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Sitting pretty in Hollywood

Screening seat defines status

In Hollywood, you are where you sit.

Though a few hardy souls actually pay money to view a film in a theater with the common folk, most showbizzers prefer to see a pic at a reviewers’ preview, a premiere, an “all-media” event or a “buzz” screening.

To ensure that they see a movie before it opens, film workers employ such tactics as pleading, emotional blackmail or that old favorite, screaming. And the release of “Star Wars: Episode I — the Phantom Menace” ratcheted up the desperation to new heights.

Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox have eschewed black-tie/invitation-only premieres, going instead with 11 fund-raising preems this Sunday. Meaning industryites can fork out $500 (at a minimum) if they want to see the film three days before it opens.

This tactic gave showbizzers an even greater incentive to attend Monday’s all-media screening in Westwood. In fact, Fox was so inundated with demands for advance peeks at the pic that studio execs pleaded with Daily Variety not to publish the date or location of any such screenings — even though invitations with that info had been mailed out.

Policing is usually lax at press events — a bored studio underling with a clipboard simply asks for a last name. However, the “Menace” screening was different. The invitation stated: “You will be given your ticket(s) at the door when you present a picture ID,” and the heavy security presence made it clear they meant it.

Screen to be seen

The “Menace” mania underlines Hollywood’s attitude toward perks: Industryites may act casual about freebies, but they are key to everyone’s self-image. And screenings are a crucial way of defining yourself: Tell me where you saw the film, and I’ll tell you who you are.

Though most people here refer to an “industry screening,” the term is a bit ambiguous. At some studios, it means “a premiere but no party.” At others, it means “a premiere, but we couldn’t get the stars to attend.” At another, it means “this movie is a dog.”

However, here’s an attempt to define the strata of industry screenings.

  • Usually, “all media” screenings are for any worker at a newspaper, magazine or TV station who’s deemed worthy — everyone from Daily Variety’s editors to an assistant at E! cabler. This includes most short-lead reviewers. The film usually plays at a largish theater, with seating on a first-come/first-served basis.

  • Long lead-time reviewer and editorial screenings are held a few months before the film opens to accommodate deadlines for monthly magazines or to curry newspapers’ interest in big profiles of the stars.

  • “Buzz screenings,” held in theaters for a handful or a few dozen carefully selected people, are for movers and shakers who can keep the positive buzz going, such as magazine bureau chiefs, agents or someone the filmmaker perceives as a friend — George Lucas screening “Menace” for Steven Spielberg is a highest-level example.

  • “Radio promo screenings” or “word-of-mouth screenings” are those which studios hold to create a buzz among the non-pros a few weeks before the launch.

  • Premieres are formal, with stars and studio bigwigs in attendance, with costs ranging from $40,000 for a screening with after-nosh at the Motion Picture Academy to $200,000 for anything with a tent. Major events like “Godzilla” might be double or triple this.

Preems can be as elaborate as Disney taking over Cape Canaveral for the “Armageddon” blastoff. But generally, they’re more like the launch for “The Mummy,” where guests saw the film at the Universal Cineplex and then exited to the studio’s Amphitheater courtyard for an al fresco buffet.

Race for invites

Everyone likes to grouse about leaving work early to race across town to see a film. But everyone wants to be invited.

And they want to make sure the wrong people don’t get in. Many were horrified that “The Matrix” premiere at the Village theater was jam-packed thanks to counterfeit tickets that a woman in an agency mailroom had allegedly printed and distributed to friends.

While that sort of larcenous ingenuity is rare, the impulse — to attend an advance screening, no matter what — is quite common.

At a post-screening party for one of Fox Searchlight’s Sundance films in Park City, the “usual 400 people were trying to get into a restaurant that holds 200,” recalls senior VP Val Van Galder.

From the back of the crowd, an acquaintance caught her eye and indicated she should “risk life and limb to get him into this party.” When she shrugged off the request, he “starts yelling at the top of his lungs, ‘You won’t let me in?! You won’t let me in?! Val Van Galder, looossse my phone numberrrr!!!’ ”

So with all this pressure to see and be seen — and be seen in the right seat — how are decisions made about who gets invited to a preem?

Seating survival

The basic formula (with the exception of WB, where co-chairman Bob Daly personally oversees the guest list) for a premiere in a 1,000-seat theater follows:

Top execs at the studio (often senior plus veeps and above) get reserved seats — really good reserved seats if the organizer has an iota of survival instinct.

Around 60% of the seats go to the film’s creators — the director, stars, d.p., producers and, yes, even the writers. Says Sony VP Kim Carey, who oversees major screenings for the studio, “Why go on the outside when you should take care of the people making your movies?”

The filmmakers get one or two rows of reserved seats, and then 30-40 unreserved seats. The number of tix is usually part of the talent’s contract. But mega-stars are in another league.

These figures, of course, apply to premieres, because most stars or execs wouldn’t be caught dead at an all-media screening or a radio promo.

With execs and filmmakers taken care of, a planner turns attention to celebrities. Since the premiere is a publicity event, a key component is stars who can make flashbulbs explode as they walk down the red carpet.

Room for a Whopper

After these groups are taken care of, there might be requests from another part of the studio — say, if consumer products or homevideo has a deal going with Hasbro or Burger King and they want to entertain. Maybe someone from business affairs, if he worked on this particular film. Or someone from legal who did the contracts.

Though any of these groups might have over-achievers in the ticket-begging department, it’s usually agents who drive organizers crazy.

One planner says the tenpercenters are “the worst, the sneakiest. They try every line in the book.” Another says she knows why agents want to attend premieres — “they don’t want a client running around when 20 other agents are in the room.”

The heads of agencies will get a pair of tickets. If there’s room, the larger agencies each might be given 10 tickets beyond those going to the toppers. The agents involved with the film must be taken care of “or they’ll torment you,” in one planner’s words.

The secret of doing the stressful job of seating at any screening is “being quick on your feet at the last second,” says Miramax’s director of special events Lisa Taback. “It’s all about air kisses and scrambling. And doing it while you’re holding a walkie-talkie.”

(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)