Steven Spielberg recently revealed a choice detail from a screening some three decades ago of “E.T.” at the White House. He told Aint It Cool News that after the film was over, President Ronald Reagan got up and told the small crowd of dignitaries, “There are a number of people in this room who know that everything on that screen is absolutely true.”
He was joking — Spielberg thinks — but it gave extra fuel to UFO conspiracy theorists.
That the choice anecdote has endured also speaks to what may be the most prestigious place for a filmmaker to get a film shown: a former narrow cloakroom in the East Wing of the White House that is now the 40-seat Family Theater.
Few other venues have quite the same cachet, or even the potential to create memorable tidbits for the history books. To get a movie screened there, especially one that is turned into an event, not only is an ego boost to filmmakers but can bring extra attention to a project and perhaps give it a boost at the box office.
The occupants of the Oval Office have cherished the screening room as a prized perk, with all of Hollywood serving as their own personal Netflix. In a tradition started years ago under then-MPAA chairman Jack Valenti, studios make their films available to the First Family upon request.
“I was just delighted. I was just like ‘This is fantastic,’?” says John Schultz, director of Relativity Media’s “Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer,” which the White House requested just days before its June debut. Presumably, the print was for President Obama’s daughters Sasha and Malia, but Schultz took it as a good sign for awareness of the movie. “It just speaks to what a wide reach our work has in the world. …The idea that the president or the president’s family is watching it, in such a historic spot, that is pretty amazing.”
Other movies that have screened during Obama’s term include “Star Trek,” “Julie & Julia,” “He’s Just Not That Into You” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” but the White House is somewhat reluctant to reveal a list of what was watched and when.
Because the screening room — officially called the White House Family Theater — is considered part of the private residence, White House press reps won’t comment. But the administration hasn’t been shy about publicizing events at the screening room that have stature: The documentary “Nuclear Tipping Point” is publicized; summer tentpoles are not.
HBO has been particularly adept at landing screenings, including one for “The Pacific” in March 2010 that drew a collection of veterans, military officials and, of course, Hollywood figures including the project’s producers, Spielberg and Tom Hanks. In what could easily pass for a segment on “Today” or “Entertainment Tonight,” the White House posted a video of the event on its website, with interviews with Hanks as well as remarks from Gen. James Conway, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, along with shots of Spielberg, operating a handheld camera, following the president in. “My first interview with any White House website, I must say,” Hanks says in the vid.
The White House also posted video of a February screening of another HBO project, “Thurgood,” from the play starring Laurence Fishburne. The Obamas actually hosted two screenings of the project, coming during Black History Month, with guests including Al Sharpton, Don Cheadle, director Michael Stevens, HBO’s Richard Plepler and members of Thurgood Marshall’s family.
“I think it is more of a privilege and an honor than something that gets people to turn on a television set or go to a theater,” says George Stevens Jr., who wrote the project about the first black Supreme Court justice.
Ultimately, landing a screening is as much about personal connections and good timing as it is about the president’s pop culture preferences.
For instance, HBO sent a copy of “The Pacific” to the White House social secretary before the administration agreed to put a screening on the calendar. But it undoubtedly helped that the network has been through the process before, with a much more elaborate screening of “From the Earth to the Moon” in the East Room of the White House in 1998 — an event that featured astronauts, celebrities and President Bill Clinton.
The screening of “Thurgood” was a foregone inclusion. Stevens Jr., who is co-chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, talked about the play (which the cabler was later to film) when he first met Obama in 2003, and when it opened on Broadway five years later, Obama left him a voicemail message in which he said, “I think you know if I wasn’t running for president I’d be there.”
The unspooling of “Julie & Julia,” for which Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci and director Nora Ephron were invited to the White House, gelled with White House initiatives. First Lady Michelle Obama had just launched a campaign to promote fresh food and healthy eating.
Other movies have gotten attention that can best be described as fortuitous. Before the Super Bowl in 2009, as the White House was planning a watching party in the screening room, DreamWorks Animation sent 3D glasses for those gathered to watch its “Monsters vs. Aliens” 3D commercial during the game. The result was a now-famous picture of Obama and his friends wearing the 3D specs, giving a boost to pre-“Avatar” efforts to promote the next generation of the format. It helped that DreamWorks Animation had strong ties to the White House: Its CEO, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was an early supporter and campaign bundler.
Studios either directly supply movies to the White House upon request, or do it via the MPAA. The history of White House screenings goes way back to Woodrow Wilson, the first president to host a movie night at the White House. He screened “Birth of a Nation” in 1915.
Franklin Roosevelt was perhaps the first chief exec to upgrade the screening room, when he had a cloakroom converted into the narrow theater it is today — a rarefied space, but one that, despite renovations and upgrades, still is not necessarily the best place to see a movie. Filmmakers have been known to complain about sound quality, framing and even focus.
So intent is Hollywood in getting films shown there that the studios even helped pay for an extensive upgrade of the space during the Reagan years, adding terraced seating and other amenities. Another upgrade during President George W. Bush’s term saw the color scheme remade into movie-palace red.
The record of the Executive Mansion cinema is preserved thanks to Paul Fischer, the White House projectionist from the Eisenhower to the Reagan administrations. As chronicled in Irv Letofsky and Bill Knoedelseder’s 2003 documentary “All the President’s Movies,” Fischer recorded what was watched, when it was watched and who was there. The logs are full of choice nuggets, like the fact that Carter was among the most avid presidential movie-watchers (starting with “All the President’s Men,” some 480 movies were screened during his one term); or the number of times that Nixon saw “Patton” (three, contrary to the notion he watched it endlessly, but one screening came hours after he decided to expand the war in Vietnam). Nixon’s obsession with “Patton” became so notorious that he had to deny years later to David Frost that it affected his decision-making.
As recounted in Barbara Moran’s book “The Day We Lost the H Bomb,” in the midst of dealing with a 1966 crisis in which four hydrogen bombs were unaccounted for after a B2 and fueling tanker collision off the coast of Spain, Lyndon Johnson watched “Thunderball,” a James Bond thriller in which evil organization Spectre forces a NATO plane carrying two nuclear bombs to crash into the ocean. Johnson wasn’t a huge movie fan, but he had a favorite: “A President’s Country,” a documentary about himself that screened 18 times at the White House.
The most memorable screenings have been those when Hollywoo
d gets an invite, which all but guarantees that details will be made public. Reagan famously invited Warren Beatty, his political polar opposite, to screen “Reds” at the White House in 1982.
Perhaps no president was more a movie fan than Clinton, who was known to chat up guests about a film’s content and artistic merits during and after a screening. He also wasn’t reticent about sharing his movie tastes. In “All the President’s Movies” director David O. Russell is allowed to bring a video camera into a screening of his 1999 film “Three Kings,” a pic that wasn’t exactly a flattering portrait of U.S. policy in Iraq. “It is a great endorsement when you go to the White House and you have an irreverent film and you have a president who is open to it,” Russell says.