Learning from the laughs of 8,000 strangers.


Those of us on ‘the circuit’ can get accustomed to seeing films mostly in press or industry screenings (at best) or even Vimeo-ed on our laptops rushing from one place to another, and can forget the thrill of that collective experience of experiencing a new film with an audience who paid for their tickets, who didn’t drink too much champagne at an industry party the night before, and who certainly haven’t been ‘tracking’ a film’s potential for months.

I was reminded of that experience on a grand scale in Locarno this week, as I joined about 8,000 other people at an outdoor screening of Bachelorette in the famed Piazza Grande. The projection (and even the sound) were the best I’ve ever seen at an outdoor event and of course the setting itself is lovely (especially if the weather is nice – poor Ben Wheatley sat in the rain with about 40 people seeing Sightseers the night before, when torrential downpours had driven most people to an alternate indoor screening.)

What’s most magical about the Piazza Grande is experiencing a film with that many strangers simultaneously. It’s always fascinating to see what beats of a film hit with an audience – at Locarno, Bachelorette’s physical comedy and, well, dick jokes drew big laughs, but the crowd seemed a bit lost with the references to My So-Called Life.

In Sundance, Craig Zobel’s Compliance faced some angry feedback in a Q&A. Yet I saw it last week in Locarno, and was shocked at the amount of laughs (some uncomfortable, some more jolly) – the public in Switzerland saw this film partly as a comedy about how gullible some of these Americans had been.

Each festival audience is different — I still find it hard to judge a smash in Toronto because a lot of films — the truly great ones and the merely good ones — get such a rapturous response. Rotterdam’s huge audiences also amaze me by never – and I mean never – walking out even in some of the most ‘challenging’ films I’ll see all year.

Of course it’s impractical for industry attendees at festivals to always go to public screenings, but seeing one once in a while can be a strong reminder of what’s at the heart of this industry – witnessing a film connect with an audience.