Comped Oscar screenings expected, not always beloved

As the year’s film grosses are toted up, you can take this to the bank: Very little of that coin will have come out of Hollywood pockets. “Civilians” pay plenty, but Academy and guild members and assorted hangers-on patronize the multiplex at the corner of Freebie and El Cuffo.

But while gratis screenings are an established part of the annual awards cotillion, they’re a lot different from merely going to the movies.

A screening’s purpose is to focus squarely and respectfully on the work, with comfort paramount and extras thrown in, as when the Variety Screening Series offers filmmaker face time and the chance to pose a question or two. Projection conditions are expected to be optimum and often are, though many ranted about the December power failures that interrupted Academy showings of “Invictus” and “Nine.” (Naturally, the one thought on people’s minds was, “There goes their Oscar chances.”)

You don’t always encounter optimum good manners at screenings, with a high risk of sitting next to some grump groaning and harumphing in blatant violation of the First Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of a movie thou hast seen for free until thou reachest the parking garage.”

Screening attendees see no ads or trailers, so they miss the catcalls about dumb ads and trailers. And there’s a general lack of investment — not only financially (in terms of the parking, baby-sitting and overpriced but so-nice comfort food) but also emotionally: The buzz of disparate individuals brought together for a special purpose is all too often absent.

Some weeks ago, a typically blase industry contingent, invited by Fox to a 30-minute “Avatar” preview, left as silently as it had arrived, the one audible comment being: “Well! I didn’t see $300 million on that screen!” (Asked whether he’d seen $54 million, since he’d only been shown 18% of the finished picture, the gent gave the same look Orson Welles must have sported when asked whether Herman Mankiewicz wrote “Citizen Kane.”)

Few ”inner” kids came out that afternoon, but plenty were in evidence at a (paid) 11 a.m. opening-day showing, the thrum of excitement quickly advancing to a roar as the very same chase and flying scenes greeted offhandedly at the studio met with gasps and cheers.

The screening is admittedly a step up from the home DVD as a cinematic experience. But the average awards voter is still passing up a chance to sit among everyday folks whose plea is “Astonish me!” — opting instead to join a select group of insiders demanding, “Astonish me – I dare you.”

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