It’s 5:30 p.m. on a sunny Saturday and the first masked guests start to gather in the small gated park on Smetanovo nábřeží, in the very heart of Prague. After a while, a crowd of costumed people appears.
A flower girl gives flowers to everyone, an angel sways through the crowd, and other bizarre figures silently seduce the masked guests. The Czech national anthem is sung, followed by a dance. Suddenly, a tall man in top hat and cloak gathers everyone together. People who didn’t know each other several minutes ago start walking through the park to a secret place to see a still undisclosed film.
The crowd is participating in Cinema Royal, a secret screening project founded by an anonymous Prague-based team of cinema enthusiasts. The idea came from a similar project launched in 2007 in London under the name Secret Cinema. Since then, it has spread across the UK and US to the rest of the world.
“The main concept is to pull the audience into the atmosphere of the film. Watching films in the cinema is becoming monotonous, but to actually go someplace where the viewer can become part of the film and stay in its atmosphere for the rest of the night, that’s different,” says the Phantom, one of the anonymous organizers.
The element of secrecy also plays its important role — all of the key information about the screening is concealed until the last moment.
Potential audience members must register on a website or through a social networking site Facebook. Then, one day, members get an e-mail like this: “Sincerest greetings. It’s been two months since we last met. I'm writing to you again because I’ve been waiting for your reply ever since. I look more and more pitiful. I know this is love. I regret every moment I can’t stand by your side. I have adored you from the first day we met. I despise everyone else. Your existence is everything to me.”
Upon confirming your attendance, you get redirected to a page telling you where to buy a ticket. This time, it comes with a mask and directions to meet at the fountain at Smetanovo nábřeží.
“We want to give the people at least a hint of what the topic is, so they have a chance to participate. If they dress up for the occasion that also adds to the atmosphere of the evening,” Phantom said.
Location, location, location
The first Cinema Royal took place on May 25, 2010 at the former headquarters of communist newspaper Rudé právo and screened the 1987 Czechoslovak film “Bony a klid,” about an underground group illegally trading foreign currency and vouchers for Western goods. Actors dressed up as Czechoslovak policemen shouting socialist slogans before the screening.
Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” was the second screening in September last year. Fans were lured to the old Walter Motors factory in the Jinonice district. After a five-month gap, an e-mail announced what seemed like a horror-style meeting at Nové Butovice, where actors chased the crowd to a closed floor of a shopping center to see the mall-themed zombie film “Dawn of the Dead.”
“To find the right place is always the hardest part,” said another team member who is a fundraiser, producer, and planner. “My colleagues, who are closer to film than I am, then pick the right one to be shown.” Actors, art decoration, chair elevation, technical equipment, bartenders and so on also need to be organized. ‘We wanted to cool it a bit this time, so we picked a location and film that would appeal to wider range of our audience.’Each member of the core team of six has an area of specialization. A list of possible locations exists, updated regularly with interesting places, but organizers declined to discuss any specific details. “We want to keep showing genre films in the future, usually these are in the original language with Czech subtitles,” the Phantom said.
According to his colleague, the aim of the most recent location and film was to show that the format is flexible. “We wanted to cool it a bit this time, so we picked a location and film that would appeal to a wider range of our audience. Though we know that our audience will mostly still be younger people who are not afraid to risk paying [for a surprise] and have fun dressing up for the occasion, we’d still like the screenings to vary, we don’t want people to say, yeah, they’ll chase us around again to some place and become predictable,” he said.
When the masked guests and their mysterious guides reach the entrance to the garages of the New Stage of the National Theater, a descent underground begins. Deep in the fourth floor below the ground, a cinema is set up, dividing the audience in two groups sitting back to back to each other.
Here, three groups of 150 people each (due to the small space, three separate performances were scheduled for the night) will be shown the 1925 silent film “The Phantom of the Opera,” accompanied by electrical sounds by the musician that calls himself the Autumnist.
To fill in the time between the early screenings and the party that will take place at the New Stage’s top floor, beginning at 10 p.m. and lasting till the early morning hours, the National Theater offered a guided tour of the building to Cinema Royal guests, who will definitely not forget this experience — not until they receive a mysterious e-mail asking them to prepare for another royal screening experience.
— Hana Gomoláková is a freelance writer based in Prague