[12 December 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Preview screenings audiences covet. They covet the tickets that got them into the promotional event in the first place. They covet the swag that studios send to their advertising partners. They covet the attention of representatives eager to get some word of mouth feedback. And they covet seats. Now, this may sound like a realistic reaction to any entertainment circumstance. If you’re going to stand in line, be herded like sheep, wade through the pointless banter of a low end station personality/disc jockey, then you should be able to sit where you want - and for the most part, these lucky viewers do…unless, of course, they want to sit in the critic’s row.
While the job of a film reviewer is often shrouded in a cloak of mystery and unwarranted elitism, the truth is that the same mass mentality is applied to their presence as anyone else at a screening. Long ago, before Hollywood realized the ‘two for one’ value in such a pack ‘em in premise, movies were shown to critics in private morning advances. Depending on the locale, 10 to 20 local press would pile into an empty theater and sit through one, two, or even three showings. In most major cities, that’s how it’s done to this day, and in the major hubs - New York and LA - there can even be multiple setups. But out in the minor market boonies, where release patterns can dictate when critics see a film, the group experience is far more common.
And so is the desire to sit in the rows reserved for press. Talk to an old timer and you’ll hear that, before the mid-‘90s, studios didn’t demand that specific seats be reserved for critics. In the vernacular, finding a place to sit in those days was ‘catch a catch can’. But with a decreasing desire to offer private screenings, mirroring the media’s de-valuation of the critical community, putting everyone together made sense. As a minor compensation for the journalist/professional, studio reps started masking off certain places for the press - and thus began the entitlement based concept of coveting said seats.
While it’s clearly not the case with every preview audience member, there is a typical CSC (or “critic seat coverter”). The doors typically open an hour before the screening, yet they will show up 10 to 20 minutes before the start and wonder why the theater is already packed. They are usually with a date/spouse/family member (or more than one) who equally bemoan the lack the automatic access to two adjoining seats. They are typically adults, sometimes representing the oldest generation of film fans, though there are also many examples of ‘who cares, it’s free’ cinematic slackers. And they are always vocal about their inability to share space with the looked down upon members of the unnecessary media.
No matter if you’re a populist scribe who writes nothing but marketing friendly poster blurbs, or pride yourself on never shilling for a studio, people desperate for a place to sit look down upon you. The rest of the crowd is their common man ally - even if they represent the other 380 of the available 400 seats. No, the CSC views the critic as a pointless, pampered villain, ready to rip their favorite horror icon/action star/buddy pic with an aesthetic forged out of snobbish subjectivity, not a notion of enjoyment or fun. Even worse, they are taking up valuable space - space where they and their own sense of privilege demand access.
It never fails to happen. If a critic attends 100 screenings a year, 99 times a person will stand directly in front of them, seek out the rep, and wonder loudly “why do they get to sit there?” Sometimes, it’s a question of pure logistics. In today’s stadium ideal, the press is usually confined (and that’s the key word here) to a section consisting of the first two rows of the mezzanine (or where there are only two sections, the ‘upper’ tier). This is not by choice - this is where tradition dictates they be placed. Talk to someone who works the event, and they will explain that, because of the lack of viewers in front, and the ease of ingress/egress, the front is a preferred position. Obviously, that poll was taken long ago before home theater made such oversized screens appear oppressive.
Want proof? On the rare occasions where the press screens a film alone, most of the critics head for the middle to back of a theater. They spread out near the ends and away from the pack. They like to be alone with their thoughts, experiencing a movie without the constant barrage of scratching pens, rustling popcorn, and sipped drinks. So it seems only natural to conclude that, when heaped together in one specific row (usually reserved for both critics and advertising partners/guests), a writer feels uncomfortable. Granted, they’re used to it by now, but it’s still not the preferred way to do their job.
And folks often forget that there are people working during these freebies. As part of their daily reportage, or weekly cinematic wrap-up, the man or woman sitting in this special section is trying to figure out the film they are seeing. Whether it’s a lame laughfest or a churlish drama, they’ve got to commit moments to memory, jot down context confirming notes for later, and embrace a whole myriad of big picture issues that the nacho-eating, Raisinettes chomping public need never embrace. And while you’re explaining the plot in a running commentary behind them, or constantly tossing out inappropriate bombastic bellylaughs, someone is trying to pay their bills.
So this seating situation is definitely a ‘lesser of two evils’ ideal. The studios no longer wish to cater to a community they view as lethal to a film (though it’s hard to name the last time a legitimately good film was undermined by reviews ONLY) and they love the killing two birds with one concept of grouping everyone into one miserable mob. There are rare occasions when a free preview is less than full, but more times than not, it’s standing room only, with the critic’s row viewed as a cinematic Shangri-La. And since a line is never drawn between legitimate press (print, online, media) and “friends” of same (someone at a news station who got a group email from a marketing agency), the rows can fill up as readily as the regular seats.
This doesn’t stop people from scheming and whining, however. There are those who will sit in the seats directly in front of the critics, walkway and/or handicapped aisle separating the two, and stare incessantly. Whenever the studio representative walks by, they glare with implied hatred, and even confront them on the availability of said section. The “No” answer just increases their glower power. Some will actually harass the press, albeit indirectly. As they walk by the rows, disgruntled over not being able to sit within, they mumble everything from slurs to outright vitriol. Then there are those who simply tempt fate, crossing the police/duct tape roping off the section and hoping security doesn’t spot them (they usually do).
In the end, it makes the press very uncomfortable - and the reps love to enhance said discomfort by making the entire situation their fault. Then they do their little “how y’all are?” warm-ups, the standard warnings usually involve the cellphones, crying babies, the critics, their needs for silence, and an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that mandates the audience modify their behavior to satisfying the snobby cabal sitting front and center. The usual collection of scoffs and giggles that follows definitely makes a journalist feel appreciated. But it’s more than that. The lack of respect that flows between the two camps is so palpable that one wonders why the studios continue such a practice.
It’s clear that, in a perfect world, preview audiences would love the whole experience to be about them. They’d want unlimited gifts, buckets of swag, and the chance to sit anywhere they want. For a critic, it’s exactly the opposite. They want no muss, no fuss professionalism, the chance to spread out with their thoughts, and the freedom to feel important to the process, not the unjustifiable means to an ends. As the ‘Net continues to marginalize the importance of reviewers, turning everyone into an ersatz Ebert, the truth remains that some people are actually still getting paid for their opinion. To discount them in favor of a more group-oriented ideal seems insensitive.
Still, it doesn’t keep the CSC from grumbling and huffing. It won’t keep the angry man in the row behind from kicking the chair or translating the dialogue for her non-English speaking partner. It doesn’t make the studio charge any happier when a pissed off critic decides to avoid their post-screening questions as a matter of personal principle. It definitely doesn’t make the seatless happy for being without a way to see something for free. And in the end, it doesn’t really make a difference to the movie being shown. Many times a genuinely horrible effort will receive enthusiastic applause, while a major artistic statement is left with deafening post-credits silence. In some ways, the screening process is a sham. It looks good in principle. It’s barely effective in practice.
So the next time you wander into the latest Will Smith vehicle, or bring your entire brood to a CGI kid flick starring some adorable signing rodents, remember a few things: (1) you are an invited guest, not a member of a disenfranchised movie going minority that demands their seating civil rights; (2) critics don’t always enjoy being jumbled into a single front row, (3) that everyone involved in the process is human, and demands respect and dignity, and (4) you didn’t PAY for anything, therefore no implied privilege exists. While these suggestions won’t stop the covetous nature of those envying the press rows, they may provide some pre-preview food for thought.