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Party Time At the Movies

The New York-based company BBQ Films is reinventing the moviegoing experience by hosting boisterous interactive screenings — like the recent bender celebrating the 25th anniversary of ”Weekend at Bernie’s”

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Two hundred partygoers in neon swimwear and tropical shirts wander through 12 rooms of the breezy summer hideaway Playland Motel in New York’s Rockaway Beach. They’re treated to an endless supply of beer, champagne, pizza, and ’80s club thumpers. Exuberant guides are also on hand to help guests navigate all the elaborate set pieces: a tepee for wealthy ”investors” (i.e., anyone wearing a sea captain’s hat) seeking enlightenment; a kiddie pool with go-go girls in bikinis tossing fake money in the air; and a private loft where the party’s host, the loud-mouthed Bernie Lomax Jr., has just been murdered and is hunched over a couch. Someone moves to help him, but — no, never mind, she’s just taking a selfie. Sorry, Bern. Great party!

This is the scene that greeted revelers who turned up on July 25 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Weekend at Bernie’s, the 1989 comedy about two schmoes who host an epic blowout at their boss’ beach house after he gets whacked by gangsters. The wild interactive screening was organized by BBQ Films, a company dedicated to immersing people in the movie they’re watching — and, its CEO hopes, changing cinemagoing as we know it. ”We’re bringing film back to its roots, back to that old movie-palace feel, when people were experiencing film with other people,” says BBQ Films cofounder Gabriel Rhoads. ”My wife calls it a collective effervescence — a Baptist prayer revival, front row center at a Bruce Springsteen concert. It’s when the energy of the people around you makes something much more powerful.”

BBQ Films began when Rhoads and his wife, Lauren Lickus, started screening films via projector on their rooftop in Harlem in 2007. Fun movies (Big Trouble in Little China, Desperado) made way for more sophisticated attractions: On a whim Rhoads and Lickus invited a Columbia professor to give a lecture before an art-crime-themed double feature of F for Fake and Exit Through the Gift Shop. Word of mouth boosted attendance, and ”as it goes in New York when something cool happens, it got too big,” recalls Rhoads. ”So we took it off the patio.” Now filling warehouses, auditoriums, and even hotels, the company that Rhoads started for $200 in his home has become a fully licensed New York firm that throws around four events a year, some of which attract upwards of 800 guests — at about $50 per ticket — over a weekend. The company has engaged such eager sponsors as Chevrolet and Amstel, and at least two major Hollywood studios are considering partnering with BBQ to celebrate their own films. ”Here’s an opportunity to create a live experience from an unchanging medium, and studios want to gravitate toward that,” says Rhoads.

Guests don’t flock to BBQ simply to watch movies; they go for the chance to be in them. Every flick that the company builds an event around contains some sort of social-interaction scene that’s then re-created to make participants feel like movie stars. For Back to the Future, 350 people crowded into a high school gymnasium in March for the Enchantment Under the Sea dance; last year, for The Fifth Element, a 650-person yacht was transformed into a spaceship, the Fhloston Paradise. Each immersive screening involves themed food and drinks, music, live skits (or stunts, as in the case of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bash in 2013), and the participation of hundreds of costumed partyers, about 15 percent of whom are repeat customers. ”BBQ Films thinks of pretty much everything to make it a surprising and fun experience,” says Bernie’s attendee Jayme Lynes. ”Every time I go, I’m just delighted.”

Movie selection is left to a cinema-savvy brain trust of 150 volunteers who range from filmmakers to FedEx drivers. They pinpoint films with a nostalgia factor — hence the quarter-century milestone for Bernie’s. The latest event was neither BBQ’s largest nor its most ambitious (that award goes to the spaceship yacht), but it did feature an actor from the original movie: The company tracked down Terry Kiser — who played the cadaverous Bernie himself — and invited him to join in the chaos. BBQ also added a story line to the night, theming it as a launch party for Bernie Jr.’s tech start-up, BernBux. ”It’s a live cinematic sequel,” Rhoads jokes. ”This might be the first event ever that gets optioned into a movie.”

Of course, BBQ isn’t alone in bringing the fun back to film. That’s basically been the MO of the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse since its founding in 1997. There are also themed cruises (Saw at Sea, anyone?) and the granddaddy of all this madness, the Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight screenings, which were popularized in New York in the late ’70s. As his company prepares to launch a national tour in 2015, Rhoads is confident that moviegoers across the country could use a little BBQ love: ”I have yet to have somebody come up to me and say, ‘Could you stop all these shenanigans? I just want to watch the film.”’ Even Kiser, who has been appearing at various Bernie’s functions for 25 years, appreciates the lasting affection for the movie. ”It’s all such a gift,” he says, peering from behind Bernie’s signature shades at the drunken guests greeting Bernie Jr. ”Although I have no idea what the f—is going on.”

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