I’ve never been someone who enters a lot of contests, which means I’m not the kind of person who wins things. When I was lucky enough to score passes via Facebook radio contest to a screening of the latest thriller, it was as if I’d won Powerball.
There were a few caveats to the pass- it told me to arrive early and that my seat wasn’t guaranteed. What a weird prize, I thought.
My companion and I arrived about an hour early to the screening, and there was already a huge line. I noticed that some of the people near the front had lawn chairs and coolers as if this was a tailgating event, and I’d failed to note I’d need a grill and some hot dogs.
“Wow,” I’d said, “I guess a lot of people won the same pass.”
The man ahead of us in line turned around with an excited look on his face as if he’d been waiting years to hear my comment. “Oh they didn’t win the passes,” he said, “The know how to get them. They’re here all the time.”
I watched as the line ahead of us increased in size as people who’d have their spots saved arrived to huddle in. By the time we were allowed into the theater I had to sit in the front row all the way to the left. We’d score the last two seats available.
As we emerged from the theater I decided to find out what the man in line was talking about. A little googling around lead me to sites like a movie club I won’t name, where online communities exist in nearly every major city, constantly discussing and passing around codes to free movie screenings.
Once I got into the online groups, the only thing hindering me from seeing free flicks was my not being able to grab the code (a mishmash of letters and numbers one needs to enter at GoFobo to secure passes) quick enough before the screening filled up. I noticed sometimes that other members would secure multiple sets of tickets and offer them out, but I never really engaged too much with other members. They were a wide cross section of ages & races, but they all seemed to have known each other for decades and weren’t accepting new friends.
Despite not being with the in crowd, I quickly filled my monthly roster with screenings I felt like attending. And those passes lead me to get free passes for things I never even signed up for – at least once a month I’d get an email from GoFobo containing free passes to whatever screening they were having a hard time filling.
As a huge movie lover, I admit all of these free passes were hard to resist. Free indie films. Free blockbuster films- 3D included! Some screenings came with free swag, such as tshirts or posters. Some only came with a brown bag to dump my cell phone in. Sometimes they searched us. Sometimes they made us fill out surveys. Always the press looked at us disdainfully from their special reserved seats in the center of the theater. For a while I was averaging at least two per week, scheduling the rest of my after-work appointments around the usual screening nights.
Showing up at a screening was always a huge time commitment. To get a decent seat, showing up 3 hours ahead was a good goal. And even then I’d never be first in line. As I got closer to the entrance, I’d listen to the other line-sitters. The majority of them did not have jobs, so showing up 4 or 5 hours early was no big deal. They’d bring cards. Read books. They’d discuss the last several screenings they’d seen that week- not in terms of if they liked or disliked the movie, but how many passes they’d scored.
I’m not going to comment on why they didn’t have to work, because I never asked and it was none of my business. What I did know was they had far more expendable free time than I did.
As I attended more screenings, the greater my annoyance became with the regular group. I’d rush from work to sit in line for three hours, then watch my fifth person in line lead diminish when everyone else would show up and suddenly there would be 40-80 people in front of me. The few times I dared to speak up on the message board about this, I was met with hostility. Speaking up will ruin this for everyone, they scolded. It’s just how it is. Of course, these were the people holding the places of 15 other people, and inviting their friends to move up even closer if they saw them farther back in line. And I began to notice others weren’t actually friends with any of the people ahead in line, but they felt entitled to cut everyone who’d been there for hours just because they could.
The final straw came when I saw someone who had won a screening pass arrive about 10 minutes before they let us in. He walked over to the security guard and showed his pass. The guard said, “I don’t think you’re getting in.” The poor guy looked crestfallen. “But I was the 7th caller. This was as soon as I could get off of work,” he lamented as he and his friend walked back to their cars. Several of the regulars in line laughed at him.
I stopped attending screenings completely. Even though I was writing reviews on most films I watched, and telling my friends about the ones I enjoyed, I couldn’t help but feel increasingly embarrassed and like I was just taking advantage of things. I could afford to pay for movies, and I didn’t have to see everything that came out in the theater. Maybe by me not being in line one more person who really worked hard to get their passes- or even won them- would have a chance to see it.
The current screening system is not working. If the point of screenings is to spread word of mouth, then why give passes to the same 100 people again and again, who only talk to each other? Writing a review is not a requisite after seeing a screening- why not? And while I understand why they overbook screenings, couldn’t something be done to get passes in the hands of people who want to see the movie- not are just there because they’re getting something for free and their entire day’s goal is to watch movies on the studio’s dime? What if they sold membership to screenings that would get you in to X many a year with guaranteed seating? I would gladly pay for that.
I’ve now been screening-free for several months. While I sometimes get the itch to start clicking around to find some passes to the latest blockbuster, that thrill is outweighed by having hours in my week freed up to do other things. And the feeling of seeing a movie you’ve been waiting for with all of your friends- and a whole movie theater of fans- on opening night? That’s still an experience worth paying for.