Does a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Movie Sound Appealing?

In a world where people watch movies at home while playing on their smartphones, it may be hard to get them to pay for that privilege.
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Seeing as roughly every intellectual property under the sun has become fair game for Hollywood, it’s anything but shocking to see that 20th Century Fox has announced it’s developing an adaptation of the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books from the 1980s. If anything, the only surprise is that it took a studio this long to move forward with the series that allows the reader to choose the hero’s next move in a given story. However, the big wrinkle in the announcement from last week’s CinemaCon event in Las Vegas isn’t that Fox is making this adaptation, or that super-producer Greg Berlanti is involved. Instead, it’s that Fox is partnering with Kino Industries to allow audience members to choose new storylines, plots and more while watching the movie in theaters, replicating the experience of reading the books.

In theory, perhaps this idea makes sense. The Choose Your Own Adventure books weren’t tied to a specific genre, but to the idea that the reader could choose how the protagonist would proceed in the middle of a haunted-house story, a space opera, a Western, a murder mystery, etc. For a movie, it might only make sense for the filmmakers to create a series of options and allow audience members to choose, while they’re sitting in their seats, to follow this storytelling path or that one. And because the Choose Your Own Adventure stories were so wide-ranging in their scope, there’s likely a good movie to be made from the nostalgic property.

Unfortunately, even a cursory glance at the CtrlMovie technology from Kino suggests another major disruption to the movie-theater experience in the worst way possible. CinemaCon, at which theater exhibitors, studio executives and more come together for various presentations and discussions on the state of the industry, may have felt like the right place to display a presumably innovative technology for worldwide audiences. But this is another case of introducing, instead of removing, distractions from the experience of paying to see a movie on the big screen. With ticket sales down, it makes sense that theater exhibitors want to try new things to lure audiences away from their home-theater setups. But encouraging the use of a smartphone app — that’s how you would choose where the adventure takes you, multiple times in the film — is a baffling and alienating choice.

On one hand, it could be accurately argued that, should Choose Your Own Adventure come to fruition with the CtrlMovie technology, audience members should expect for smartphone use to be the norm, not an aggravating exception. Here, almost akin to the experience of seeing a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, you should know that you’re paying for a communal experience as much as to see an actual movie. This technological choice, however, feels like an extension of how people interact with their TVs —scanning Twitter or Facebook, then going back to watch whatever show is on, and on and on — as opposed to paying 15 bucks per ticket at the multiplex and actually watching the movie they paid for.

Though many people may not realize it, Choose Your Own Adventure wouldn’t be the first interactive film released in the United States, though it would likely get a bigger audience. In 1995, Bob Gale, one of the co-writers of Back to the Future, co-directed a film called Mr. Payback: An Interactive Movie, in which audience members could choose how the story unfolded via a joystick on their seat. The film wasn’t seen by many, but those who did see it, including the late Roger Ebert, were unkind. Ebert’s famously negative review described Mr. Payback as “the kind of film where horrified parents might encourage the kids to shout at the screen, hoping the noise might drown out the flood of garbage.” No doubt, Choose Your Own Adventure might be a bigger-budget affair and less puerile, but its very design is less about artistry and more about turning a movie into something akin to a big-screen video game.

This isn’t to say that a good film couldn’t be made from the Choose Your Own Adventure world. If 20th Century Fox had made this announcement last week without suggesting the use of smartphone technology, it might not have made too much of a dent and simply seemed like a studio trying to outdo Sony, whose Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle proves that any nostalgic title can turn into a genuinely entertaining movie. But by using CtrlMovie, Fox is doing a better job than it may want to in turning audiences away from their new products. There’s little allure in paying to go to a movie where you are then encouraged to use your phone throughout. People already do that at home; why pay for that privilege?