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Midnight Movie Screening Culture: What Happens Now?

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Jul 20, 2012 | 12:25pm EDT

screeningculture_620_072012.jpgThis is not the story I was going to write this morning. Last night, I attended a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises — first as an eager fan, secondarily as a journalist — but I knew exactly what story I wanted to tell. Midnight premieres have changed. (Obviously, right?) It’s not just fanboys and she-geeks packing the seats anymore. You don’t have to be a comic book fundamentalist or a costumed cinephile to buy an advanced ticket… hell, you don’t even have to like the superhero/vampire/pirate/wizard that the movie’s about. You go to midnight movies because it’s the thing to do when it comes to movies you’re moderately to very excited about seeing, because it’s the only way to vanguard the social media wave or have something to talk about at the water cooler the next day.

“I used to come to these things all the time so that I could be the first to tell my friends about the movie,” said Alejandro Espinoza, 31, a Brooklynite who showed up to the theater dressed as the film’s anarchic hulk Bane. “Now I come because if I’m not the first, then I’ll be the last. Everyone comes on Thursdays now.” Max Tilly, 25, added: “I think people used to go to movies at midnight because they were the biggest fans of something. Now anyone who wants to see it will go at midnight. I don’t think movies have necessarily gotten better. They’ve just gotten bigger.” 

Thursday at 12 is the new Friday at 8. That’s what I wanted to prove as I walked into AMC’s Empire 25 cineplex in Times Square last night. Before, I thought that midnight screenings had changed. This morning, it appeared that they did. Of course, how could I have known that my trip to the movies on Thursday night may very well have been the last normal midnight screening for the foreseeable future? 

In the wake of the harrowing news of the Colorado theater shooting — in which a 24-year-old masked gunman allegedly killed 12 and injured dozens more at a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises — it’s clear that the culture of midnight movies is now in a state of flux. If moviegoers were just on the verge of transforming early A.M. screenings into the next big social scene, what now? With the shooting in mind, will Thursday night premieres be more sparsely attended than ever? Will beefed-up security change the face of midnight showings, as it did with getting on a plane after 9/11 or going to school after Columbine? Or will crowds continue to brave the chaos that characterizes these cinematic events, despite the now-heightened danger associated with the congested masses and concealed strangers?

“I never thought that a movie’s opening premiere would be a place to do something like [the shooting], but after it happened, I see that it’s a place for that because they don’t screen for weapons or guns,” Josh Garza, 21, says. “Everyone’s normally outside waiting until 12 o’clock, and then once they all go in, they’re all packed into a theater … It’s [primed] for that, if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking to do." 

Chaos. It’s the ironic word of the day, characterizing not only Bane’s narrative in TDKR or alleged shooter James Holmes’ actions in Colorado, but also the entire nature of the midnight experience. After my screening, crowds spilled out onto escalators, elevators and fire escape stairs, shuffling towards any visible exit in mass numbers — and without any order whatsoever. But that’s typical of a midnight showing, right? An overstuffed crowd, a tight space, and a staff reluctant to be working late. Throw in a number of costumed moviegoers with masks and God-knows-what weapons (are they real or fake?) in their utility belts, and you suddenly have to ask yourself: How much do I trust the people around me? Is the man in the mask next to me just an eager fan, or someone more dangerous? 

In the wake of the Colorado events, AMC has banned costumed moviegoers and security is amping up in theaters all over the country — the NYPD is securing movie theaters in Manhattan as the Department of Homeland Security lends a hand to theater owners nationwide. Will a bulking up of security make future midnight audiences more or less fearful to return to the multiplex? Are audiences as scared as we think they are?

“I don’t think it would deter me,” Garza says. “After this situation, I feel that going to the movies for a midnight premiere could be like a hot spot for people who want to do some massive destruction, so it would make me feel a little better that they’d be screening for weapons or anything of that nature.”

“Look at it this way,” Stefanie Williams, 25, says. “If I’m willing to stay up for a midnight showing and have to work the next day, security isn't going to bother me. If I’m a fan of the movie, especially [something] like Batman, it won't stop me.” 

The difficulty in this situation is determining whether the Colorado shooting has an effect not only on moviegoing as a whole, but specifically on the tradition of midnight premieres. The alleged shooter chose a midnight showing, but he could just as easily have picked a Friday rush or a Saturday matinee. Now the magnifying glass will fall to midnight. Tentative fans could replace eager ones; strict procedure could replace excited pre-show chatter; and, perhaps most importantly, rigorous security measures could eliminate the entire culture of dressing up for the movie (it's already started at a theater in New Jersey). Will the magic of midnight movies disappear?

"I don't think you can have a midnight movie without costumes," Salil Huda, 28, says. "They make the whole thing feel like an event. You don't have to dress up to appreciate all the people who do. That's what makes it a fun experience."

Tons of film lovers will still flock to the theaters this weekend for The Dark Knight Rises, but the fate of the midnight showing won’t be known until the next major release: Total Recall, which hits theaters on Aug. 3. It's not quite a dress-up movie (unless taping a third boob to your chest is your idea of proper public attire), but it could hint at future implications for the midnight culture, and by the time The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2 is released in November, we'll have a firmer idea of the new status quo that faces these early screenings.

“I’d be fine attending future midnight screenings,” says 31-year-old Justin Allen, before stumbling on a harsh realization: “After last night, I’ll never be able to sneak outside food in. The irony, of course, is I’ve always attended movies for an escape. Now I have to look out for traps.”

[Photo Credit: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters]

Follow Marc on Twitter @MarcSnetiker

Additional reporting by Kelsea Stahler and Abbey Stone

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