For the last couple weeks I have been attending films at the Hawaii International Film Festival. I actually don’t go to the movies all that often so seeing a series of movies over 11 days got to be a strain at times, but the opportunity to see a number of quality films is too good to pass up. Of course, I paid attention to the way the festival interacted with their audience.
I became a member at the $100 level this year and received an allotment of free tickets in exchange. Membership also allowed me to enter the theatres first before those who had purchased their tickets singly. This is an option for providing a perk in a general admission setting. Though it required that I queue up about a half hour in advance. They did a good job assigning their movies to appropriate sized theatres in the complex. My friends were in the non-member line and handed me their coats to put on the seats next to me. The theaters never got so full before they were able to gain admission that I had to contend with the no saving seats policy.
There was one house manager that was excellent. I encountered her in a number of films. She had control of the audience of 200-300 people all by herself. She filled the space with her voice and promised ludicrous things to anyone who identified an open seat. It got people laughing and on her side.
Getting back to the membership structure again. Intentional or not, the way the festival structured the membership benefits, it had my friends talking themselves into buying more tickets. In addition to free tickets and getting in first, membership also allowed you to purchase the $12 tickets for $8. The way my friends figured it, if I paid $100 for my membership and got 6 tickets free ($72 value) the membership would be worth it if I purchased an additional 7 tickets (four dollars savings on each one equaling $28, thus saving me my $100 membership.) Of course, by that point I would have spent $156 which I am sure the film festival would have appreciated. That convoluted attempt at reasoning made me reflect on the psychology of pricing and the way people make decisions. I have been reading bits and pieces about the field of behavioral economics as discussed by people like Dan Ariely. Episodes like this make me think I should be paying better attention.
The one other lesson I took from the festival is that even though technology seems to be a threat to the performing arts, it can’t be a substitute for a story. Though it often seems that way.
Julie Taymor’s The Tempest had some great acting, an interesting location (filmed on the lava fields of the Big Island of Hawaii and island of Lana‘i), and an intriguing dynamic created by casting Helen Mirren as Prospero, a role Shakespeare wrote as a male. But the movie had a such a large amount of CGI, some of which seemed to be left over from the psychedelic parts of Taymor’s Across the Universe, it made the movie disappointing for me.
Zhang Yimou’s Under the Hawthorn Tree depended entirely on the story of two people falling in love during China’s Cultural Revolution to make its impact. The movie is based on a true story and was so heart breaking, I was hoping some of the chaste lovers’ interactions had been exaggerated for dramatic effect because it the reality of it would have been too hard to bear. (I am sure the reality was indeed much worse.) I was so anxious that they were going to be found out and their lives ruined for mundane things like the guy buying the girl boots so her feet would be protected against lime burns, I was a little relieved by the sorrowful ending that left the audience in tears because it didn’t involve prison or re-education camps.
There is great importance to a good story told well. This isn’t a matter of comparing an American director to a Chinese director. People are hailing Zhang Yimou for returning to this type of storytelling after big garish extravaganzas like Curse of the Golden Flower which relied so heavily on spectacle.