Advance Movie Screenings: Pros and Cons

Broken City ticket stubThe advance screening of Broken City I attended last night was made possible through a marketing promotion run by a social-event notification service, from which I’d considered unsubscribing months prior. Lucky for me, their very first useful offer crossed my path at just the right time.

Just so we’re clear: last night’s entry was not a paid product review. I’m not opposed to attempting one of those on principle, but for some reason no one submits such offers to the occasionally biased sarcastic guy, even one who sometimes enjoys the things he tries. Also, in blogosphere big-picture terms, I’m still small-fry. Dare to dream, though.

One of the advantages of living in a city of above-average size is that we have enough theaters and moviegoers to warrant sporadic attention from the major studios, who use advance screenings as one of the handy tools in their marketing toolbox. Theoretically the studio partners with a theater to hold one screening of an upcoming film to a full house of Average Joes before its official release date. Said Joes reciprocate the favor by spending the saved ticket money on refreshments instead; sitting through the movie, perhaps a little more patiently than usual since it was free; then sharing their love for the movie across their personal social-media outlets of choice. You become their li’l marketing assistant for an evening, and your paycheck is a flick of their choosing.

My access to such events is infrequent and always by chance. Sometimes my local comic shop receives free passes. In the past Entertainment Weekly held such soirées for subscribers in major cities, though Indianapolis qualified as “major” maybe 5% of the time. Local radio stations have their moments, though that’s only worked for me once. In general it’s all about chance for me. I have no direct connections to industry professionals, no close friends who work at a theater, not one single relative employed in a marketing capacity, and certainly no press credentials. If it happens, it happens. I don’t have the resources or wherewithal to scrounge for them all the time.

I’ve lucked out and attended several such screenings over the past couple decades, surely not a lot compared to some residents of New York or Los Angeles. In my limited experience, though, I’ve found a few differences between free advance screenings and normal paid visits.


* Bragging rights! In today’s accelerated consumer culture, especially for those whose Internet participation mode is far from passive, whoever watches or reads the new things first wins.

* Spoiler prevention! The kinder, politer media outlets allow a week to ten days after release before they assume everyone who’s anyone has already seen it and begin casually blabbing about detailed plot points. Not every Internet user is so considerate. If you see it quickly enough, no one else can ruin it for you in the same manner that The Cabin in the Woods was partly ruined for me (to cite but one recent example).

* Date night! Those free passes are almost always Admit Two. You can treat your best friend or loved one to a free night out.

* Post-viewing focus group! Sometimes employees with clipboards will attack random folks with questions from the studio. I’ve only been caught once, but it was fun to kill a minute of their time with as pretentious an improv capsule review as I could manage in that unprepared moment.

* Fiscal savings! If the movie is terrible, at least it was free. If it isn’t terrible, then hey, bonus.

* Freebies! Not always included, but sometimes the marketing reps bring some along. I never bother with mini-posters, but I still have my bright orange Juno T-shirt.


* Arrive early or don’t bother. To ensure a full-capacity house, the Powers That Be frequently hand out more passes than they have seats. Those free passes are not guaranteed. If the turnout is enormous, managers will count heads and close admission immediately to placate the local fire marshal. Pass or no pass, if all the seats are already filled by the time you stroll through the front doors, you’re not getting in there. (At the aforementioned Juno showing, held at our local art-film theater, I arrived over an hour early and was still five people away from the point at which the manager was forced to cap the line and deliver the bad news to everyone on the wrong side.) Additional pitfall: early arrival means you’re left with an hour to kill before showtime. I usually bring reading material.

* Security checkpoints. Now that many smartphones are equipped with fully functional cameras, studios are now more nervous about the premature sharing of unapproved images, materials, and pirated copies of the entire movie. At the last two screenings I attended, everyone had to be scanned with handheld metal detectors, and to check their cell phones with one-night-only security guards. Even my prepaid non-smart phone wasn’t exempt from temporary confiscation. How many hundreds did you spend on your phone? And how comfy are you with leaving it in the hands of strangers?

* Crowd-based claustrophobia. General procedure is to fill every single seat in the house. All of them, from troublemakers’ row in the back to the front-row house of severe neck pain. No skipping seats to shun strangers, no allowance for elbow room, no reserving one seat for your precious coat, no squatting across two seats because of your glandular problem or antisocial tendencies. The studio spent a good chunk of change for this party and wants maximum impact. If you can’t live for two hours on a two-inch-deep personal-space zone, you’re in for a long, awkward night.

* Incomplete moviegoing experience. The movie itself is the reason you were invited. You might be treated to one preview at best. If you’re hoping they include the usual twenty minutes’ worth of action-blockbuster teasers, expect disappointment. Those in charge have no vested interest in keeping you there any longer than necessary. The sooner you leave, the sooner you go home and get the word-of-mouth rolling. At one particularly high-profile screening I witnessed, even the end credits were cut off. Longtime MCC readers can imagine my conniption.

* Spoiler contagion. Once you exit the theater, you are now armed with the full knowledge of everything that happens. With one word, you could ruin the movie for the people you know. Some of them will rightfully injure you for this. You are now burdened with the responsibility of not being a jerk about it and ruining all the surprises for them. Neutering the spontaneity of the viewing experience and reducing it to a clinical exercise is not cool.

* Deprivation of filmmaker income. Congrats! You’ve seen it free. Did you like it? Would you like to reward the filmmakers for their efforts? Would you like the studios to make more films like this? You may need to consider seeing it a second time and voting with your dollars. If the only people who see the movie are the cheapskates at the free previews, don’t expect sequels or any more efforts in the same genre. (To this day I still bear some guilt for failing to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World a second, paying time. I’ve also always wondered if one of the reasons Serenity underperformed was because they held too many free screenings.)

Regardless, here’s hoping my next free experience will be even better and isn’t fated to happen decades away from now. Rest assured MCC readers will be among the first to know.


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