A contract to believe. What makes cinema special

Perhaps it’s the smell of the popcorn. Maybe it’s the bright lights of a cinema on a dark street. It could be that you’re among strangers. There’s something magical about going to the movies that starts long before the movie does. And, remarkably, that magic has never dimmed. Do we feel the same excitement turning on the TV as people did in the 1950s when entire families gathered round the TV set? Of course, we don’t. The TV is just there in the corner of the room now. Turn it on in an instant. Off just as quickly.  At home, we increasingly dual screen: TV on, mobile device in our hands, with our attention who knows where.

A different world with different rules

But cinema, and cinemas are special. Because they ask more of you and demand your exclusive attention in an age when attention spans are notoriously short. You’re here to watch the movie and that’s it, not scroll your social media or have a conversation. The shushing would be deafening. You’re in a different world now, with different rules.

So, while the content can often be the same, the way we watch films in cinemas compared to in our homes diverges daily. And it’s obvious that you’ll never be fully immersed in a filmmaker’s world when you still have an eye on your own. When we enter a cinema, we make an agreement to believe. We promise to give our full attention to the screen and to immerse ourselves in its imaginary world. Perhaps cinema is better at taking you somewhere else because it is somewhere else.

A portal to different places

Once, there was no doubt cinemas were portals to other worlds; they were called picture palaces, named after ancient Greek theatres, and decorated with Art Deco flourishes. But even though modern cinema design owes more to functionality than fantasy, the same agreement to believe still stands: the portal is still open.

And today’s portals, while perhaps not as flamboyant as those of the past, offer an experience many magnitudes better. The imaginary worlds we now agree to enter envelop us in vivid imagery and sound inconceivable only a few years ago and wholly unattainable at home. RGB pure laser projection and surround sound like Vive Audio’s mean it doesn’t matter whose world it is — Oppenheimer’s or Barbie’s, Superman’s or Shakespeare’s — that world will, for two hours, exclude all others.

We re-emerge into that other world, the one we inhabit in our daily lives, and feel curiously refreshed. We’ve spent two hours freed from everyday concerns, news feeds, and social media chatter. That’s something you can’t even find on a beach these days, and it’s yours, for the price of a ticket, at your local multiplex.

Call it escapism, an immersive experience, or multi-sensory, but whatever you call it, there’s nothing like it. And there’s nowhere else you can find it but in a cinema.