This is a bit of a silly thing, but it’s been on my mind.
On May 21st, 1980, a theater in Seattle aired Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back at 12:01am, at least nine hours before any other theater would be showing the film. The first person in line to see it got there 24 hours before the showing and dressed as Luke Skywalker. The theater completely sold out.
This seems to be the first known example of a major Hollywood movie premiering at midnight. Before this, the only movies that ever aired at midnight were cult and B-list movies like Erasurehead and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and even they typically didn’t premiere at midnight. The news of the successful midnight showing traveled quickly, and drove people to the theater as soon as they could the next day.
Since then, the Midnight Premiere has only grown. Empire and Return of the Jedi had small, exclusive midnight premieres that made headlines. Over the next fifteen years other movies tried to do it with limited success, until it was revived by The Phantom Menace. Episode I went even further, turning its midnight premiere into a nationwide party that many, many young adults remember as their first midnight premiere. They called it Midnight Madness. After that, major franchises like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Twilight Saga, and The Dark Knight Trilogy utilized this hype to make major releases something special, where local television stations would hold trivia events and everyone would dress up. The very act of staying up until midnight standing in line with your friends built the hype for movies that people really cared about.
I remember fondly the first midnight premiere I went to, The Dark Knight Rises. I’ve never been a big Batman fan, and I particularly wasn’t super interested in the new dark and brooding movies. I went because I had a friend with an extra ticket who invited me, and because it was an event. Getting in line with him at 11pm and spending the hour until we could enter the theater talking about superheroes and people-watching the Batman fans was fun. Unfortunately, this would also be the last midnight premiere I attended.
I don’t know when it happened, and nobody else seems to either. But Midnight Premieres have gone away. And sure, there were signs it was coming. Many bloggers started writing about how lame they had become because every movie got one regardless of how good it was. They started calling them “routine” and “just another showing”. Then the horrible events in Aurora during the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises prompted movie theaters to ban costumes. (Heads up: most movie theaters are banning fake weapons, masks, and face paint for Star Wars, but some are allowing lightsabers.) The Twilight Saga experimented heavily with allowing people or organizations to rent out theaters for advanced screenings across the country. And finally, studios started allowing movies to premiere at 10pm or 7pm the night before.
And so here we are. The Force Awakens will be doing it’s first showings at 7pm this next Thursday, and theaters across the country are sold out, officially leaving a rising generation with no memory of a time when Star Wars made seeing a movie at midnight cool. And from a business perspective, there’s nothing wrong with that, as evident by the sold-out showings. Every fan who would have gotten in line at midnight the night before now already has their assigned-seat tickets in hand (or in email). And you might even argue that their lives are better because they don’t have to lose a day of work to stand in line with their fellow geeks in costume.
But I can’t help feeling like we’ve lost a little piece of Geek culture. And so I’ll be taking my friends to see Star Wars at 12:30am, because that was the closest showing available. And when John Williams’ “Main Theme” starts playing and the Opening Crawl begins and I’m crying because of the sheer amount of American culture contained in that sound and that image, I’ll forget all about this silly little disappointment.
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