I saw The Last Airbender at midnight. I went with some friends who, like me, were fans of the television show it was based on. Deep down, we knew that it probably wasn’t going to be good, but we wanted to see it at midnight anyway. There was a special energy surrounding a 12:01 AM showtime that couldn’t be replicated at any point afterwards. The Last Airbender is a terrible film, but I’ll never regret going to that screening. It was filled with nothing but fans of the series, and the collective groans and chuckles at the film’s more egregious missteps could only come from that audience. After a while, people started cracking jokes. Nobody minded, and nobody needed to say that they didn’t. That whole theater was one gigantic hivemind, and the uproarious laughter when the credits rolled remains one of my favorite filmgoing memories.
I saw The Dark Knight Rises at midnight. The premiere followed screenings of the previous two films in the trilogy, and all three films were shown in IMAX. It’s the kind of tantalizing prospect that a fan can’t pass up, and while I don’t look back fondly on The Dark Knight Rises, I still remember the screening itself as fun. Seeing a movie in a theater with an audience is inherently a shared experience, but the midnight premiere has a layer all its own — that of a large group of people who all love something getting together to experience it. It’s not just the allure of being one of the first people to see a film; it really comes down to one’s desire to see a film as soon as possible. When you sit in a theater for a midnight premiere, that palpable excitement connects everyone in the room. And when the film is good, it’s all the more exhilarating.
I saw Sin City: A Dame to Kill For at 9 PM on the evening before the film’s release date. I’d assumed that it wouldn’t be much of an event, but for a long-awaited sequel to a very well-liked film, it was pathetic. This was the first screening of the film, the premiere, but you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish it from a matinee a month after release. It was shoved to the tiniest screen at the back of the theater, and the audience’s reaction was muted at best. I’m no fan of either Sin City film, but I was surprised at the lack of super-fans attending the film’s first screening, not to mention the tiny screen it was shown on. The Dark Knight Rises was the last midnight premiere I attended, and it may be the last one I ever attend. Thursday night “preview” screenings have become the norm, and even this year’s biggest franchise installments premiered at 10 PM at the earliest. What gives?
There’s an obvious financial benefit to these earlier screenings. More screenings means more money, so premiering movies on Thursday night is a great way for studios to squeeze a few more bucks into a film’s opening weekend gross. The earlier screenings also accommodate people for whom it isn’t feasible to stay up until three in the morning to watch a movie. In theory, this is just a better version of midnight premieres. In practice, it’s killed the concept altogether.
The fun of a midnight premiere is that there’s a challenge element. The audience is made up of people who care so much about a film that they were willing to wait in line for hours to get into the theater and stay up into the wee hours of the morning watching it. It feels like a special occasion, and the fact that everyone there is filled with the same elation only makes it better for each individual person. Thursday night premieres eliminate that, because they’re explicitly designed to make it easier for people to see the film. It’s still a premiere, but it no longer feels like one. Unfortunately, since these are still the first available screenings, there’s no feasible alternative for fans looking for that midnight experience.
The midnight premiere was such an integral part of film-going culture that it’s easy to forget what a recent phenomenon it is. Midnight screenings of cult movies have been around for decades, but midnight releases of big franchise movies only came to be around the time of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. That was, at the time, the most highly anticipated film ever, so the gimmick of a midnight release made perfect sense. Fans had been waiting for years to see the film, so they would want to pay to see it as soon as possible. There were even midnight book releases for a time, though I believe only the Harry Potter and Twilight series ever used them. If a movie had a large enough fanbase, it would probably have a midnight release. And the standards for fanbase size loosened over the years, with second-tier blockbusters that couldn’t really qualify as “events” getting the midnight treatment.
So now midnight premieres are on the downswing. Maybe the problem really has to do with the films. In 2012, there were franchise installments that still qualified as “events,” like The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. There hasn’t been a film like that in the past two years, as Hollywood’s output has become increasingly focused on making movies like that. Those two films were the conclusions to years of buildup. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as popular as it was, wasn’t nearly as culturally important. Event films are great, but if everything is designed as an event, then nothing is. Next year sees the releases of The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars Episode VII. It would be surprising if these films, particularly the latter, didn’t get midnight releases, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s a dead model. It might be better to reserve midnight screenings for only the biggest films, but we might never get back that specific kind of enthusiasm.