The other night I attended a screening for the movie Tolkien, and you don’t have to, but you can read my review here. I am a grizzled veteran of seeing movies to write about them. I have attended countless advance movie screenings, and beyond the night’s usual viewing of a movie, this Tolkien event was unusual for me, and it’s the kind of screening I hope they will do more often.
For people to review movies, they need to see the movies. Usually, this is set up in advance, for free. Typically, if you are a person whose work includes seeing movies to write about them, you either show up to an auditorium in a theater that is either almost empty, for reviewing press only, or jam-packed, a sneak preview for the general public. Personally, I like the empty-theater screenings because there’s no fucking around, they just run the movie, and nobody busts your chops about turning your phone off or putting your feet up. You show up at the appointed time, watch the movie, and get out.
The genpop screenings have their own good points, though. They’re helpful if you’re interested in what a crowd thinks, and it’s usually a good crowd because people are finding themselves at a movie they really want to see, or they know it’s one lots of people are interested in seeing, so it’s a thrill to be seeing the movie before the whole world gets a chance, plus, it’s like winning a prize, free movie! So it’s almost always a great crowd, but if it’s a movie the publicity people know is going to be well-attended, they save a couple of rows of seats for the reviewing press, and they tape a piece of paper to each seat with like, PRESS ONLY or something, and you just kinda feel like a tool walking into a crowded house and sitting down in a row of empty seats like you’re a big deal. The other thing is, even if you’re press, if you show up late and the place is full, you get denied, but my big problem with genpop screenings is it takes forever to get everyone seated, and if it’s a big crowd, there’s this whole comedy routine where the folks running the screening have to tell people to raise their hand if there’s an empty seat near them, and they make people skoonch down so empty seats will be contiguous, and there’s always drama and hurt feelings, it’s worse than boarding a full Southwest Airlines flight where everybody decided not to check their bags. Then there’s the lecture about turning the phone off, and the threat of NIGHT VISION, and how YOU ARE BEING WATCHED and YOU WILL BE ESCORTED FROM THE THEATER, and it just adds a lot of time to the screening.
When there’s no screening available and I want to review a movie, I go as a paying customer. I wouldn’t really care if I had to buy a ticket every time, because seeing the movie free isn’t the issue, it’s seeing the movie before it comes out. I remember several years ago the director Kevin Smith was lashing out at critics and saying anybody who sees a movie for free has no right to review it, but I paid to see his movie Cop Out, and that flick was crap, so there, and I’m not talking matinee pricing, I paid full price for that shit.
When I went to see Tolkien, the publicity company bought me a ticket and handed it to me in the lobby. I was puzzled about this until I figured out that what I thought was an odd way to do a screening had been announced and marketed to the public as a special event, with paid admission, because after the movie there was going to be a live-on-screen Q&A with some people from the movie.
A few minutes after the movie ended (enough time for a trip to the lavatory), up on the same screen, through the magic of technology we were connected to the Q&A session happening live at the Montclair Film Festival, wherever that was, moderated by television’s Stephen Colbert (a Grand Master Tolkien geek, it turns out), who let us know we were part of a viewing audience of about 400 theaters, featuring the movie’s two stars Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins, and director Dome Karukoski. It was great to have the option to watch this right after the movie!
I really enjoy the extra-business features they run on HBO after episodes of shows like Game of Thrones and Barry, where people from the production talk about what you just saw, and this Q&A was sort of like that, except there were a couple of actors who kept ending up talking about themselves, but it was well moderated by Mr. Colbert, who has vast knowledge of Tolkien’s works, and the director had interesting things to say. This is such a simple and obvious thing that movie publicity should be doing with screenings! They have key cast members who are obligated to do publicity, so why not tie it into the advance showings?
Also, the screening I attended was presented by a company called Fathom Events, and they specialize in one-night only events at movie theaters. They have done live opera, Broadway stuff, and they run a lot of anniversary screenings of big movies, with restored prints. The Tolkien screening was poorly attended, as was a recent screening of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote that I attended, but I’m not sure if it’s because of limited popularity or if it’s just that enough people don’t know about these events, plus it’s odd that a movie is one-night only, but I highly recommend seeing one if there’s anything you find interesting, especially right now when the vibe is more like a private showing in an empty theater.