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Moviegoing at the midnight hour

Studios are moving away from late screenings of mainstream films in favor of earlier Thursday showings. But the midnight movie, particularly in L.A., is more alive than ever. And it's not just cult screenings of 'Eraserhead' or 'Pink Flamingos,' either.

May 04, 2013|By Mark Olsen and Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times
  • Mark Ayala puts up the movie title on the marquee before the midnight showing of the movie "Riki-Oh" at the Cinefamily on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles on April 26, 2013.
Mark Ayala puts up the movie title on the marquee before the midnight showing… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

El Monte high school teacher Trevor Schoenfeld is an omnivorous moviegoer, the kind who wants to see films he's interested in at their first possible screening. For years, he's been willing to line up at the multiplex for the first midnight showings of mainstream releases, but lately, he's gone to theaters playing "Evil Dead," "Oblivion" and "Pain & Gain" at 10 p.m. or even 7 p.m. Thursday ahead of their official Friday openings — sometimes getting home to his four kids before the clock strikes 12.

"It is much nicer to get home at midnight versus getting home at 3 a.m.," said Schoenfeld. "I have no problem with the current trend of new releases screening earlier and earlier on Thursdays."

Still, he believes there are some films that are much better experienced at midnight — and not just horror flicks or camp such as "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Take the edgy, sexy "Spring Breakers," which he saw at the ArcLight Hollywood, or "The ABCs of Death," which he caught at the AFI Fest last fall. "Midnight movies," he said, "are a whole different experience."

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With a mix of old and new titles, fan favorites and obscurities, L.A.'s weekend midnight movie circuit is drawing strong crowds week after week to such diverse titles as the 2010 Michael Cera comedy "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and the 1987 new wave ninja rediscovery "Miami Connection." Audiences have turned out lately for an unpredictable group of films that includes the 1999 killer shark tale "Deep Blue Sea," Prince's 1984 musical "Purple Rain," the Jean-Claude Van Damme actioner "Hard Target" and the PG-rated family baseball comedy "The Sandlot," not to mention "Faces of Death" and "Scream."

At the same time, thanks to a variety of factors — changing projection technology, theater managers seeking more profits, studios' efforts to pump up box office reports and perhaps even audience anxiety after last year's movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo. — studios and cinema owners have begun pulling away from the midnight slot for mainstream movies. Instead, they're booking earlier showings the night before a film's official opening day.

The result? The movie at midnight may be dying. But the midnight movie, particularly in Los Angeles at this moment, is more alive than ever.

Cult mainstays

From the late 1970s through the 1990s, cult titles such as "Rocky Horror," David Lynch's "Eraserhead," John Waters' "Pink Flamingos" and Alejandro Jodorowsky's "El Topo" were the mainstays of the midnight movie scene, countercultural totems that played to niche audiences in small venues.

But with the turn of the millennium, Hollywood began pouring money into more and more big-budget tentpoles such as "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the "Spider-Man" franchise. Fans were so eager to see these films that they began lining up outside multiplexes in the wee hours for the first Friday morning showings. Studios sensed an opportunity for free publicity — and more revenue.

Around the same time, the industry was moving from film prints to push-button digital projection systems, lowering the cost of adding midnight shows. "Before digital, when you had projectionists in the booth, that projectionist would go home after 10 p.m. because many of them were in the union," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. "If you wanted to run a midnight show, you'd have to pay that projectionist overtime."

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In recent years, studios have made a substantial portion of their weekend haul during early Friday morning screenings: In 2011, Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" collected a record-breaking $43.5 million at post-midnight screenings, according to Young fans of teen-centric franchises have been some of the most eager to turn up at theaters in the middle of the night. Seven of the 10 top grossing post-12:01 a.m shows are for either "Harry Potter" or "Twilight" films.

However, since July's deadly shooting at a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Colorado, some studio executives say, mainstream moviegoers' appetite for late-night screenings has dropped off.

"People stopped going to late-night shows. It was hugely dramatic, and we went, 'Whoa, what happened to the grosses?'" said Chris Aronson, 20th Century Fox's president of domestic distribution. "So some exhibitors approached us to begin a dialogue, asking if we could get things going at 10 p.m. instead of midnight."

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