The phenomenon of remote watch parties during the COVID-19 crisis—and studios’ hilarious attempts to officialize them—suggests that many of us are deeply missing that feeling of the movies, those fleeting but powerful senses of connection, immersion, and belonging with both a co-present group of people and an unfolding onscreen world. And there is a general understanding, I think, among exhibitors and audiences that this feeling is deepened when movies are screened in environments that are thematically linked to the images onscreen (elsewhere I have explored this idea of thematic immersion). This desire for thematic immersion has taken countless forms since cinema’s inception, ranging from Hale’s Tours and William Castle’s gimmickry to the floating cinema events that proliferate in today’s experience economy, where the appeals of seeing Pirates of the Caribbean on a pier, Life of Pi in a pool, or Le Grand Bain on a boat gain a new kind of currency in today’s digital media environment.
Floating cinemas transform the water on which we float into a material extension of the filmic world. Nowhere is this more evident than at screenings of Jaws, which often incorporate an element of danger just below the surface of the water. At Alamo Drafthouse’s annual “Jaws On The Water” event, fans are invited to apply flesh wound stickers, order custom food and drinks, and watch Jaws on floating inner-tubes while scuba divers swim underneath and grab at their legs. This practice dates back to at least 1985, when a student fundraiser at Indiana University held a screening of Jaws in the university’s gymnasium. The school yearbook reads: students “clad in bathing suits…made their way to Royer Pool to take a dip and, at the same time, check out the movie Jaws playing on a screen—or was it a sheet—hung close to the pool’s edge. The tension mounted as the shark made its way through the waters and meshed with those in Royer Pool.”
So while the COVID-19 crisis has undoubtedly increased the demand for socially-distant co-present cinema, such offerings are also situated in a longer human tradition of desiring a particular kind of thematic immersion that encircles us collectively. By building out and playing with these thematic connections, today’s specialty exhibitors like Alamo Drafthouse, Street Food Cinema, Cinespia, Secret Cinema, and others have amassed dedicated fandoms of their own. As I wait to see if a floating cinema will ever set sail in my home city of Chicago, I wonder what movie might be screened should it happen. If I had to guess, I’d put my money on a movie about the sea.