightmarish cycle, of hammering repeatedly to get into the queue, then sitting in the ten minute wait to see if I got answered. My headset phone also has caller display, and on that display is a call timer. So each time I was in the queue, the timer was sat there, staring at me. I got on with some work to try to take my mind off, but there was the display, out of the corner of my eye, staring at me, and the closer it got to 10:00, or in my case 9:57, which is where it normally gave up and flatlined, the knot in my stomach grew tighter.
The next hour and a half was like Speed crossed with Groundhog Day. Each time the counter counting down inexorably, like the bus running out of gas, then the explosion, then it all started again. The time spend getting engaged tone got shorter each time, but then it started getting longer again, as people must have been taking their lunches and joining the melée. The whole forum experience made it more surreal; normally in a call queue there’s no awareness of the other consciousness also waiting to get through, but here it was clearly obvious the pain people were going through.
After an hour of the telephone torture, it became obvious that many people were going to miss out. As my wife’s not as big into movies as me (she did come and see two last weekend, but that’s her normal limit – I think I got her to three in a day once), I was planning a solo trip, but as they were selling two tickets per person, could I do the decent thing and get a spare to offer to one of the other tortured souls?
Like a rat in a particularly complex maze, I refused to give up. Stubbornness had taken over to the point where I had given up any hope of getting lunch. All the while, I knew that if the work mobile rang, I’d have to give up and answer it, and with a major review taking place the next day, that was just adding to the tension, if that was even possible. I could feel my heart beating in my chest, the blood pounding in my ears. 8:30… 9:00… 9:30… 9:50… 9:57… beeeeeeeep…
As time went on, the occasional happy story came back via the forum. But more were still holding, weeping, wailing and gnashing teeth than were getting anywhere. But for my complete refusal to accept certain defeat, I would have long since given up myself. I now tried cutting myself out of the queue at different time intervals, to see if I could get a better placement, knowing that rationally there was no reason why that should work – if anything, I’d be less likely to get through. Then the feeling kicked in. 7:00… 7:30…8:00 Do I drop out now, or hold my nerve for the full ten minutes? 8:30… 9:00… 9:30… Aah, lost it, punched the release key almost without thinking. Thank God for redial. Beep… boop… beep… boop… Redial. Queue again. 0:30… 1:00… 1:30…
All the while, the hold music, obviously never designed for people to be listening to it more than 30 seconds to a minute, kept looping round, like some ballad of broken dreams for all the massed willing urging the phone to answer and be replaced. Stories of people getting through and being cut off, almost as if the panic was feeding directly out of the queue and into the BFI staff, were coming back now. Then the realisation. It was now well after 13:00. Even if the mobile didn’t ring, and the supply of tickets didn’t dry up, I had a dead stop at 14:00. Too late to move that conference call again. I think it was at that point I actually started shaking…
Only once had I ever been this obsessive about anything. Ten years ago, I’d never been to a gig of any kind, and the Manic Street Preachers were playing at the Millennium Stadium on the night of the millennium. In my obsessive rush to get tickets, I ended up, two days before Christmas, handing over nearly twice the face value in a pub in Bristol, having left work at lunchtime and embarked on a quest into the unknown. At least that ended with me actually getting tickets. This looked to be two hours of pain with no pleasure at the end.
Chris Hewitt from the Empire staff had braved the forum, and was attempting to do his best to keep everyone calm and level headed, which I’m ashamed to say as a man of almost infinite patience, didn’t really work on me. (Sorry, Chris.) Still the waiting. People had gone through sacrifices (one even sitting in a pool of Diet Coke for 45 minutes, unwilling to leave the phone for a second). 1:00… 1:30… 2:00… Hello, BFI…
What? Shit, I’m through? I think my heart just exploded! Now, calm. He can’t hear me, he’s going to cut me off! Deep breaths! Speak slowly and clearly! Do I ask for his name, just in case? To be honest, he can be called Alphonso Doghouse XVII if he wants, as long as he sells me a ticket.
“How many would you like, sir?”
“Just the one, please.”
No, wait, I meant two. Damn. Arse. I could see sweat literally dripping from my pores now. Do I ask for a second ticket now and risk blowing the whole thing? He’s already started the booking process. Come on man, show some balls!
“Actually, could I change that to two tickets, please?” Nyinggg.
“Yes, of course, sir.” Phew. A minute later, it had all gone through and was done. Wait, I hadn’t asked which seats it was? Best in the house, he assured me, although it was two together.
So I’d done it, and could now share the love with another fellow struggler. Over the rest of the day, half a dozen people stuck their avatar’s hand up for the chance to keep me company, and it was only then that it dawned on me. For one of them, I’d be giving the happy release, but for the others I may actually end up making it worse.
Too late to back out now, though, as a spare seat may end up having my decapitated corpse on it while my head ends up in the bed of some unfortunate Empire hack, Godfather-style, as a warning to those who may organise future Movie-Cons. So a free draw for the spare place seemed the best solution; to my utter delight, two of the six managed to find other tickets before the draw.
I had grand visions on Tuesday night of how to conduct the draw. I had fantasised about a massive pristine draw machine. Brilliant gold balls, virginal white frontage, and a flunky handing me the balls on a silk cushion. But under the circumstances, I had to settle for this.
I would like to thank acclaimed American indie director Sheldon Peacedrake for filming so successfully in the Dogme style, and acclaimed RSC actor Judson Hudson for his riveting portrayal of a 36 year old man on the cusp of madness… You’re not buying this, are you. Yes, I’ve removed the veil of anonymity for the first, and hopefully last, time. That was me with a Pyrex bowl and some bits of paper, and Fever Dog, the man who showered himself in a pool of sticky cola, will hopefully have cleaned himself up by the time he joins me on the back row.
So is there anything we can learn from this? Maybe there’s a few ways that those involved could cover this better the next time.
1. Use an outsourcer to handle the phone calls
The biggest single problem wasn’t that people had to wait in a queue, it’s that they were cut off every 10 minutes, removing any sense of fairness from the process. There’s no shortage of call centres, and good ones in this country, that would happily take the business of taking a couple of thousand calls for the morning, and would have the infrastructure to handle it. Many major businesses already do this with key marketing campaigns. It would help keen the sense of justice in the process, which would be key to those losing out.
2. Take over the whole venue, or at least a bit more of it
The NFT1 has been chosen as the venue, and the BFI have made some very good points about the quality of the service they offer. But could this be extended to a smaller event in NFT2 or 3 to give some small solace to those who didn’t make the main venue, possibly alternating the sequence of previews and other activities? Having not been to one yet, not sure how practical that would be, but hopefully worth some consideration.
3. Use a different method to distribute the tickets
Maybe such high demand for such a small event is unsustainable in the current model. Perhaps some form of postal application would at least even things out. Radio 1’s Big Weekend music festival offers a commitment to local attendees to encourage the local economy, but this process has had the reverse effect, unnaturally biasing the attendees to those local to London who could get to the BFI and get tickets in person. If it’s this popular now, that process could get seriously out of hand if the demand continues to rise.
But now, at least for a little while, I can relax. Now all that I have to do is sit back, wait, swot like a madman for Kim Newman’s film quiz and wonder what I’m going to wear that makes me look hip and trendy, or as close as I’ll ever get.