Moviegoing etiquette dictates that any cellphone use in a theater is bad form, but the film Late Shift challenges that dynamic. Viewers aren’t just encouraged to use their phones, they’re almost required to if they want to see the story progress.
Late Shift, which has been making the rounds in select screenings since 2016, is an interactive film. The movie follows Matt (Joe Sowerbutts), a student coerced into joining an auction-house heist in London. Unlike a regular theatergoing experience, Late Shift progresses according to audience participation. It uses an app to guide viewers through the experience. Options to pursue a specific conversation or action pop up throughout, prompting viewers to pick up their phones and vote. The whole thing is timed; if audiences are too slow, or if no one votes, the film continues on a set storyline, aka the film’s “director’s cut.” Although much of the film is about Matt becoming more and more entangled in the scheme, Late Shift includes seven different endings, and more than 100 choices that can lead to any one of them.
For most moviegoers, Late Shift is an unusual experience. Interactive movies have been tried in a variety of forms, but they’ve never taken off in a significant way. But for anyone who’s ever played a video game, the model should seem much more familiar. Late Shift Producer Chady Eli Mattar calls it the gamification of films — a phrase some people scoff at. “Sometimes people hear ‘the gamification of films’ and they react, ‘Eh come on,’” he says, “because film always feels it’s superior, in terms of entertainment.”
Mattar has trouble drawing a line between the two media. Games that use video in place of animated graphics, otherwise known as FMV games, have been around since the early 1980s, and have enjoyed a brief resurgence in recent years with games like Her Story. Mattar himself points to studios like Telltale Games, which are working on narrative-driven experiences he calls advanced and engaging. “And then you look at something like [Late Shift] — it’s an incredible game,” he says. “I like to say you’re playing this because there is a gamification to it. I don’t know if that’s bad or good, but I think it’s exciting, and why not?”
It may be easy to confuse Late Shift with an FMV game, but Mattar insists on its status as a film, one that’s perfect for enjoying in a theater setting. It’s typical action fanfare — heists, shootouts, makeout scenes — built on top of multiple endings. Its sharp-tongued hero may get the girl, or not, depending on what audiences do; he might save the day, or wind up dead. It doesn’t have a very original story to tell, but the fun is the social experience.
During my screening, tense scenes dissolved amid audience laughter as everyone voted for the most troll-ish options available. Instead of letting Matt flawlessly romance the female lead, the audience voted for him to be kind of a dick. It’s a simple way to keep the entire audience engaged, regardless of their age or experience. “Everybody has a cellphone,” Mattar says. “What can we do with a cellphone that lets you play with the story?”
Mattar doesn’t believe interactive films are about to take over the industry, but he believes there’s a lot of potential in the format. And people who don’t want to make tough choices can just follow along on their own by downloading the film, or rewatching specific scenes to see how things could have gone differently. “I think that the beauty of this, and the beauty of any technology, is that you make a choice of what you want to do with it,” he says. “If this is going to help people keep being creative, make films, keep more directors and writers creative and energized, feeling their movies are still a communal experience, their movies are still being consumed collectively, that’s nice. Why not?”