“I like seeing movies before they come out. It’s fun being the first, because there are no spoilers and audience reactions are authentic. Plus, screenings give me a chance to talk about movies with like-minded people,” the cinephile says.
Studios offered advance screenings for almost all of the 750-plus films released in North America last year. “Often it’s to generate early buzz before opening weekend. Sometimes studios want feedback. And, on occasion, it’s to ascertain how audiences will respond, so the studio can calculate how much money to put into their advertising,” says Los Angeles consultant Octavia Dosier, who has arranged advance screenings nationwide for films such as “Black Panther” and “Selma.”
If you want to see first-run movies for free, it’s easier than it sounds, and the odds are in your favor. Renee Tsao, vice president for PR Collaborative, coordinates as many as 60 screenings annually in the D.C. area. “With so much competition for people’s attention and entertainment dollar, there are more screenings now than even a few years ago,” she says. First step: Get a pass. Register with websites such as Gofobo.com or AdvanceScreenings.com. They’ll email invites based on your Zip code. Do the same with studio sites such as Fox Searchlight, Warner Bros. Pictures, STX Entertainment, Sony Pictures and SeeItFirst (Disney). Eager to see a specific film? Try an Internet search with “Name of movie” + “advance screening” + “your city.”
Denver-based Sara Gans Blue of Blue Integrated Communications has overseen more than 3,000 screenings in her 17-year career as a field agent for movie studios. She recommends following Red Carpet Crash on Facebook or Twitter for screening leads. A few national chains such as Regal Cinemas and Landmark Theatres also offer screenings to their loyalty club members. Other good ways to find out about screenings: Look through your city newspaper or alternative weekly and listen to or follow social media for local radio stations.
Passes are distributed two ways: instant print or enter-to-win. With the former, you follow a URL to a landing page where you can download and print a pass while supplies last. Some websites offer you the option of getting on a wait list.
With enter-to-win, you either send an email with required information such as name and age to a specific address or fill out and submit an online form. Winners are randomly drawn and notified with a link to a pass they can show upon entry.
Here’s what you need to know if you score a pass:
Seating is not guaranteed. Passes are not paid tickets. Like airlines, screenings are overbooked to ensure a full house. If a theater seats 300, passes for 500 may be issued. Organizers expect a high percentage of no-shows because admission is free. “Staging a screening is not science, it’s an art,” Blue says. “Our goal is to fill the theater, but not turn anyone away.” Still . . .
Arrive early. Doors open 30 to 60 minutes before a screening. Depending on the film’s popularity, you may want to arrive 30 to 45 minutes before that to ensure you get in. Be prepared for crowds and lines, Dosier says, and, if it’s a smaller cinema or art house instead of a multiplex with a huge lobby, be aware you may have to wait outside, so dress accordingly.
Decline promptly. Last-minute conflict? Cancel your pass so someone on the wait list can have access. Not only is this the nice thing to do, skipping this step can have consequences. Promoters check lists to see who didn’t attend. A couple of no-shows could get you blacklisted.
Expect security. Not only may you encounter extra security, but for some blockbusters, you may be asked to turn over your phone (it works like a coat check), to prevent unauthorized recording. Carry photo ID, because some screenings will match it to the name on the pass or an RSVP list.
Bring a buddy. Most passes admit two, and it pays to have a companion. Why? The sad truth is that people will steal your seat if you leave it for any reason before or even during the film. Not that you should save seats for a pack of latecomers — an advance screening no-no — but it is comforting to know that if you have to step out for a few minutes, your seat will be there upon return. Dass says on the rare occasions when she is screening solo, she usually will ask the friendly face next to her to watch her seat if nature calls.
Watch the clock. Screenings start on time without 10 minutes of trailers. Late arrivals may be denied entry even if there are open seats. That’s to optimize the screening experience for all; don’t you hate it when some yahoo wanders in late and interrupts a big on-screen moment.
Don’t berate the staff. In a perfect world, everyone who comes to a screening gets in. Don’t take out your disappointment on people working the event. Typically, if you don’t gain entry (and are polite), staffers will ask for your contact info so they can send passes, occasionally even guaranteed seats, to another screening.
Your opinion counts. According to Tsao, of PR Collaborative, studios and distributors always receive a post-screening report. It could be as simple as noting whether the audience is absorbed, bored, gasping or laughing at certain points in the film. You may also be asked to fill out a brief questionnaire or (don’t be alarmed) someone may approach and ask what you thought. Blue’s team uses “nonchalant listening” (what the rest of us call eavesdropping) as people depart to gauge audience reaction.
One final thought: While following these tips can help you get into a free screening, they won’t guarantee you’ll love (or even like) the movie. Says Dass, “Sometimes I see a film and think, I’m really happy I didn’t pay for this.”