Eric’s Sack of Mail: early movie screenings

A devoted reader named Sarah e-mailed me to ask the following.

I have a movie business-related question. Midnight showings of popular movies have been happening for years, but I thought it was very interesting that Pirates 3 started its showings as early as 8 p.m. on Thursday. I’d never seen a movie open like that before, so I suppose my question is: What is the reasoning behind that? Is it to purposely inflate the movie’s box office earnings and break records for opening day gross? Is it to create even more buzz for the film? (Not like Pirates really needs it, in my opinion.) I mean, it seems like once you start giving special showings of the movie at 8 o’clock, why not move the time back even further to 6 o’clock or whatever? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of having a definitive release date at all?

You ask excellent questions, Sarah, and that kind of common-sense approach is why you could never make it in Hollywood.

You’re right that midnight “sneak previews” for big releases have been common enough for years. Ten o’clock screenings are not unheard of, either; I remember seeing “Batman Returns” that way in Los Angeles all the way back in 1992.

But if a film opens on Friday, May 25, yet has screenings (they don’t even bother calling them “sneak previews” anymore) as early as 8 p.m. on Thursday, May 24, then doesn’t that mean May 24 is the real opening date? I mean, that’s when the film starts playing, right?

The logical answer is yes, but here’s how they get around it. You occasionally see sneak preview screenings the Saturday before a movie opens, just one showtime six days early. (They had them for “Ratatouille” this past Saturday in a lot of cities, and that doesn’t open until next week.) No one considers the movie to have “opened” on that Saturday; it’s a special showing before the film’s real release date. Well, when “Pirates of the Caribbean” is shown on Thursday night, it’s the same thing. The “sneak preview” date just happens to be the night before the film opens, instead of a week early, that’s all.

Yeah, yeah, it’s silly. But Thursday night screenings are useful because they make the audience feel special. “The movie doesn’t really open until tomorrow, but we’re seeing it tonight!” If we called Thursday the actual release date, it wouldn’t be nearly as cool to go to the screenings that night.

As for what happens to the box office, you are correct that it’s folded into the weekend totals. Most reports you read on the Internet or in Variety will say something like, “$52.4 million for the weekend, plus another $4.1 million from Thursday midnight screenings.” On the charts, it often looks like the movie made money before it even opened. For example, the new “Pirates” took in $139.8 million over the four-day Memorial Day holiday, its opening weekend. Yet its total cumulative gross was $153 million. The additional $13.2 million was from its Thursday night screenings, of course.

It becomes controversial when we talk about setting records. “Pirates” made $139.8 million fair and square Friday-Monday. That’s a record for Memorial Day Weekend, easily beating the old record (“X-Men: The Last Stand”) of $122.9 million. But what if the old record were, say, $145 million? Then “Pirates” wouldn’t be the new champ unless you counted its Thursday-night money — but if you do that, then it really becomes a five-day total, rather than a four-day total, right?

And that’s another reason studios like the Thursday night screenings: to boost the numbers. Sometimes it means certain records have to have asterisks next to them (*includes Thursday evening showings), but who reads the fine print when it comes to records?