The Weekly Moviegoer - Free to Be Scared at Midnight
by Christopher Campbell
September 28, 2009
Many New Yorkers will see any movie for free. This is probably the case for people in other cities, as well, but given the large population of NYC it is especially apparent here. Free previews of new films happen every week, whether sponsored by one of the local free papers or a radio station or directly presented by the distributor, as a way of initiating word of mouth in the last few days leading up to a film's opening weekend. But most of the time these screenings are not worth trying to fight the usual freeloaders for a seat at.
Last week's complimentary New York screening of Paranormal Activity, however, was different. For one thing, it wasn't followed by a proper theatrical release (the film barely opened in 13 college towns across the US this weekend, but not here). Those who wanted to see the much-buzzed-about horror film had only this one opportunity (for now) to see it, and so they were willing to stand on a massive line of people, scary movie fanatics and cheapskates alike, to hopefully gain entry.
By massive I mean at least two city blocks, maybe three. That's way more than could fit in the auditorium used for the screening, because like all such free film events more invites were handed out and more RSVPs were confirmed than there were seats available. Due to the anticipation for Paranormal Activity, though, combined with the exclusivity of the event, most of the people in the front half of the line -- those who showed up more than three hours early for the midnight screening -- were people who really, really, really wanted to see the film.
So there were fewer of the typical free-screening attendees, the ones who don't care what they're seeing as long as they're seeing it at no cost. These are people who, because they didn't have to pay, will be quite cynical and disruptive. At any film they attempt to predict events and point out goofs. With a horror film, specifically, they're out to prove it not scary enough. Obviously they can sometimes ruin a non-ironic, genuinely creepy horror film like Paranormal Activity.
Of course, some loudmouths are enjoyable during horror films, and there were a few to adequately break up the tension last Thursday night in a favorable manner. During the screening I sat between two very different kinds of moviegoers: on my left were a couple of snarky types who were clearly not frightened and talked too much about how they weren't; on the right were two girls who screamed a lot, held each other a lot and regularly shielded their eyes.
Which is the preferred type? I like a good mix of the two, though you may side with one or the other depending on which group you more closely fit in with. Maybe you're a fraidy cat who appreciates the loud and snarky audience members, because they lighten the mood in the auditorium. And maybe, like me, you love watching other people get frightened even if you yourself never get scared.
Either way, these are equally part of the appeal of seeing a horror film in the theater, and I was plenty happy with the recent Paranormal Activity trailer that promoted the theatrical experience by showing an audience watching the film as it's meant to be seen and shared.
Yes, there are those of you who like seeing horror films at home, where lights can be turned on to keep you from being too frightened. Or, antithetically, where a lonelier viewing guarantees you a greater level of scariness. But can't you also see the fun in seeing a horror film with a large group of fellow horror fans, some of which amusingly jump at the fake-out moments and then laugh off their embarrassment?
Of the two genres that are best for shared viewing, horror is far more interesting than comedy because it elicits a more varied response from the audience. However, you need as packed a house as possible and you need to be sure there aren't too many of the cynical types overpowering the fearful.
The Paranormal Activity screening reminded me of my experience ten years earlier with The Blair Witch Project. Similarly, I saw the film for free in an advance screening that Artisan Entertainment held in order to build buzz. But there were far more of the usual freebie-indulgers in attendance, and I don't believe I witnessed one scared moviegoer in the room. Either there weren't any, or the loudmouths overshadowed them.
I got lucky with Thursday's screening, but I wouldn't recommend you see the film in such a manner if you can help it. Skip any free screening of Paranormal Activity offered in your area and hold out for the shows people have to pay for. This past weekend, the film played solely midnight shows in those 13 locations and all but one of the shows (which competed with a Penn State football game) reportedly sold out.
Between this and the interest displayed on the film's Eventful "Demand It" page, Paramount will be widening the film's release, though still primarily for weekend midnight screenings only. Once you have the opportunity, make an effort to see the film at one of these limited engagements.
And while you wait for your chance, let me know how you like your horror audience in the comments.