Twas the Night Before

August 09, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

The concept of seeing movies in the wee hours of the morning is nothing new. The James Bond film Goldfinger was such a hot ticket during its initial run that theaters had to stay open 24/7 for about three weeks to keep up with demand. (Of course, that was during an era when there were far fewer theaters than there are today, and the word "multiplex" had not been coined.) The 007 adventure wasn't the first or last motion picture to draw viewers away from home in the middle of the night. If people want to see something bad enough, they'll put up with a little inconvenience.

I started reviewing part-time in 1992 and ramped up to full-time in 1993. In those days, I was an avid enough baseball fan to own a full-season (81 home games) ticket plan at the concrete dump called Veterans Stadium. When the Phillies were home, I tried to catch as many games as possible, despite living 100 miles away (I made it to 53 in 1993). The trip down, during rush hour, typically took about 2 1/2 hours. It was 30 minutes shorter on the way back, and I grew to appreciate the long drives, especially when the Phillies won - which they did a lot in 1993.

Attempting to obtain studio accreditation in 1993 was a fool's errand. No one in Hollywood knew what the "Internet" was, nor did they attach any legitimacy to the phrase "on-line critic." I can recall a conversation with a publicist after having submitted 10 sample reviews. It went something like this:

Him: I have read your reviews. Where, may I ask, were these published?
Me: On-line. At
Him: Wreck what?
Me: The Usenet newsgroup. Him: I'm sorry. I don't know what you're saying. Were these published or not?
Me: Yes, on-line. On the Internet.
Him: You've lost me. So they weren't published. At least not legitimately.
Me: They were published. Electronically.
Him: I don't think I can help you. We'd need a tear-sheet from the newspaper or magazine where they're published and a letter from the editor of Wrecked Movies Reviews.

And so on…

The bottom line was, without access to advance screenings (for which I needed studio approval - something not forthcoming until 1997), I had to go to movies when they opened. That typically meant spending a good portion of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday sitting in theaters. It was especially difficult if the Phillies were home but, by taking advantage of midnight screenings on Friday and Saturday, and mixing in one or two titles on Saturday afternoon, I could remain current. Of course, that kind of schedule made for some very late nights. But I was young at the time (25) and capable of thriving on about six hours of sleep per night. (Recently, before my infant son Michael decided he enjoyed sleeping through the nights, I discovered that six hours per night is no longer enough for me, at least not if I want to be lucid past 5 p.m.)

But those aren't the midnight screenings I'm writing this column about. Instead, I'm referring to the midnight screenings that occur the night before a movie officially opens, usually on a Thursday. (Most of these showings have a posted start time of 12:01, so technically, they're on Friday.) After attending a recent midnight screening of Twilight: Eclipse, I tried to remember when this practice started, and I was stumped. In the beginning, it was a marketing tool - a way to italicize the "special event" nature of a movie opening. People like seeing films early - this gave attendees of the midnight screening at least a 12-hour jump on everyone else.

And yet… It didn't happen for The Empire Strikes Back. Or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Or The Search for Spock. Or Batman. Or any of the ballyhooed and greatly anticipated titles of the '80s. In fact, the first time I can recall it happening was Independence Day in 1996. There may have been something earlier, but that's the general time frame. Within about four years, however, midnight screenings had become regular events for BIG movies. Today, they're regular events in some theaters for ALL movies. There's one local 24-plex that routinely has a 12:01 showing for all newly opening titles every Thursday night. So much for the "special" factor. I suppose it's convenient for night owls and critics who want to have the review available early in the day on Friday. Certainly, the energy level and revenue stream are going to be different for a midnight showing of Twilight: Eclipse than for Eat Pray Love.

Over the years, I have attended only a small number of Thursday midnight showings, mainly because my concentration level decreases markedly past the Witching Hour. I don't even need to use my toes to count them: Independence Day, The Fellowship of the Ring, Spider-Man 3, Revenge of the Sith, Quantum of Solace, Twilight: Eclipse. Each has its own story so, in brief, here they are. Those reading this who have attended midnight screenings will recognize similarities.

Independence Day: An Event Movie that achieved that status primarily through relentless, unending promotion. Remember the count-downs (which got screwed up when the opening day was shifted)? The "Pre-emptive Midnight Screening" was just an aspect of an overall strategy - a way not only to make potential viewers aware of the existence of the movie, but to make it a "Don't Miss" experience. This became the template for many of the similarly big budget, brainless summer movie that followed. It wasn't about the quality of the production but about the need to stay in the loop. If everyone else saw it, and you missed it, a social disaster loomed. The crowd for the midnight screening of Independence Day was abuzz with excitement and, for the most part, I think most viewers left the theater satisfied after 2 1/2 hours of early fireworks, which placed me in the minority. On the drive home, I remember thinking I made a mistake and should have gotten a few extra hours of sleep.

The Fellowship of the Ring: When New Line screened this movie for critics, they instituted a "special invite only" process which, to my knowledge, has been used locally for only one other feature: The Phantom Menace. I had no problem procuring an invitation to the Star Wars prequel, but I wasn't as lucky with the first of the Lord of the Rings features due to an administrative snafu. So, unable to see the film before it opened and wanting to get the review up asap, I headed off to a midnight showing, recognizing that I wouldn't arrive home until 3:30 in the morning and, after writing the review, wouldn't see my bed until about 5:00. The atmosphere in the theater was surreal and reminded me of how things were during the opening night screenings of the early Star Trek movies. 90% of those in the theater were die-hards and there were a lot of costumes. I sat next to a Gandalf who was there with a woman who I believe was supposed to be a hobbit (didn't see if she had hairy, bare feet). If nothing else, people-watching and absorbing the anticipatory atmosphere made the 30 minute wait for the start more enjoyable. This is probably the most lively midnight screening I have attended, but maybe that's because I wanted to see the movie as much as those around me.

Revenge of the Sith: I had already seen and reviewed this, but I accompanied my wife, Sheryl, to the midnight screening because she was concerned that if she didn't go then, she might miss the movie. (We were due to leave for Manila a few days later.) Costumes abounded, as did a sense of excitement. The anticipation was far from the level that characterized the pre-Phantom Menace mania, but there was no questioning that the release of this, which could be the FINAL cinematic Star Wars chapter, qualified as a big deal. Everyone seemed satisfied, which is more than could be said of how fans reacted to Chapter One.

Spider-Man 3: Not screened for Internet press - print, radio, and TV only. So I was shut out of the screening - a fact that, as I recall, annoyed the hell out of me. Once again wanting to get the review up as early as possible, I bought a pair of tickets for the midnight screening - one for myself and one for Sheryl. The audience was more subdued than I expected and the theater was only about 2/3 full - a surprise considering the level of hype. The movie did not excite my fellow night warriors and the mood as we filed out during the end credits was decidedly negative. I thought the movie was about on par with Independence Day, but the other attendees did not agree.

Quantum of Solace: I missed the press screening of this, the most recent (and hopefully not the last) James Bond adventure, because I was giving a presentation on "The Evolution of the Blockbuster." Wanting to see it asap as a film critic and a 007 aficionado, I bought a ticket to the midnight showing. It turned out to be the worst late-night theatrical experience I have ever had. To begin with, the auditorium was less than half full, which might have been a bad omen. About 2/3 of the way through the movie, around 1:25 a.m., a fire alarm went off. It took about 5-10 minutes before the theater employees suspended the movie and ushered us into the parking lot. Before we were out the door, the alarm had stopped, indicating a high probability that it was a false alarm. The lack of any emergency response (no fire engines or police cars) cemented that belief. Nevertheless, once the employees - eager to depart - cleared out the building, they had no intention of letting anyone back in or resuming the movie. So, after leaving us standing in the parking lot for 20 minutes, they came out with free movie vouchers and told us to go home. I came back later in the day to see the rest of the film and have not returned to that theater since. The false alarm didn't bother me, but the lack of customer focus in its wake (we should have been given the option to return inside and watch the ending of the film, even though it was almost 2:00) was absurd.

Twilight: Eclipse: I missed the press screening and could easily have waited for an opening day afternoon show, but I was curious about the atmosphere. It was worth delaying my bedtime for that. The place was a madhouse. The audience was at least 80% female, and half of those were sporting a goth look. Excited audiences don't make a movie better, but they can make the overall experience more energetic, and that was the case with the third emo vampire story.

We have reached a time where it has become impossible to use a midnight screening to help define a special event. I'll be seeing The Expendables at 12:01 Friday morning, but I could just as easily be seeing Eat Pray Love - it's playing at the same time. Movies that have strong support from fan bases, like the Twilight or Star Trek series, will always draw well for their first screening, no matter what time it is. But the brief era in which the midnight screening represented something rare and special has ceased to exist. Now, it's just like any other show time.