How To See Movies Before Everyone Else
Without Breaking The Law
A Short Guide To Free Advance Screenings
0. Introduction, Warning
Seeing movies can be an expensive hobby. Here in Ottawa, regular prices for first-run tickets is around $10. Even without factoring in the food, parking and assorted costs, a regular once-a-week movie habit will set you back more than $500 per year. Yikes.
Fortunately, there are ways to beat this. The easiest is to see movies at matinee prices, which is around $7, so you can curb down your addiction costs to around $350/year.
But there are many ways to see movies for free. Most of the time, you can even see films before their official premiere. Interested? This short article will tell you how.
Be advised, however, that this article is optimized for Ottawa-area readers, and presents a situation that was accurate as of January 2000 (with an epilogue in December 2006). Given that this article is presented free of charge, I accept no responsibility for any misleading information, though I’d like to read your comments if you’re got corrections to make to this article.
1. (Other) Types Of Free Advance Screenings
For a film, "opening night" is usually the first day where the movie is available to the general paying public. Of course, this is almost never the first time where the motion picture is shown to an audience. Consider the following:
Private screenings are usually done by movie insiders to movie insiders. George Lucas showing the latest STAR WARS to his buddies Spielberg and Howard. A director showing his first cut to studio executives. Rough cuts being shown to nervous investors. Unless you live in California and are most probably already working on the film -not to mention being insanely well-connected-, there’s no chance for you to attend this type of showing; they are not for public consumption.
On the other hand, "test screenings" are all about public consumption. They’re a way for filmmakers to evaluate audience reaction to their upcoming films. They then collect viewer’s comments and try to see if they have to make changes based on their reaction. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: many so-called "popular" filmmakers, like the late Alfred Hitchcock, found this process to be immensely useful. Lately, several comedies are re-cut according to test audience reactions.) It often happens, especially in big-budget films that feature a lot of special effects, that the shown film lacks final shots, contains continuity mistakes, uses a temporary soundtrack, isn’t fully edited, etc… Test screening viewers are usually recruited in shopping malls by marketing-research companies (NRG is the most famous one), most often in California or in big American cities. Ottawa-area persons haven’t got a chance for test-screenings, though they can read about them at movie-preview sites.
Film Festivals occasionally present films well in advance of their official premiere date. But you still have to pay, which really isn’t the focus of this essay.
Official Premieres are the stuff the Wednesday edition of "Entertainment Tonight" is made of: The Hollywood gala of limousine-driven celebrities making inane comments to journalists. You can attend this type of event if, of course, you’re the star of the film, friend of the star of the film or heavily connected with Hollywood. Unless you win one of those "Buy SHMOZL and win a ticket to the official premiere of…" contests, there’s no way for average bubs like us to attend this type of screening.
A closely-related type of free movie screening is what’s known as "cast and crew screenings", where the producers of the films invite everyone who has worked on the film (along with some friends and family) to see the finished product of their labour. Unless you’re working on a specific film or have friends/family involved in the making of a film, you can forget about even knowing about cast and crew screenings. Through sheer good luck and contacts, I was able to attend one of them and I can tell you that no one leaves during the end credits.
There’s also something called "Exhibitor’s Screenings", where finished films are presented to theater owners so that they can decide whether or not to show the film once it comes out. Again, the only way to attend these screenings is to live in a very large town and to own a theater, in which case you’d be too busy to even read this essay.
From time to time, studios will schedule special paying public "sneak previews" of their upcoming films, mostly good-quality movies that have good word-of-mouth potential. This usually takes place one or two weeks before opening day, and is often presented as "See a sneak preview of MOVIE ONE and stay to see MOVIE TWO for free!", where MOVIE TWO is a month-old film. You still have to pay to see these films, but then again you get two for the price of one… You can spot these sneak previews by looking at your weekend movie listings: There’s nothing hush-hush about them.
Critic’s showings are held in most major markets, usually on an afternoon a few days before the official opening night. These showings are, predictably, for critics to attend and write up reviews in time for the Friday edition of their newspapers/newscasts. There are ways to get into these screenings, but they involve some writing talent, contacts at the studios and getting a regular movie-reviewing job for major media outlets. Good luck.
Unless, as it often happens, that the critic’s showing is combined with a preview screening. You probalby suspect that most major cities don’t have enough reviewers to fill a full-size movie theatre and you’d be right: Critics’s showings for many movies in smaller markets are often combined with preview showings. Unlike the above types of screening, preview screenings are free and nominally presented for members of the general public. Being an exercise in marketing, they’re usually advertised fairly broadly. Read on.
2. Preview Screenings
It all hinges on what people want. Studios and theater owners want people to come to see movies. Shop owners want more people to walk inside their businesses. Media outlets want to increase their audience. Finally, ordinary people just want to see movies.
So it works like this: Studios make deals with local theatre owners to book one screen for one showing. Tickets are then sent to local business owners and media outlets. That’s how your local radio station gets those dozens of tickets to give away. That’s how your local newspaper have these draws for free tickets.
There are several ways of acquiring these tickets.
Perhaps the most obvious is to try to win by calling up your radio station when they hold such promotions. The problem, as anyone who ever tried it will tell you, is that not only is it fiendishly hard to compete with dozens of other callers, but that you’ll have to tell on-the-air that station KRUP is the best station in the known universe if you win. At least that’s how it works in the Ottawa area, with several radio stations regularly offering free tickets to their audience.
A slightly better way to win is to be literate and to peruse the "Movies and entertainment" section of your local newspaper. Depending on the newspaper, you can regularly see draws, contests and other ways of getting free movie tickets. In the past few years, contests have gone electronic: Peruse your favourite newspaper, and there’s a good chance that you’ll find a giveaway of the type "Enter by email for a chance to win a double pass to…" Chances are usually a bit bett
er than radio contests (a measure of both media’s audience, and how easy/difficult it is to dial a phone number rather than send a faxed draw ticket.) but you’re still in a contest.
So, are you reduced to engage in fierce competition each time you want free tickets? Not necessarily. From time to time, alternative papers are often the best sources of no-draw free tickets. They will advertise a time and place (usually a local shop) for ticket distribution. You then just have to walk at the advertised place and pick up the tickets. Show up early, ask politely, be courteous whatever the answer and while you’re there -why not browse around?
3. You’ve Got The Ticket, Now What?
Well, you might as well take a few moments to revel in the glory of free tickets. Why not cheapen the whole accomplishment by showing it off to jealous friends, usually accompanied by something approximating "nah, nah, nah!"?
The hard part comes afterward, as you notice that the ticket is usually good for "you and your guest". If you have a Significant Other, then that problem neatly solves itself. Otherwise, welcome to the godlike power of deciding Who Should Come. It’s far from being as easy as you’d think. What if your ticket is for a romantic comedy? Do you invite your good old motorcycle-drivin’ cigar-chompin’ buddy? Do you try hitting on that cute girl at the office? What about your Mom? Heck, it’s your ticket, you do what you want…
Besides the place and date information, the most important line on your advance ticket is the following: PLEASE ARRIVE EARLY AS THEATRE CAPACITY IS LIMITED AND SEATING IS NOT GUARANTEED. They always give out more tickets than there are places. Even taking in account those who arrive alone, those who can’t make it, etc… the theatre is usually packed. (Speaking from experience, only a major snow storm will result in a near-empty theatre.) Arrive thirty minutes in advance (no kidding!) and don’t hope for your Favourite Seat.
There are usually no coming attraction previews before advance screenings. However, there are often prize giveaways. Your chances at winning soundtracks, posters and T-Shirts in a crowd of 200-300 persons are usually slim, but you never know… I’m no luck magnet, and yet I own a GO T-Shirt and a MAGNOLIA soundtrack.
After the film, don’t be afraid to recommend the film to other persons if you liked what you saw. After all, isn’t it why they gave you free tickets?
4. Epilogue: Some perspective (2006)
As I re-read the above, six years after writing it, I’m struck by two things: First, that it’s still more or less accurate. Second, that I haven’t been to a free screening in years.
It’s all about time and money. Younger people have plenty of time and no money, while I currently happen to have enough money and not enough time. In this context, time becomes my major deciding factor in seeing or not seeing a film: paying $10 is secondary, especially if I can pick the time and place where I can see the film.
In short, I’ve been out of the free-tickets game for a few years. I haven’t entered a draw in years, nor shown up at a ticket giveaway in just as long. Despite a quarterly movie-reviewing column for a recognized French-Canadia media outlet, I have also given up on asking studio contacts to put me on their media mailing lists: I found that I was more comfortable paying-then-criticizing than showing up at critic’s screenings and doubting my impartiality.
I do still regard my "free movie tickets" period with some fondness, but in retrospect they do strike me as a considerable investment of time and effort for what is, after all, just a bunch of movies.
I don’t think I ever became a "screening rat" (also known as "Passholes": Google it up), the dark, obsessive side of free-movie running as described in an infamous Culturepulp essay. But I retrospect, I’m glad that I stepped away from that particular habit, decoupled my movie-going from the "I saw this before everyone else!" impulse and generally became a more flexible cinephile. Heck, I now even wait entire weeks before seeing films.
Free movie-running is a young person’s game: now that that you know all of my secrets (and please don’t ask me to tell you how to see free movies in your hometown: everything is up here), I pass on the torch to you. Have fun, don’t obsess about it and enjoy the movies!