Virtual Cinema Gets an Innovative, Family-Friendly Twist with Cinépilou

Photo by Dejan Krsmanovic

Last week marked the return of in-person moviegoing to Belgium, which—like many of its European counterparts—has been subject to two different waves of lockdown since the arrival of the Coronavirus in March 2020. It’s a long stretch of time to be homebound, one felt all the more keenly by parents of young children. Enter Ecran Large Sur Tableau Noir and Le Parc Distribution’s Cinépilou—an innovative programming series designed to bring a little bit of movie magic to the elementary-aged crowd.

Christine Eloy, managing director of Europa Distribution, an association of independent film distributors based in Brussels, is one of the organizers of Cinépilou, which for 24 weeks brought the “virtual cinema” model to 12 art-house cinemas in French-speaking Belgium—with a few twists. Each Friday evening during Cinépilou’s run, families could purchase a 5€ ticket to stream a film aimed at children 3-8 in age. To call these “virtual screenings” isn’t entirely accurate, as the Cinépilou team has succeeded in putting on a full-on virtual event every week for the last six months.

Every week, a local host introduces the chosen film with a light-hearted segment that, depending on the film, may involve playing a musical instrument, dancing, or some light magic tricks. One thing that doesn’t change is that the host wears pajamas, pilou being a soft material that PJs are often made of. “It’s like a ritual,” says Eloy. “The idea is that everybody is in pajamas…. [The host] would always wear the same pair of pajamas and say, ‘Hello! Welcome to Cinépilou. Is everyone in pajamas? Are you in bed?’ And she would always end the screening with, ‘Brush your teeth and sleep well! See you next time.”

Cinépilou is also social media campaign and technical support combined: During each screening, helpers are on-hand to both encourage social media interaction and assist families having difficulty with the streaming interface. Between email and social media, Eloy estimates that they’ve received 23,000 messages from their audience over Cinépilou’s run.

And, perhaps what sets it apart the most from its virtual cinema counterparts: Cinépilou is multimedia and interactive, pairing each week’s screening with activities that can be done by the children over the weekend. More complicated crafts are paired with a YouTube tutorial. Each week, a handful of lucky children get to see some of the art they created the week prior included in the pre-show, shared to the approximately 500 families who “attend” a Cinépilou event each week. Perhaps the most impressive—certainly the most charming—argument for Cinépilou’s success can be found on its website, which boasts photo after photo of children sharing their movie-inspired creations.

“We didn’t have the date, but we knew it would happen,” says Eloy, reflecting on the second wave of lockdown that hit Belgium in autumn 2020. “My colleague who is in charge of the digital aspects of our activity [and I] thought that we had to imagine something for the families at home, because we had to keep contact with the audience.” 

Given the prevalence of streaming services, Eloy says, “just to offer a film for kids was not enough.” At any rate, that wouldn’t fulfill one of the primary goals of Cinépilou: to support cinemas during the shutdown, in part by helping them connect with their audience. “We were thinking about, ‘What is cinema?,'” and how could it be translated to a virtual setting? “It’s the service. It’s the link with the audience. The programming, etc. So we tried to keep those qualities.”

Tickets to Cinépilou events are purchased through the websites of the individual theaters, “so it was the same act as going to the movie. It was on the same website. In return, the cinema would do publicity, [so we could] find the audience without too much communication and marketing,” says Eloy. As a concession to lockdown realities, families have a three-hour window in which to start the film, rather than having to tune in at a specific time. The 5€ family ticket was subject to the same distributor-exhibitor revenue share model as a ticket during non-lockdown times. For those families that wanted to donate a little extra to their cinema of choice, a 7€ ticket was available.

But Cinépilou’s connection to the theaters of French Belgium runs deeper than financials. The introduction and farewell for each screening takes place in a cinema—the seats, in front of the screen, in the projection booth. The films chosen were on the older side—the newest being one year old, some as old as 15—so as not to compete with theaters that may wish to play newer family fare after reopening. When the screenings would take place was something of a debate; Saturday and Sunday afternoons are the traditional times to see movies in Belgium, while Friday evenings are typically devoted to TV. Friday won out so that children would have all weekend to do the activities, and so that Cinépilou would register as “TV time” for its audience, rather than “movie time,” says Eloy—further emphasizing the program’s dedication to supporting, without trying to compete with, the cinema experience.

“We really felt that families were happy,” says Eloy. “They said to us, it was a really important family event: Friday evening, Cinépilou. Everyone was waiting for it.” She estimates that 12,000 family tickets were sold over the course of six months, with some families tuning in for every screening.

After long months of shutdown, Cinépilou is hosting its first in-person event on June 13 at participating theaters. (Asked whether children would be encouraged to wear pajamas, Eloy expressed sympathy with parents engaged in a constant battle to convince their children that they have to wear real clothes when they go outside.) Still, with cinemas reopened, Eloy believes there is room for Cinépilou to continue in its digital form, screening catalog films. “Because we are not competing with the cinemas. It’s on Fridays. Lots of people call us: ‘Keep doing it on Friday, because it’s very nice for us. The kids watch the movie, and we go to [an adult] movie on Saturday.”

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