Have you ever wondered how critics write their reviews before the movie actually comes out? Welcome to the wonderful world of the press screening. At its purest level, the studio allows the film to be screened early for press, so that the press will write about it and hopefully people will go see their film amid the swarm of movies that open every month. In a town filled with people in all levels of the moviemaking industry, the press screening is a staple of the Los Angeles working week, attended with excitement by some and with stoic resignation by the more seasoned critics.
If you're lucky enough to be a member of the accredited press and actually work for a recognized media outlet in this day and age, you must win the trust and acceptance of the gatekeepers of the industry. (Here I am reminded of the scene in Notting Hill where Hugh Grant attempts to sneak into the press conference where Julia Roberts is saying her farewells, and when asked if he is a member "of the accredited press" Grant produces a Blockbuster card and says he works for their in-house magazine. This, of course, fools no one.) The gatekeepers are the public relations contacts, and every studio has a fleet of them at the ready, all set to issue invites, barrage you with emails, and generally decide who is important and who is not. It's hard to get on the approved list, the special treatment first-showing lists; building up a list of your contacts is difficult as publicists deal with a lot of people all the time, and often move from company to company. It's best to be kind, but when kindness fails then you better hope you work for a big-name company. The bigger the name, the better you're going to be treated.
If you get an invite as a freelance writer, you pitch it to your editor, and once you get the go-ahead you RSVP and confirm yourself. Morning screenings usually don't get a "plus one," but evening screenings do. A "plus one" is when you're allowed to bring someone else along -- it's a chance to make your friends feel jealous, or really impress someone with whom you're in the early stages of dating.
If the screening is taking place on a studio lot, you show up with photo I.D. and either the people at the gate or the security guards will check you in, direct you toward parking and then to your screening room. If your screening is somewhere really cool like a major studio lot, you often see celebrities (or people that you wistfully imagine to be celebrities: "I'm about 80 percent sure I saw Charlize Theron today!"), writers, and directors wandering around.
If the screening is for a smaller independent film, then they've likely rented out a small screening room somewhere on Sunset Blvd. or in Century City. Sometimes you get really unlucky and get lumped in with some kind of advanced screening held at a regular movie theater, and that's filled with the general public. The general public itself isn't bad; in fact, they're great and the reason that I have a job. But when the studio passes out free concessions tickets in a room full of people hopped up on free movies and free candy, you don't get a very good picture of what they really think of the movie. It becomes difficult to form your own opinion if everyone around you is laughing hysterically and you simply don't think the film is funny, or vice versa.
On the way into your screening room, you check in with the PR contact at the door, and they will shove a small wad of papers into your hand known as a "press kit." These kits are filled with a variety of information, a synopsis of the film, a cast list, bios, and information about the production. It's usually kind of a badly typed version of everything you could already find on the Internet with two seconds of searching.
Screening rooms vary wildly, from ill-lit, cigarette smoke-drenched rooms that have been in use since the '40s, to glossy cathedrals that will spoil you for regular film viewings. A good screening room has about 20 or 30 large, comfy leather chairs, a screen that is roughly 8 feet by 14 feet. The sound and image are impeccable, fine-tuned before anyone even sits down. It's quite literally the best way to see a movie, ever. So the film begins and, surrounded by fellow critics, you have the space to think, to consider the movie apart from the distractions of sound problems or a child kicking your chair. That is the gift of the press screening, the perfectly manufactured arena to consider the film apart from any outside circumstances.
After you head home and write your review, the publicist might email you asking for a quote for the TV ad, if you're lucky or famous, and they might just ask what you thought of it so they can gauge what the critical reaction is going to be.
This carefully constructed and cautiously guarded world is all for the purpose of making the experience as enjoyable as possible, and it works. It's hard not to factor these niceties in when giving a review, in the same way that it's sometimes difficult to give a bad review to a film when the people involved have been very kind or thoughtful toward you. This is the entire premise of Almost Famous, that as a journalist you're supposed to write the truth, but it becomes difficult when you like the talent or when you connect with the people involved. Sometimes it seems as if press screenings and favors are doled out dependent on your willingness to play the game and go along writing favorable reviews forever. There are always going to be people willing to do or say anything to get ahead, willing to give a bad film a glowing review to get in the studio's good graces. But that isn't the truth, and there are a lot of bad movies out there that people shouldn't spend their money going to see.
The press screening is a gift not given to all, and it's the responsibility of journalists not to allow the freebies and the special treatment to sway their judgment, or to allow the concerns of studios to come before the reader. You, the general public, are our boss, and we are here to serve you the best we can.