Lighting the Shade: An Interview with The Shadow Electric – Part Two

In Part Two of our interview with The Shadow Electric, we talk with Jean Lizza, Programmer & Communications Coordinator, about the rise in event cinema, what patrons can expect this year, and what makes them stand out.

The Shadow Electric’s film programme has started earlier this season than ever before. Previously beginning in January, the screenings now start at the back end of November, with only one non-operational day in a week. When asked what sets them apart from other event or outdoor cinemas, Jean discusses the unique location and their commitment to excellence in terms of technology, again with a nod to cinema’s history. “The other day one of the oldest projectionists in Australia came to visit, and occasionally…you get a blessing from one of the old projectionists. He said it was the best set up outdoor cinema that he’s seen in Australia. That is a huge goal of ours, to achieve an experience that’s not only about leveraging on the fact that you’re outdoors in a 19th Century Convent (which in itself is a great experience), but [giving] the best possible projection and sound that you can ever have in an outdoor cinema.” For Jean, The Shadow Electric’s setting makes it very different to other venues, “when you go to other outdoor cinemas, they’re often in these like sort-of sprawling, grassed areas, which is great, except in terms of actual projection and in terms of exhibition you then have wind, you have all these issues, [things] like the sound disperses. At The Shadow Electric we’re in a courtyard, so essentially what you get is all the great things about being in an indoor theatre, but being outdoors. There’s a lot more control in terms of how things are exhibited, but with being in a lovely space – that’s the big difference, and people notice the difference between going to a pop-up cinema and the means that they have.” With a Barko 2k projector, Function 5.1 speaker system, a screen imported from Los Angeles “[which] has these tiny crystal beads sewn into it, so even if you’re standing this close to it, you can make out the image,” Jean says “there’s an enormous amount of money and time and energy that has gone into just the exhibition alone…. And that’s really again because we worked in cinemas for so long, and I’m like ‘I’m not working for a cinema that’s doing a shit job, I’m just not doing it’.”

The focus on community engagement is behind their expansion beyond just showing films. They have the previously mentioned band room where acts like Tex Perkins, Courtney Barnett, and The Bombay Royale perform each night before the film season begins, the bar which serves local brews, both alcohol and caffeine based, and a rotation of food trucks representing local businesses for each screening. Jean sees it as the creation of a whole package that sets them apart from a general release cinema. “Often people just come and hang out in the space and enjoy it, then they can go to the cinema, or they don’t. We’ve got Ping-Pong tables, you can spend hours there; we’ll have our third Bill Crosby cup this year, and people are serious, like serious about table tennis. We had some serious Swedish dudes in the first year who were like Forrest Gump, it’s pretty sensational stuff. It’s pretty cool to be able to tap into that interest, when you’re like ‘I wonder if people like Ping-Pong?’ ‘Oh yes they really, really do.’ We have DJs on the weekends, we try to engage with as many local acts as possible, it’s all just there, and you can have whatever experience you want. That’s the cool thing, you could come and spend like seven hours at Shadow Electric on a weekend, it opens at 12, you could sit there all day, you could drink, walk around the Convent, come back, and then you could watch a movie in the afternoon. Or you could come at like 7:30 and just sit for the film. That’s just kind of what we’re trying to achieve, just a really fun space.”

The past few years have seen an explosion in the popularity of pop-up and outdoor cinemas, and it’s partly this ‘complete’ experience that’s behind it. “In a way it’s like a throwback to cinema from the 50s and 60s – when you went to the cinema historically it was an event, it was something you’d get actually dressed up for. Over time it just became domesticated, as does anything.” Jean also highlights the negative and positive influence of technology. With the digital age and more non-traditional exhibitors wanting access to a wider variety of films, distributors are being forced to change their ways. “When I first started it would just blow your mind how many films you can’t get in Australia, it’s just heart-breaking – a constant stream of heartbreak for me, ‘I’d really like this film.’ ‘No’. [But] I think the technology has pushed distributors to have more digital content.” The problem is that the increased sophistication and availability of home cinema system has made “getting that audience that are interested in cinema harder and harder for normal exhibitors. So the whole pop-up thing is like a result [of us wanting] people to still go and have the experience of going to cinema, to seeing things, because it is a different experience to watching it on your laptop in your bedroom. Whether legally or illegally, people are able to access things a lot easier. So why would you go to the cinema, unless you’re going to have an experience?”

With your local multiplex filled with loud kids or people on their phones, for Jean there’s a real belief that “people are far more inclined to have an actual experience as opposed to just going to the movies, and I think that’s why we’re at this phase, this really exciting time, where across Australia there are just more outdoor cinemas than there ever have been. I mean why on earth would you build an outdoor cinema in Melbourne? It’s insane, the weather is horrible, it doesn’t make any sense! But the reason is people really do care about films, but you’ve got to give them a reason to actually go. Technology has driven us to be so isolated as well in how we consume things and how we digest things, through ipods, personal computers, through everything.” Again, it comes back to the importance of community which lies at the heart of The Abbotsford Convent project. “There is something to be said for watching a comedy in a room full of people, there’s nothing like it. The other day we screened The Stone Roses Made of Stone, which is directed by Shane Meadows… [and] when you go down there it’s like a gig! You’re outdoors and there’s the pumping sound system…we showed Shut Up And Play The Hits last year which is the LCD Soundsystem film and it’s just like people were like ‘I’m at a concert!’, ‘Um, Are you gonna sit down?’ It’s a great experience.”

This year’s film programme reflects the diverse groups they are trying to attract to the venue, and the increase in the number of screening nights. “What we’re kind of trying to offer is something for everyone, to put it in really simple terms. There’s great cinema all over the place, and that’s what the reality is. Each year fantastic films come out on general release, a lot of crap comes out, but a lot of fantastic films too. It would not be a great move to not include something like Blue Jasmine in your programme, A) Because it’s a Woody Allen film, B) Because Cate Blanchett’s going to get the Oscar for sure. I love diverse film programmes, I think there should be as much diversity as possible. It’s really day-dependent – Saturday is ‘date night’, it’ll always be ‘date night’. So as a result you put things on that are appropriate. Sunday is like a Sunday-Session. We have a real commitment to music films, to socially aware documentaries in particular, like this year we’re showing the Pussy Riot documentary.”

Nostalgia plays an important part too of course. “Because I obsessively watched films as a child my VHS up-bringing is totally infused in the programme. So there’s a lot of choices that are really passion based, and it’s amazing how it hits the chord. It’s kind of like you’ve gotta do a sum in your head where you like nostalgia x how many times it’s been on television – this + that. Last year for instance we showed The Fisher King, the Terry Gilliam film, and it was so cool being in that space with people who hadn’t seen it for 10 years who are like ‘this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!’ So it’s a combination of things that really struck a chord with people this year, whether it be Gravity, Blue Jasmine, those kind of things, and films that we feel are important and that should be seen, like the Pussy Riot documentary, or films about music and the musical process.” The beauty of pop-up cinemas are their versatility, the fact that they’re not tied to distributor deals. Jean loves the ability to “[shine] a light on something that hasn’t been seen for a while, that’s my favourite part of screening. Harold and Maude, and To Die For, all these films that don’t often get an opportunity to be screened. In our first year we showed Boyz N The Hood, and that film I don’t think had been screened in Australia on a big screen since it was released in ‘93, and that’s exciting. It was such an exciting screening, people were so into it, because it’s about leveraging off nostalgia and tapping into that thing that makes people happy, that’s why putting on a screening ofThe Big Lebowski just always goes off because it works on so many levels. It’s really an eclectic range of things because we are speaking to different people on different days. It’s not about me, it’s not about us, it’s about the community at large and what people really like and what speaks to people.”

Like the Electric Shadows before them, the support for local and short films remains strong. “We have always endeavoured to put as many solid Australian releases in as possible. In the last couple of years we had short films from local filmmakers prior to the films, and this season we’ve been really lucky to include The Rocket, which is a film that was made in Laos by an Australian filmmaker which has got the audience award in like every single festival it attends. In programme 2 we’ve got great Australian documentaries. So it’s as much as we can, as much as is feasible. We’re a small country, we don’t put out heaps of content each year, but we do try to definitely include it as much as possible.” But despite the changes in technology, the Australian film catalogue remains a tough nut to find, let alone crack. “It would blow your mind the amount of films that have not be archived and updated for digital exhibition – some of the great, great Australian films. We still haven’t been able to get Chopper! It is hard…you go ‘It’d be cool to show Death In Brunswick- can’t show it, ‘It’d be cool to show this’, can’t show it. But I do think with the amount of cinemas that are available, in the next few years we are going to see more archived, retrospective films. I should hope so. You look at the success of something like when they re-released Wake In Fright after 20 years, that’s seriously gotta be one of the greatest Australian films ever. It was almost lost – it debuted at Cannes in 1971, but then this print ended up in a box in Pittsburgh saying ‘To Be Destroyed’, and it got rescued. So that’s sort of the fate of some Australian films, they almost never see the light of day again. I think it will be an interesting few years, I hope we can make sure we catalogue our culture so to speak. Again, it’s like a string of heartbreak, but as much as possible we want to show great Australian films.”

With one eye always on the past, what are The Shadow Electric looking for in the future? “[We’re] always looking to do things even in the winter, and we hope in the next couple of years that we’ll be a thing where, whatever venue we’re at, we’ll just be continuing to put on music, great films, and try to be part of the cultural landscape of Melbourne. I think we’re lucky, we’ve really been embraced by Melbourne culture-vultures, people who like a good experience, and people who enjoy the Abbotsford Convent, and so we hope we can continue.”

You can read Part One of this feature here. More information about The Shadow Electric can be found on their official website.

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