Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Culture of the Midnight Premiere

It's 9:00 on a Thursday night and the line stretches around the block. Many of those who wait are dressed in costumes of varying degrees of elaborateness. Several people have brought guitars and are serenading those around them. The atmosphere is eager, electric, excited. Hardly anyone complains about the length of the line or the amount of time still left to wait. This is the line for the 12:01 showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

In the early days of cinema, "midnight movies" were films like El Topo and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, low-budget horror flicks like Night of the Living Dead, campy films like Pink Flamingos. They still are, of course. There's at least one movie theater in New York City that still shows The Rocky Horror Picture Show once a month. By contrast, most mainstream movies ran at more "traditional" hours in order to garner the most box office draw. Even fifteen years ago, it was rare to see a mainstream movie play past 11:00.

Recent years, however, have seen an upsurge in midnight screenings. In 2012, it's become almost commonplace for movies that are expected to be big blockbusters to have a 12:01am screening on the day of release (at least in America) -- the more showings a movie has, the bigger the opening weekend box office, so studios like to open films as early as possible. This trend wasn't always so popular. For Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, my friends and I bought our tickets the day of, it was only playing on a few screens, the theater near my college was not that crowded, and the only person in costume was the reporter from the local television station (she dressed as Harry). Yet for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, just two and a half years later, we bought our tickets weeks in advance, dozens of people sported Hogwarts robes and House ties, it was playing on at least half of the theater's twenty-four screens, and though we arrived around 10:30, our theater was already mostly full.

The midnight premiere of a movie can be an epic experience, and every one is different. They won't all be full of boys playing guitars, or even people in costume (my midnight showing of The Avengers was mostly a bunch of people in various Marvel-related t-shirts). But more often than not, you're surrounded by avid fans of whatever film (or book, or television show, or what have you) you are there to see. After all, most people aren't going to say awake until 3am to see a movie in which they're only somewhat interested. Still, who doesn't want to be the first to see a highly buzzed about new movie? Who can wait even twelve hours to see that film for which they've been waiting months, if not longer?

Fans generally go above and beyond for the midnight premiere, making the hours leading up to the opening credits almost as enjoyable as the movie itself. It's almost a miniature Comic Con -- for most of a convention is waiting in line, meeting other fans, inquiring where people bought their t-shirts, and admiring the effort people put into their cosplay. My midnight showing of Attack of the Clones started late due to technical issues, so a giant group of Jedis entertained us with a lightsaber battle. My friends were among the few people in costume for The Hunger Games and were often asked to pose for pictures as well as interviewed for one of the local stations. At the aforementioned Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, before we were allowed entrance to the theaters (it was playing on every screen), some fans reenacted favorite scenes from the series while others took video or photographs. Most of us in the IMAX theater were seated by around 10:30 with nothing to do but twiddle our thumbs, so wizard rock duo Lily & James performed for us.

Seeing a midnight premiere is an experience quite unlike anything else. To be surrounded by other fans, to be enveloped in the excitement that can only be generated by a bunch of nerds gathering in one place practically vibrating with anticipation, it's something that really resonates. Watching a movie with a group of genuine fans is almost like watching live theater -- these are the people who cheer the Lucasfilm logo, who sob when they play "Hedwig's Theme", who stay to the very end of a Marvel movie because they know there's always a coda. It's difficult not to get swept up in the atmosphere when you're with people like that.

I believe everyone owes it to themselves to attend at least one midnight screening in their lives -- especially if it's a movie they're excited about. Trust me, if it's the right film, the right experience, it is completely worth the lack of sleep the next day.