The rise of relaxed screenings in cinemas

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Liam looks at the slight difference being offered by relaxed screenings in the UK.

Most cinemagoers won’t see this, but every now and then there’s a chance you may land in a screening that comes with a briefing beforehand. This is commonplace at festivals or special previews, of course, and usually the briefing then is about what you’re going to see. But it occasionally happens at seemingly regular film showings too. It happened to me on a visit to Bristol’s Watershed Cinema. I was stopped twice prior to entering the screen. Firstly by the Duty Manager who was checking tickets. He asked if I knew that this was a ‘Relaxed Screening’, part of a new programme aimed at the neuro-diverse. Once he had outlined the more relaxed environment, he handed me a feedback form and sent me on my way. I was then briefed a second time by an usher at the door to the screen, just to direct me to the breakout spaces where I could retreat to if the experience became overwhelming. Then once everyone had taken their seats, the Duty Manager came in to introduce the film, the Relaxed Screening programme and to politely ask us to provide feedback once the film was over.

This might sound like overkill, but according to the Watershed’s front of house manager Helen Jaffa it’s crucial to making sure that everyone is comfortable with the Relaxed Screening format going in. “It’s really important for us that they make that little introduction and set the tone. Mostly because if there’s anybody who’s kind of slipped through the net and expects that dark, quiet environment that their expectations are managed”. After all, that dark, quiet, almost rigid environment of the cinema is not what you’ll be getting with a Relaxed Screening.

On trial

Relaxed Screenings are a new concept being trialled at the Watershed as well as at the BFI’s Southbank Cinema and other independent cinemas around the country. They are screenings where the environment has been modified to be more accessible to people with dementia, autistic spectrum disorder or who are otherwise neuro-diverse. The method by which the screenings can be made more accessible are many and varied: usually the lighting is turned up and the sound is reduced, as neurodiverse people generally experience sensory sensitivity. To compensate, there will generally be subtitles, which is handy for me as I often struggle to hear spoken dialogue correctly, even in English. People are free to move around if they need to and there’s even space at the front for bean bags or yoga mats to stretch on. And, of course, the essential breakout space.

Speaking as a cinephile with autistic spectrum disorder, I was conflicted about the endeavour. I’ve struggled with anxiety on and off in the past, and it has hampered my ability to enjoy the cinematic experience on occasions (though one of these was the holocaust film Son Of Saul so your mileage may vary). At the same time, I’ve often thought that the best thing for my anxiety was to be so completely immersed in a film that my anxieties would diminish. In fact, it’s possible that one of the reasons I fell in love with cinema was because it provided an environment in which I could escape my own headspace. Take away those immersive elements – the dark lighting, the sound, the tacit cooperation of the other audience members – and it risks pulling me out of the experience and forcing me to return to my own mind, screaming at me that everything was wrong and I needed to get out.

Fortunately, I’m happy to report that this was not the case. I went to a Relaxed Screening of Little Monsters in November and did not struggle once to become immersed in the experience. The film itself was… alright, but then that’s probably a better endorsement of Relaxed Screenings than of Little Monsters. Despite the raised lighting and low sound, I was still engaged with the movie. But as Helen revealed to me, the film itself is not necessarily the focus when programming Relaxed Screenings. “Our process at the moment is quite ad hoc. We have a cinema producer called Thea, so she and I are responsible for making sure we have at least one Relaxed Screening, if not two, per month. And we’ll choose the films based on what is most popular at the time or what we’ve had the most interest in. For Relaxed Screenings, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be family content or less sensory.”

That’s probably the most noticeable way in which the Relaxed Screening programme differentiates itself from the existing dementia- or autism-friendly screenings found in Showcase, Vue or Cineworld cinemas. Generally, this will be highly targeted material, older films for those with dementia who might still recall the original release. Failing that, you’ll find that these are often inoffensive, family-friendly productions such as Yesterday, Little Women or films made for children. “We’re keen to not assume the content people might want to enjoy. It’s important that it’s part of our regular programme, and if people with autism or dementia or anyone who might benefit from the environment want to see a gory Russian thriller they should be able to.”


While there are no Relaxed Screenings of gory Russian thrillers currently available, Watershed is clearly committed to making the concept part of their main programme. January’s Relaxed Screening was of the popular and critically acclaimed Jojo’s Rabbit. Whatever you might think of Taika Waititi’s World War II satire, it can hardly be called inoffensive. Elsewhere the Relaxed Screenings programme format has continued this trend of showing a diverse range of provocative films. FilmBath Festival held a Relaxed Screening of Peanut Butter Falcon during its 2019 programme. The BFI has showcased highlights from its various short film programmes using Relaxed Screenings. Over in Brighton, though, there is Oska Bright, an independent film festival holding Relaxed Screenings of the work of ASD filmmakers.

While the concept of Relaxed Screenings is still in the trial stage, it’s clear that the idea is taking root around the country. Perhaps eventually they’ll be as regular as the dementia- or autism-friendly screenings. After all, by not being targeted at one specific group, they can attract a wide range of people who want to view films in a less rigid, less affecting environment. One with less risk of triggering a particular anxiety, whatever that may be.

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