The plane is beginning its descent into LAX and I can feel the sweat popping from my pores—not because we’re zooming towards a tarmac strip at 280km/h, but because the inflight entertainment system is sure to be disabled at any moment and I have 10 minutes left on the god-awful action-comedy Keanu.
What makes this scenario all the more distressing is that I planned my journey’s viewing to the minute. I studied the run times of the movies listed in the magazine; I found six films that clicked perfectly together to fill out the 11 hours of air time between London and LA; and I grimaced and held my bladder to save precious minutes that would otherwise have been wasted queuing for the toilet.
What I did not do is factor in the enforced freeze frames as crew came on the tannoy to announce flight times and weather updates and duty-free deals. And so it is that I now face the terrible prospect of having to disembark without knowing if kidnapped (kitten-napped?) tabby Keanu will ever again be tickled behind the ears by his rightful owners.
Keanu is not a movie I’d normally rush to see, just as the film I viewed immediately before it—multi-generational weepfest Mother’s Day—would hardly have me charging to the cinema. But given my profession is that of a film journalist and I watch four or five new releases a week, a long-haul flight is the perfect time to hoover up any and all movies that I’m unwilling to give up two hours of my time on Earth for. Hence, in 2010, a triple serving of turkey at 36,000ft in the form of The Last Airbender, Jonah Hex and Eat Pray Love. It was enough to make me wish for an ejector seat.
Of course, not everyone will deliberately watch such dreck on a flight; those hours in the clouds make for the start or end of a holiday or business trip, and passengers naturally desire them to be as pleasurable as possible. But certain types of movies do, indeed, make for preferred viewing, and for numerous reasons.
‘I remember an interview with Quentin Tarantino where he expressed a preference for watching Kate Hudson romcoms when flying’
‘Lighter content works best on airlines,’ says Ruth Sloss, Director of Programming at Spafax, content service provider to many of the major airlines.
‘People feel the need for comfort, reassurance and familiarity, so easy viewing content such as comedy or action franchises and popular TV shows work particularly well. This is generally the case regardless of the personal taste of passengers on the ground. I remember an interview with Quentin Tarantino where he expressed a preference for watching Kate Hudson romcoms when flying.’
Jason Solomons, film critic for Virgin Atlantic’s inflight magazine Vera, agrees. ‘Comedies do play well,’ he nods. ‘I think people are more inclined to laugh up there—maybe they’re in a good mood as they’re going on holiday or pleased to be on business and away from the kids-slash-office.’
That said, diversity is also key: Sloss points out that the latest video-on-demand systems can hold a huge amount of content (British Airways’ VOD system offers 13,000 hours’ worth of choice), and Solomons notes that Virgin Atlantic ‘loves to show a good documentary’.
There are politics at play—airlines and pay-per-view menus in hotel rooms are valuable revenue to studios and producers. But Solomons hails Virgin’s ‘brave’ decision to screen Blackfish, a documentary that chronicles Seaworld’s abuse of Orcas, on Orlando and Miami routes.
On British Airways, the latest blockbusters The Jungle Book and Spectre are among the most watched, supported by shows, films and games from cutting-edge TV channels such as Viceland and Machinima.
Also crucial to people’s enjoyment is the ability to watch a movie in its intended form—the days of airlines showing films pan-and-scanned or crudely edited for profanity and graphic content now all but gone.
And while such artistic license means I turned bright red every time my seat-back screen filled with images of hanky-spanky whilst watching Fifty Shades Of Grey (the grandma sitting next to me was watching my screen more than hers), it should be applauded.
‘We play most of the content in its original version,’ British Airways’ Inflight Entertainment Manager Richard D’Cruze explains.
‘On the rare occasion there is a small element of the film that is unsuitable for the environment of flying, we will approach the studio and filmmaker directly about making a small amendment. We also work closely with the BBFC; warnings feature where appropriate, so customers know exactly what they’re going to see.’
Sloss concurs, saying, ‘Films are only edited where absolutely necessary. But airlines also have a duty to be sensitive to the varied cultural mixture of passengers, so very provocative or controversial content is a difficult play. Plane crashes are not a good idea, and graphic horror content is generally avoided.’
‘Any screen can have a kid’s eyeballs on it at any moment and things could get ugly if they’re seated across the aisle from unexpurgated horror,’ explains Solomons, then grins before adding: ‘Though you’d have to strap me in to watch some of the romcoms on board, in case I threw myself out of the window.’
So often viewed as escapism, films can be more of a comfort blanket while traveling—an escape has already taken place, so it’s now about finding home comforts. Who, after all, doesn’t like to climb under the duvet and put on a good movie?
The film addict that I am, I take it to the nth degree and will often stay in my hotel room all day and evening to plough through the pay-per-view titles that are not yet out in the UK. Once, in Rome, I watched Harry Potter And the Prisoner of Azkaban on Italian TV, sans sub-titles, trying to convince myself that I could better appreciate the inky, slinky visuals without the distraction of words.
Thankfully, not many people are as obsessive as me. But movies are a huge business, a huge joy, and for some, being away from home is the only time they get to indulge. Even Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood), one of the most celebrated filmmakers working today, told me that the only time he can now watch movies is on a plane whilst touring to promote his own work. I only wish I’d asked for a list of his viewing choices—chances are they were dunderheaded action movies and soppy, formulaic romcoms.
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Photos: © New Line Cinema/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS.com