Empire Presents: BIG SCREEN

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If you’ve been living on Mars for the last twenty-two years, you may not be aware that probably the most successful film magazine in print in the world is British, and it’s called Empire. (If you’ve been living on Mars, you’ve apparently got six arms and look like an extra from Attack Of The Clones, but more on that later.) Not only have the lovely staff at Empire Towers managed to put words and pretty pictures on paper for you twelve times a year for all of those past twenty-two years, but they’ve also branched out into other activities, and I don’t mean internets and Twitters and Chris Hewitt becoming slightly more famous. No, they’ve been hosting a well attended and publicly voted Movie Awards each spring and, for the past three years, a public event called Movie-Con at the BFI in London, with Hollywood stars in attendance and sneak previews of upcoming films.

Last year, one of those sneak previews was Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and when Edgar Wright casually announced this to the world on Twitter an unprecedented demand  caused heavy over-subscription for the available tickets, and a meltdown of the BFI’s phone lines caused a lot of people to miss out. So the event had to grow, to be fair to the hundreds, possibly thousands, of fans disappointed last year. I had a mild coronary in the process of attempting to get tickets, as you may recall, but managed to get in and take another with me. Despite being on the back row and a host of other assorted dramas on the first day, I had an amazing time and have been counting down the days ever since like the rabid fanboy I so clearly am.

NFT1 at the BFI, home of previous Movie-Cons and now haunted by Astroboy from Movie-Con II.

Some of those counted days have managed to be even more traumatic and stressful than last year. If you think spending two hours trying to get through on a nightmarish phone system was bad, then this year did what all good sequels do and made it bigger and more dramatic in every respect. Last year, everyone sat in the same room for the duration (see above) and had largely the same experience, but this year there were a whole host of things going on. Except when I and a lot of others attempted to book tickets for these extra session, the booking system completely cancelled our tickets, and I then spent three days having phone conversations with people at the ticket booking company, the majority of whom seemed to be in possession of less information than I was. I’m a patient and calm person by nature, but the thought for three days that I might not be going, and that even if I was I may have missed out on all of the good films and sessions (as much of Saturday was booked up, for example) was enough to make me so irate that when one lady had finished talking to me, she made a noise which was a mixture of released exasperation and relief and I can only describe as the sound of a talking jellyfish being shot. It’s fascinating to realise the effect I can have on some people…

Thankfully I only missed out on one of the nine sessions I’d tried to book. Of course, if the ticket company had ever sent me those tickets, then I wouldn’t have had to spend an hour queuing outside the O2 last Friday morning and then have a frantic dash into the Indigo at the last minute, but let’s not dwell on the small things. While in the queue, there’s been a tradition for the past two years of a goodie bag, organised by the self-styled Forumites, the lovely group of people brought together by the Movie-Con thread on the Empire forum, and bonded together through the repeated experience of living in ticketing hell. Some fantastic stuff goes into that bag, all donated through the generosity of those who meet up and socialise at this event, so imagine my sheer delight when I won a DVD copy of The Ex! Bateman! Braff! Together at last. This conveniently sized receptacle made a handy ticket wallet for the duration of the weekend, and also made most people think I was even more mad than usual, clutching a movie that rates a whopping 19% on Rotten Tomatoes closely to my chest for the whole weekend. But no one stole my tickets, did they?

What followed was three days of cinematic goodness, served as an extended banquet, although one with rather more running about than your average sit-down meal. Rather than attempt to share my detailed thoughts on the whole event, I’ll just pick out a few highlights of what, by and large, was another excellent weekend.

It’s time to play the music

No matter how old you are, you had to be a child at some point – that’s just a biological fact.  The above clip is an ideal test of how connected you are to that child, and on Sunday over 1,000 people in the awkwardly-named IndigO2 sat down and allowed those barely repressed children to come fully to the fore. For over half an hour, The Luckiest Man In The World, also known as Chris Hewitt, interviewed James Bobin (director) and Kermit The Frog (legend) about their new movie, called The Muppets. We saw Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and Animal in the segment, as well as an outstanding extended clip from the new film, which I can only describe as Pixar good, but with Muppets instead of CG animation. We laughed, we cried, we booed the guy at the back who said Kermit was getting old during his question, and I’ve still not shaken the grin off my face yet. Utterly and completely awesome.

The cat that found the cream

I’m wearing boots and a hat, but no trousers. Why do they always do that with cartoon characters?

The morning sessions consisted of panels, generally in the style of the previous Movie-Con, with studios hawking their wares, often with the presence of A-list stars, or MyAnna Buring. There were two other total crowd pleasers which had the assembled geeks and movie lovers whooping and hollering – the set-up scene from Final Destination 5, and the opening ten minutes of Puss In Boots. Final Destination 5’s set up (i.e. the bit where everyone dies the first time, before Death comes to pick them off again, one by one) is set on a collapsing bridge this time and the 3D was put to thrillingly gory and inventive use. Even better was Puss In Boots, which looks to have risen well above the weaker elements of the last two Shrek sequels and to be a genuinely satisfying standalone film, consistently funny and with an even more hilarious cat moment than Banderas’ original big-eyed pleading, this is one to really look forward to come December.

Other exclusive footage included some superbly atmospheric footage from the Gary Oldman starring remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; an extended video intro and some extra footage from the Spielberg / Jackson Tintin movie, and a long first look at Spielberg’s War Horse; an extended reel from the new futuristic Justin Timberlake movie In Time; a collection of impressive scenes from Ralph Fiennes’ modern day Coriolanus; two scenes from the new Disney movie John Carter (apparently from Mars, but you no longer get that in the title, and looking like Attack Of The Clones meets new Conan); a fight scene from Paul WS Anderson’s The Three Musketeers – which was announced to be faithful to the book to much guffawing from the regulars; and a whole array of trailers. The one big disappointment was that the much touted Brave preview turned out to be just the trailer – just shows how much love there is for Pixar, despite Cars 2.

There was also some other stuff, including D-Rad in The Woman in Black, The Amazing Spider-Man (including a first sighting of The Lizard) and the new Aardman animation, but sadly I missed all of this for two reasons: there were other panels going on and I wanted to at least catch some of them, and also by that point my neck was so sore I thought my head was about to fall off. Consider the Puss In Boots picture from earlier in this post. If it had been projected onto the IndigO2’s temporary screen, and I looked straight ahead in my seat, then I would have been able to see this much of that picture:

I can almost see his tiny cat paw.

Consequently, by Saturday morning my neck had been contorted into such a strange position for so long that I was beginning to look like the star of the latest exorcism movie (for which we also got a trailer). What was especially frustrating on that front is that the diamond panels were held in two venues:

  1. The IndigO2, with over 1,000 uncomfortable seats, almost none of which faced directly at the stage, and a temporary screen so precarious that many people in the front rows must have lived in fear of it falling on them for the weekend; indeed, when at one point Mark Gatiss put his hand on it, it looked for all the world like it was about to go.
  2. The Sky Superscreen in the Cineworld, with almost 800 seats, all of which were incredibly comfy and directly faced the frankly enormous screen. Imagine seeing the latest Hollywood content being projected onto a screen even bigger than Tom Cruise’s ego, and you get the idea.

Unfortunately, the ticket sold to me was in the IndigO2, and even if I’d moved to the Superscreen with the wristband I’d been given, it would have screwed up my schedule for the rest of the day. Werner Herzog once said, “You should look straight at a film; it’s the only way to see one.” He would not have been a fan of the IndigO2. But the chance to get to at least a couple of morning panels was worth the effort.

Never underestimate the power of Twitter. Or biscuits.

So rather than a consistent stream of content delivered to the same group of people, eight of the other nine screens at the Cineworld were filled with a variety of panels; discussions with film makers, making of and memories discussions, showings of old and new films and a host of other things. From what I understand, the quality of these was varied, to say the least, as a lot of panel attendees didn’t make it and some of the Pixar films had screening issues. However, the David Arnold interview I attended was excellent, if slightly distracting by virtue of Mr Arnold’s back catalogue playing on a loop in the background during the interview, and a panel debating the merit and worth of film journalism. This was hosted by Empire freelancer Anna Smith, and other attendees included Karen Krizanovich, former Empire staffer Olly Richards and fellow blogger The Incredible Suit. The Suit (or Neil to his mother) started the Blogalongabond collective which I also write for, so when I saw this appear on his Twitter feed at the exact moment I was walking past Tesco Express:

the only sensible and decent thing to do seemed to be to take the man some biscuits. After 30 or so seconds of internal biscuit debate, I settled on a packet of Chocolate Hob-nobs. The debate wasn’t exactly fiery, and seemed to settle on “critics should write true to their heart, and you should find one you like the views of to follow, and one you like to read the style of but don’t like the views of for contrast”, which is fair enough. I don’t think Karen Krizanovich liked my questions, or possibly she has a biscuit allergy of some sort, but it felt like she was giving me evils for the last ten minutes. Anyway, it was worth it just for this:

I was then mentioned in The Suit’s blog, and the biscuits made a cameo in Ultra Culture’s blog too. Those biscuits are now more famous than I am – they are my inanimate carbon rod.

What, you thought you needed another challenge or something?

As if the panels and trailers weren’t enough, I’d also become aware of a particular personal milestone that I could achieve while at BIG SCREEN. Three years ago, I set myself the challenge of watching 100 films in the cinema in a calendar year. It was a struggle, but I eventually made it to 107, and swore I’d never do anything quite so stupid again. Then last year, with Movie-Con and the Cambbridge Film Festival boosing my numbers, I hit 100 on September 26th. This year, I’ve been away for work a lot on my own, and had nothing better to do, other than work, than find a local cinema and take in their offering. So it became apparent about two weeks ago that I could hit 100 this year while at BIG SCREEN.

Sadly, the rioting, my own workload and general tiredness nearly put an end to that. Seven of my booked sessions were film screenings, but on the Tuesday before the event I was too tired to go out, and missed a planned viewing of Sarah’s Key with Kristin Scott Thomas. This left me arriving at BIG SCREEN needing to see eight films to hit the magic number. With no schedule gaps on any other day, Friday was the key day – a TBC session at 18:00 (which, I understand, never was confirmed as anything) had to go. My first option was the secret screening – I sauntered down at the agreed start time in the hope that the rumoured film would cause a large number of exits, only to discover a long queue for standby seats. Even more frustratingly, if I’d been there about five minutes earlier, I’d have most likely gotten it, and would have seen the Tom Hardy / Joel Edgerton fighting movie Warrior, which everyone that saw raved about.

Instead, having then gone to the bar and missed the start of original Conan The Barbarian, I was left with only one choice to hit my 100 over the weekend, the 90s Richard Stanley futuristic horror Hardware.

Hi there. I’m the killer robot from Hardware. At one point near the end I break off from chasing my victims and go a bit techno.

It was projected off what looked to be about the quality of a VHS video, and even said “Play >” in the top left hand corner at the start.

It wasn’t very good.

The other films I saw over the weekend were, with the exception of Cowboys & Alienzzzzzz. I could have paid £30 to attend the premiere on Thursday night and seen Ford, Craig and Favreau – based on the quality of the movie, I’m glad I kept my money. The remaining films were Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (where Tom Felton comes across far meaner than he ever did in Harry Potter), 30 Minutes Or Less (Aziz Ansari excellent, Danny McBride fairly annoying) and Red State (Kevin Smith the writer making a horror / siege movie, where the standout work was from Kevin Smith the director).

I also saw two of my favourite films of the year, both 10/10 cast iron classics and I cannot recommend them enough – Drive, the secret screening I did get to, with Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling, who might just be the best young actor working today, and The Guard, which could be the funniest film I’ve seen in the cinema in several years, and has pathos to back it up as well. Both of those films were followed by Q & A sessions with the director – sadly I couldn’t stay for Nicholas Winding Refn, as I had to get to C & A (and what a mistake that was), and John Michael McDonagh, who announced when he arrived that he was hungover and then proceeded to be just as hilarious and politically incorrect as his film.

Which meant that, by the final screening of the event, I was on 99, and David Tennant himself made a special appearance to introduce film 100 for me.

David Tennant, on stage with Chris Hewitt. Not long enough for me to work out how to use the zoom on my camera phone, as it turns out.

Fright Night is a lot of fun, and Tennant himself steals the entire movie, but I would recommend catching it in 2D if you actually want to see what’s going on, as the very dark scenes are made worse by the 3D effect. Imagine the above image, but muddier.

So anyways, I did it. I arrived at the big 100 at BIG SCREEN, and am now desperately trying not to set myself a higher target, so as to risk increasingly outlandish methods of attempting to achieve it. You would think watching Gnomeo and Juliet and Mr. Popper’s Penguins (both in the 100) would teach me a lesson. Apparently not. Film 101 is looking like either The Inbetweeners Movie or The Smurfs 3D with my wife at the weekend. May God have mercy on my soul.

A very British endeavour

There were two other activities that BIG SCREEN attendees could partake in during the three day event. One was the Hollywood Boulevard, where you could get your photo taken as a pirate or with a giant fighty robot, or you could get a photo of a giant piece of movie memorabilia.

Next year, could you please arrange for me to take this out and drive it around like a nutcase? Thanks.

I also saw everything from the giant car from Cars to a full size Dalek, making sure my geek buttons were well and truly pressed. The Hollywood Boulevard was also home to the Empire offices for the weekend, which I visited twice, once to pick up my personal goodie bag (which included Black Dynamite on DVD, the novel Game of Thrones and both Haribo and Maltesers – top work, Empire) and once to sit down on the nice comfy sofa – I’m not as young as I was, y’know.

The other event that most attendees participated in regularly was queueing. There were several different types of queuing available over the course of the weekend:

  • Queuing simultaneously in two different queues
  • Queuing in a queue which ended up being reversed completely so the front was at the back
  • Queuing to get into a queue, to get in turn to another queue
  • Queuing to get into a queue to not get into an event
  • Waiting near other queues for your own queue to start (officially described by BIG SCREEN organisers as “hovering – over there, please”)
  • Queuing outside in the rain for events inside in the dry

and many more. On being told to queue for my first film on Friday, I returned one minute later with my wrist band to the bottom of the Cineworld escalators, advised I had a wristband and was let straight through. On arriving at the screening, I discovered I was behind the first queue, so there were already over 200 people in the screening.

Determined to be in at least the front queue for each subsequent event, this became harder as staff became wiser to such tactics. For the secret screening on Saturday, we were again sent to queue outside. The staff at the escalator weren’t letting anyone up, nor indeed those on the stairs. However, the lift had remained seemingly unguarded, so I valiantly led a group to that lift and we ascended to the first floor. The doors opened, and two heavily armed Stormtroopers were stood there, pointing their guns straight at us.

“This is not the floor you’re looking for.”

I never thought stormtroopers were that scary. Or indeed, funny. But apparently I was wrong. They were just weak-minded fools, though, as a claim of  “we’re here for the Death Star canteen” got us through, and we were able to join the back of the very long queue upstairs. Funnily enough, the lift was barricaded off by Sunday. You just can’t get the Stormtroopers, it seems.

The 02. A big enough venue so that no Stormtrooper bumps his head on the way in.

Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes

A quote from Johann von Goethe there, and a very appropriate one. BIG SCREEN most definitely wasn’t Movie-Con, despite most of us from the forum wearing our Movie-Con badges and even a fine array of T-shirts and other knick-knacks. I was wearing the “Keep Calm and Movie-Con” T-shirt also modelled by our host Chris Hewitt From Empire Magazine on Friday, and that and the badge prompted the following exchange with a fellow attendee:

(said to a friend) “Oh look, he’s one of those Movie-Con people that can’t let go of the past.”

“I’m quite happy with change, as long as it’s for the better.”

“And is it?”

“I’ll let you know on Sunday.”

(to friend as I had turned and walked away) “Hmm, diplomatic.”

Of course, you only thing of the witty retort once you’ve left – in my case it would probably have been to scream at him, “You cheeky ****er!” then run off in the other direction and find a corner to cry in. I don’t do confrontations.

The only way to settle this of course, is to see which is better. I liked Movie-Con III, but I also liked BIG SCREEN. So which is better? There’s only one way to find out! FIIII… no, wait, how about some in-depth analysis?

Cost of the event

Movie-Con III price: £35.

BIG SCREEN price for 3 Day Diamond ticket: £150.

This is a little misleading, however: at Movie-Con III, there were only two screenings included, for The Expendables and Scott Pilgrim. For an extra tenner a go, you could have also added The Hole In 3D, 22 Bullets, Despicable Me or Cyrus. I saw eight films at BIG SCREEN, all included in the ticket price, and had my schedule been different, I could have seen other new releases including The Change-Up, Friends With Benefits, Troll Hunter, Conan The Barbarian 3D, The Help or Crazy, Stupid, Love. I also got a veteran’s discount which took £50 off the ticket price. So the actual comparable cost would have been £75 for last year, to see everything, and £100 for this year to be fully occupied for the whole three days.

Hollywood talent

There was an inescapable feeling that some of the Hollywood big names either couldn’t be arsed this year, or were too worried about a bunch of hoodies in trainers setting light to the place. Wimps. Anyway, the talent roster present was;

Movie-Con III: Danny Boyle, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hiddleston, Daniel Radcliffe, Gareth Edwards, Rodrigo Cortes, Chloe Moretz, Cary Elwes, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, James Purefoy, Jason Flemyng, Edgar Wright and Bryan Lee O’Malley.

BIG SCREEN: Mark Gatiss, Idris Elba, Bradley James, Peter Straughan, MyAnna Buring, Guy Ritchie, Peter Lord, Peter Baynham, Nicholas Winding Refn, Andre Ovredal, Chloe Moretz, Dominic Cooper, Tom Six, Ben Wheatley, David Arnold, Roland Emmerich, Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, Mark Strong, Gareth Edwards, Joe Cornish, Sullivan Stapleton, Shaun Levy, The Muppets, Nic Roeg, John Michael McDonagh, Jason Momoa and David Tennant, and probably a fair few others I’ve missed. There was also an extended video of Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg.

The difference is that, if you were at Movie-Con, you should have seen everyone on the top list; if you were at BIG SCREEN, you may have seen half those people if you were lucky.


Movie-Con III: Two included film previews plus four more paid for separately, first look footage of A Town Called Panic, Captain America, Thor, Cowboys & Aliens, Skyline, Monsters, Buried, Let Me In, Saw 3D, The Chronicles Of Narnia 3, Legend Of The Guardian, The Hole, The Way Back, Harry Potter 7, Tron: Legacy, Paul, Battle: Los Angeles, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Ironclad and Brighton Rock, plus a bunch of trailers you could see on the internet, and the talent listed above.

BIG SCREEN: Nine panels or sessions including a selection from 13 advanced screenings, first look footage of In Time, Titanic 3D, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Merlin (TV), Immortals, Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, Contagion, Final Destination 5, Kill List, The Pirates, The Amazing Spider-Man, Drive, Haywire, The Woman In Black, Footloose, Puss In Boots, The Adventures Of Tintin: TSOTU, Coriolanus, Strike Back: Project Dawn (TV), Real Steel, John Carter, War Horse and The Muppets, plus a bunch of trailers you could see on the internet, which you could see again in front of most of the advanced screenings, and the talent listed above. Oh, and nine screens full of other panels, sessions and classic screenings of wildly varying quality that you could attend any of it you had a diamond ticket.

In conclusion

To me, it felt as if Movie-Con was a unique experience, small but perfectly formed, and I arrived at Movie-Con III and witnessed it in all its glory. BIG SCREEN was a transitional experience to something much bigger and better – yes, some of the intimacy was lost, but actually in terms of value and content it was always at least comparable, and in many ways exceeded its predecessor. If three main changes can be achieved for next year:

  1. Find a better venue for the Diamond panels – I never want to set foot in the IndigO2 again if I can help it. Other suggestions have included the Sky Superscreen in the Cineworld, the various Leicester Square cinemas or the BFI IMAX.
  2. Sort out the shambles of a ticketing process – I don’t think anyone’s in a rush to see See Tickets again.
  3. Sort out the shambles of a queuing process – the Stormtroopers may not be as generous next time.

Edit: Following a conversation on Twitter, I have a fourth suggestion (and no, this isn’t the Spanish Inquisition, but thanks for asking): There was a lot of good content, but to many people it didn’t feel like there was as much as last year, when looking at the lists above, that’s at the very least debatable. So next year, it really needs to be easier to get to all of the best content – possibly the Diamond ticket also includes the Secret Screenings, for example?

If these changes can be achieved, then I have every confidence that BIG SCREENs II, III and XLVIII will continue to be must-see events in my annual moviegoing calender.

Right, when are Cambridge Film Festival tickets out…?

11 thoughts on “Empire Presents: BIG SCREEN

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    September 2, 2011 at 11:25 pm

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