NEW YORK — The decision was a difficult one: "When Harry Met Sally" or "The American President"? If people who like karaoke thought they had a tough time trying to decide what song to warble in front of an audience, imagine what it's like choosing a movie scene to act out in front of strangers. Each week dozens of New Yorkers are faced with that decision - I hadn't planned on being one of them. But my editors - ever on the prowl for stories that require me to embarrass myself in public - were keen to have me try the latest activity to blend pop culture and a presumption of talent: movieoke.
Started in October by an aspiring screenwriter-director named Anastasia Fite, movieoke was at first just entertainment for the 20-something and her friends. Now it's a regular Wednesday night fixture at a small East Village bar and screening room called the Den of Cin, located in the basement of a Two Boots pizza/video store.
Too intriguing to be confined to New York, movieoke is popping up in places like Canada and St. Louis - and is causing film buffs everywhere to ask, "Why didn't anyone think of this sooner?"
For those trying to envision how it works: Imagine standing in front of a screen with a soundless movie being projected over you. You read the subtitles on a small TV monitor in front of you and act out the scene. Props are allowed - a "Matrix" scene might include sunglasses and a squirt bottle "gun," for example. So are flub ups. But the crowd applauds enthusiastically for everyone, if a recent Wednesday night is any indication.
"OK, everybody, this is Mary and Amy doing a scene from 'Pulp Fiction,' so support them," Ms. Fite, the manager of the Den, announced as the scenes got under way after 9 p.m.
The idea has generated so much publicity that the small room was filled initially with almost as many members of the media as patrons. Crews from British, Japanese, and Australian television were among those in attendance, meaning that my debut potentially could be viewed around the world. (Insert derogatory comment about editor here.)
Oddly enough, just acting out a scene takes so much concentration that you become oblivious to everything - the audience of 40 or more, the cameras - as you try to keep up with the dialogue. Like many first-timers, I found it fun and fairly easy, and I wanted to do it again.
Squeezed around the tiny tables or onto the few benches that line the walls, newcomers sized up the entertainment. "It's better than karaoke, because it's easier to watch people act badly than to listen to them sing badly," says Sara Gold, a TV commercial producer, on her first visit.
Fite encourages people to bring their own DVDs, and for good reason: The video store overhead is often out of popular choices. If the movie you've signed up for isn't available, Fite tells you to go upstairs and find another - instead of "Ace Ventura" someone picks "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Instead of "Working Girl," "Waiting for Guffman."
This sorting out tends to cause longish breaks while a movie is found and cued up. Sometimes Fite will hop on stage herself, doing a sketch from a "Saturday Night Live" video, for example, just to keep things moving or to demonstrate how it's done.
With "American President" unavailable, I ended up doing a scene from "Pretty in Pink," mainly for the line where one character, in a fit of jealousy, compares another to a major appliance. "Blaine? His name is Blaine?"
I recruited one of my colleagues and a friend of Fite's to read with me - you don't have to perform with others, but it tends to be more enjoyable (and yes, less nerve-wracking), especially your first time.
The casual nature of the evening is both a draw, and a drawback, to at least one repeat customer. "It's so cool that they don't charge a cover or anything. But what I like the least about it is that it's not very tightly organized [with] the long pauses between the scenes," says Mary Wray, a playwright/health insurance worker who is back for a second time.
She's confident the kinks will get worked out, and is willing to lend a hand: She plans to bring a movie, cued up to the scene she wants, the next time she comes. "I want to do this every week," she says.
That people would be interested in acting out scenes makes sense to Fite and many of her patrons. Some college students and fairly recent grads, like Ms. Wray, say running through movie lines with friends is common as a way to hang out and bond.
"In my generation, we already speak in movie quotes," says Marynia Kruk, a Columbia University senior, who's brought her boyfriend for his birthday. Movieoke "fills a need" for them, she says.
Fite thinks all the interest could also have to do with people's desire to bring their love of movies - propelled by the growth of cable and home video - out of their solitary living rooms.
"I wanted to use home video to bring people back out. That very same thing that would keep you home, and does keep you home, now you can share it with somebody," she says in a phone interview the next day.
She is working with a lawyer to build a movieoke package that she can lease or sell, but has a number of logistical issues to sort out yet. Most bars aren't set up as screening rooms and don't have video stores attached to them, for example.
In the meantime she continues to acquaint the world with her own brand of movie appreciation. "Each week it gets a little better, as people get more comfortable, and regulars start coming back ... [making] everybody else comfortable," says Fite. "It's contagious like that."