Reel them in: Late showings, early profit
Clutching a copy of “Eclipse,’’ Oriana Wolchesky, 9, could barely contain her excitement as she waited outside AMC
Not only was she about to view the movie of the moment, but she was at the midnight opening — making her among the first to see it.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, I was so excited,’’ Oriana said.
Oriana and her mother, Anneliese Sheahan, 37, visiting from Wausau, Wis., were among the 519 people at the sold-out midnight premiere of “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse’’ at the theater.
Midnight movies were once rare and specialized events: the territory of blockbuster action fans, horror aficionados, sci-fi enthusiasts, and people dressed in Dr. Frank-N-Furter drag. Now they seem almost expected, not just for hyped sequels like those in the “Twilight’’ franchise, but for run-of-the-mill dramas and comedies, too.
Since Memorial Day weekend, a dozen films, from girls’-night-out event “Sex and the City 2’’ to the remake of “The Karate Kid,’’ have opened at 12:01 a.m. — more than twice as many as during the same span last year.
With “Eclipse’’ taking in a record-breaking $30 million-plus in its opening night debut — besting last year’s midnight premieres of “New Moon’’ ($26.3 million) and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’’ ($22.2 million) — the gimmick clearly can work. But not all movies are greeted with such breathless anticipation. Consider last night’s premiere of “The Last Airbender,’’ a film more notable for the questionable decisions of director M. Night Shyamalan than for its broad fan base.
So why do such films receive the same special midnight-launch treatment?
A spokeswoman for AMC Entertainment Inc., which owns the Boston Common theater, said the decision to host midnight premieres is a “collaboration’’ between studios and theater companies. In reality, theaters are pushing their limits to maximize box-office receipts.
Studios dictate which day a movie is released. But once the date is set, the theater can decide when to start showing it. And that can mean 60 seconds into the official release date.
“If a studio gives it to us, we can show it,’’ the AMC representative said. “We can decide if we want to play a movie at midnight.’’
And increasingly, theaters do it because they can. From 2008 to 2009 alone, the number of digital screens in the United States and Canada grew by 36 percent, from 5,659 to 7,736. With so many more screens just a click away, the possibilities for theaters are endless.
“With more theaters converting to digital screens, they now have the ability to have the same movie playing on every screen,’’ said Phil Contrino, editor of BoxOffice.com, a website that covers grosses and how Web activity affects them. “Before, they’d be stuck running two screens at the most. It’s a huge advantage, because you don’t have to turn away anybody.’’
Justin Scott, director of public relations for AMC, said the company “tries to offer special midnight showings for highly anticipated movies.’’ Like the Boston Common location, some theaters do such shows every week, especially during the summer, he said.
Sometimes, though, they may be overestimating audience excitement. Despite heavy promotion in the weeks before its release, fewer than three dozen people attended last week’s midnight screening of the Tom Cruise action vehicle “Knight & Day’’ at the Boston Common theater — many of them students, almost all in their early 20s. Most cited the Boston filming location as the main attraction.
Berklee College student Jourdan Rystrom, 20, brought her mother and younger sister, who were visiting from St. Paul. While at school, Rystrom had seen the movie filming on several occasions, including a car chase that zoomed by while she was at the gym. She was hoping to catch a view of some familiar sites — and maybe even faces — in the background.
“I’m excited to scope out the landscape,’’ she said. “And, Mom likes Tom Cruise.’’
Kader Madjido, 24, also came because of familiarity — he worked security on a few filming sites. He occasionally sees midnight movies, he said, but “only the good ones.’’
A young audience is typical of most midnight films, said Jesse Hassinger, the programming manager at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. The Coolidge has been screening late-night movies for years as part of its After Midnite film series, which alternates between cult movies and action flicks and draws a largely college-age crowd.
“A big reason why a lot of studios are doing midnight premieres is that that’s their audience, too,’’ Hassinger said. “These kids put their money behind entertainment because they don’t have the same bills to pay as 30-year-olds do. It’s an attempt to reach out to that audience.’’
With viewers age 24 and younger accounting for 47 percent of movie ticket sales across the United States and Canada in 2009, it’s no surprise that studios are relying on their desire to be first in line to fill late-night seats.
“You feel ahead of the curve when you get to see a movie at midnight,’’ Contrino said. “It’s a novelty — when you wake up the next day and talk to your friends, you already have a reaction.’’
Self-described “ ‘Twilight’ addict’’ and frequent midnight-moviegoer Stephen Trumble agreed. “It’s nice to go to work the next day and talk about it before anyone else has seen it,’’ said Trumble, 25, of Boston, who waited in line for three hours for the “Eclipse’’ premiere.
Studios and theaters are counting on the enthusiasm of audience members like Trumble to salvage what has so far been a disappointing summer, with North American ticket sales down 8 percent compared with last summer.
“It comes down to the financial bottom line,’’ Hassinger said. “If they have to open a movie on a Wednesday with a 12:01 premiere, they can get more money into their weekend gross.’’
“Studios feel that an extra day will give them a better jump on the competition,’’ Contrino said. “The Friday release is not something studios need to stick to, especially in the summer. The industry has been focused on turning going to the movies into an event, and that’s what midnight showings are all about.’’
Natalie Southwick can be reached at email@example.com