Movie Night! Many families do it. Choose a good old favourite film, snuggle up with some popcorn, and watch together. It’s a (reasonably) effortless way for everyone to have fun and enjoy a shared experience. But there are ways to take the idea to the next level -- particularly worth exploring if you have a birthday or special occasion to celebrate.
The following ideas don’t need any fancy equipment like surround-sound speakers or giant screens… just a humble old television, a way to stream films and a bit of imagination.
Make The Tickets
Let’s pretend, for a second, that this is the olden days, when cinema tickets weren’t stored as PDFs or etickets on your phone. Actually, let’s pretend it’s the really olden days, when your ticket was something substantial and impressive, and not just a machine receipt. Let your imagination (or your child’s imagination) run riot as you craft these magical bits of paper yourselves. Gold pens, glitter pens, textured paper, lace paper, stencilled lettering, foil effects, calligraphy (for real clever-clogs kids)... whatever takes your fancy. You could alternatively design the ticket on a computer if you have the software, skills and a printer. This will allow you to add colour images from the film onto the ticket.
Put Some Movie Posters Together
Using the largest paper you can find, get the kids to design a movie poster. They can use paint, felt tips, crayons or anything they like, and either draw the main image or construct it using collage. Use the opportunity to talk about the sort of information that appears on a poster. You could also discuss the main roles of making a film (actor, director, producer, camera operator, distributor etc.), and which of these make it onto the poster. Obviously, you should make a poster for the film you’re about to watch, but there’s no reason they can’t make additional ones to reflect what might be showing on other “screens”. You could also invent movies for them to illustrate, even dropping their own names onto the poster. “The Schoolkid Strikes Back! Starring Holly Grace Brown, Aged 5!”.
Make Things Cosy
Boutique cinemas often offer cushions and blankets to make you feel at home. But now, you really are at home, so there’s nothing to stop you piling on the soft furnishings. Grab blankets, neck cushions, footrests, soft toys… anything to make the experience as warm and cosy as possible.
Sort Out The Lighting
All the blankets in the world won’t get you to 100% cosy without the right lighting. At the cinema, the only illumination (other than fire exit signs) comes from the projected image itself. You could do the same at home, but a little ambient lamp lighting in the corners, or a dimmer switch turned low, can feel more comfortable, especially if the kids are going to be getting up for snack refills or toilet breaks.
Choose A Memorable Film
For most film nights, we just select a film from whatever blockbuster’s on Netflix, DVD or some other easily available resource. But for an extra-special evening, try a film that’s not regarded as low-hanging fruit. At the simplest, you could pay a bit extra to get a pay-per-view on that new release they’ve been waiting for. Or you could explore the best of other cultures. An excellent gateway (if now approaching the mainstream) are the Studio Ghibli films on Netflix -- most famously Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. Find further inspiration on our lists of the best films for preschoolers, best family classics, best movies for teens, greatest movie musicals, best book-to-film adaptations for kids, best coming of age films, and our ranking of the best Pixar options.
Prepare the Cinema
Cinemas are functional spaces, without too many adornments. They are, after all, in darkness for most of their time. The one big exception is the screen curtains. If you can rig something up from old velvet material, a light frame and an improvised pulley, then well done you! Some households may be able to reposition their TV behind the lounge curtains. If neither of these are an option, then simply drape a red sheet or cloth over the screen, ready to pull aside just before the film begins (though be sure not to cover ventilation slits).
A few other simple touches could add to the fun. Append seat numbers to the back of the sofa, and record these on the tickets. Make a sign saying “Screen 1” to place outside the lounge door. Put those home-made movie posters up on the wall. And get a table full of snacks ready for your “customers” (see below).
Just before you’re ready to start, get the lighting level right and perhaps pipe in some mood-setting muzak (cinemas often play jazzy instrumental stuff, which you can no doubt source on one of the music-streaming platforms).
Prep The Snacks
You could perfectly replicate cinema snacks by filling an obscenely large bucket with cola and cooking up enough popcorn to stuff a mattress. But we can do better. Yes, popcorn and fizzy pop can be part of the experience, but let’s lay out a table, within easy reach, full of their favourite comfort foods. Crisps, peanuts, cocktail (or quorn) sausages, olives -- anything that’s easy to prepare and can be nibbled on without taking your eyes off the screen. Pick-n-mix sweets can also be there if you want ‘em, but these are a bit more distracting, and obviously not too good for the teeth. Fruit, rice cakes, breadsticks and unsalted/sugared popcorn make healthier alternatives. Have everything set up on a low table just in front of the seating, and if possible make it a bit of a surprise.
Put On An Act
Once everything’s ready, it’s time to put on a show. The first thing to do is set up a small “cashier area” outside the lounge, perhaps in the hall or kitchen. Here, you can pretend to sell the pre-prepared tickets to the children in exchange for toy money (or toy contactless). Then, play the part of an usher/usherette. Show the children to “Screen 1”. Once you’re inside, use a torch to point them to their seats. Take drink orders and carry them over on a tray.
When you’re ready to begin, cut the muzak, dim the lights, pull back the curtain (if using) and snuggle up with the family to enjoy the film. (Just remember to come back out-of-character, as it’d be a bit creepy for the usher to snuggle up!)
“Welcome to the [XYZ] Family Home Cinema. We would like to remind all guests that mobile phones should be turned off for the duration of this movie. We thank you for your cooperation. Now, enjoy your feature presentation!”. Give an announcement like this ahead of the film’s beginning, to simulate a real movie theatre. It’s actually good advice at home, too, as nothing breaks the mood like one of the kids (or parents) sneaking a look at WhatsApp.
A Few Bonus Features
You could choose a musical film that they’re already familiar with, and then do a bit of a sing-along. You may be able to print out lyrics from the web.
How about they play the roles of cashier and usher/usherette instead of you doing it?
If you’re tech savvy, you could put together a reel of trailers to play ahead of the film. You could even shoot and edit your own mock-trailers if you want to get really into it, though that’s a different article!
Programme in an intermission (15 minute break in the middle of the film, once a common feature of cinema shows). Use it to distribute choc ices. You will be worshipped.
Use the film as a springboard for educational activities the next day. Get the kids to draw scenes from the film, or write a short story that could serve as a sequel, or recreate it with action figures.
Projectors that plug into laptops aren’t as expensive as you might think. If you can afford it, this will add an extra dimension to the home cinema.
Form an orderly queue for the toilet after watching the movie, to simulate the genuine cinema experience. Be sure to scrape discarded pick-n-mix off your shoes, too.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.