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At O.C. Previews, They Line Up to Do Free PR

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anyone planning to catch “Batman & Robin” today, get in line. The hard-core, high-stamina elite of moviegoers has already been there.

Weighted with beach chairs and coolers, these patient fanatics claimed a chunk of concrete outside Edwards Newport Cinemas on Thursday morning, eager to be among the first to witness George Clooney roaring around in a Bat-convertible created for the fourth edition of one of Hollywood’s top franchises.

These squatters skipped school or work, if necessary, and clocked as many as 15 hours in line, as veteran patron-in-waiting Shea Foley did last month for “The Lost World.” He planned to arrive around 10 a.m. for the “Batman” preview, 11 1/2 hours before the credits rolled.

“Generally, the people in the front of the line all know each other,” explained Foley, 25, a freelance graphic artist who lives in Irvine. “So it’s like going to the beach and hanging out all day with friends.”

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Dozens of regulars have been gathering for at least a decade at the Edwards chain’s 30-year-old flagship. Despite mega-screen interlopers, it remains their sentimental favorite, partly because the biggest of its six screens dwarfs most others. (In fact, it’s among the biggest in the West, according to Exhibitor Relations, an industry tracker.)

Showing up early secures the best seat in the house--Foley likes number 107 in row 10--and, more important, guarantees bragging rights. For movie makers, “early attenders” can mean the difference between a blockbuster and a bomb.

Known industrywide for attracting lucrative, long lines, the so-called Big Newport rewards line-waiters. Indeed, they saw Chris O’Donnell, costumed as Robin in a muscle-hugging rubber suit, flex his pecs on a screen measuring 40 by 70 feet. They heard--and felt--the thunder of the 26-foot-long Freezemobile, piloted by Arnold Schwarzenegger as Batman’s latest nemesis, through the digital SurroundSound systems pumping dynamic decibels into the 1,238-seat auditorium.

But the opportunity to see the film alongside similarly obsessed popcorn-eaters was the big draw. For blockbusters, “it has to be this theater,” said Pat Jenison, 27, who grew up in Lake Forest but traveled halfway across the county for movies.

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Like Foley, he fits the profile of a movie lover who happily waits for hours. Typically, they’re 30 or under, said Stuart Fischoff, a Cal State L.A. media psychologist. They have fewer time-consuming responsibilities and are more likely to seek recognition through “external” achievements, he said.

“It’s like ‘I was there, I was one of the first people to see “Batman and Robin.” ’ “

Stephanie Stahlhut, a seventh-grader at Marine View School in Huntington Beach, can relate. She waited in line for five hours for last month’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” preview. Asked why, she replied in a heartbeat: “So I can say I was the first one to see it.”

Line-waiters also attain Siskel and Ebert-esque standing among their peers, who might run to them for word on whether Schwarzenegger, as the cryogenics snafu Mr. Freeze, looked perpetually chilly.

“There are only certain ways you get status at a certain age,” Fischoff explained, “and given the incredible developing importance of film as the literature of our culture, this becomes one of the ways to do it.”

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People who strive to be first feel as if they’re on the cutting edge, he added. “They’re different from the people who are the cultists, the groupies of genre films and franchises like ‘Star Trek’ or ‘X-Files,’ who live through fictional characters. Those people you really have to say, ‘Get a life.’ ”

But waiting in line is all about partying, Fischoff said. “It’s a reaffirmation that ‘We’re a group, we do things together,’ which is very important when you’re under 30.”

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The Big Newport frisson typically commences with line-waiters--in T-shirts depicting beauties and beasts from film epics past--swapping sunscreen, Doritos and the latest movie games and gadgets.

“My wife and I actually made some friends standing in line for ‘Lost World,’ said John Rigoni, who wore a rubbery T-Rex hand puppet with jiggly talons to that premiere. “We’re going to be getting together with them.”

Inside the theater, after the rush for seats, the real fracas begins. The auditorium turns into a giant, carpeted volleyball court, with whooping ticket-holders batting around up to 50 rainbow-colored beach balls (smuggled in like contraband) and hurling tortillas Frisbee-style.

“We try and discourage it,” said Edwards’ district supervisor James Woodin, “but you’re up against 1,200 people. It happens with every single premiere.”

Even in the face of such multimedia diversions as the PC and pay-per-view TV?

“What’s never been properly understood by all these technophiles and CEOs predicting everyone will ultimately cocoon,” said media psychologist Fischoff, “is that people like people. People like to socialize.”

People always have, and line-forming tendencies hark back many hundreds of years.

Around 300 BC, ancient Greeks arrived at Epidaurus the night before the amphitheater’s wildly popular dramatic festivals were to begin. Dedicated to various deities, the events were essentially religious celebrations. But, just like their modern-day counterparts, people toting snacks came early to get good seats, even though the place held 12,000.

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“What they do today, they did yesterday,” said Carla Lukas, who runs Yale University’s classics library.

Of course, delivering the product in the megaplex era is far more complicated than it was in Euripides’ day. Theater owners and studio execs spend heavily to kindle the heat that generates lines at the Newport Cinemas and the county’s 58 other movie theaters.

The process of determining where a film should play is both art and science, involving cooperation among distributors, who want to place their films in good homes, and exhibitors, who must constantly fill their theaters with new product.

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Often long before a film is in the can, distribution chiefs decide whether to release it across the country, at a limited number of theaters--say 2,500--or at only 100, said Art Murphy, founder of the producing program at USC’s school of cinema and television.

Then come negotiations over which individual theater or theaters will screen the picture, Murphy said. Booking blockbusters into the Big Newport is a no-brainer, but distributors otherwise weigh a theater’s decor and upkeep, as well as its box office record, Murphy said. A misstep could mar the image that Hollywood spinmeisters sweat to control.

“You could play ‘Lost World’ in some less well-regarded theater, and it would still draw audiences,” he said. “But if some people hadn’t heard good word-of-mouth, they might say ‘Well, gee, it’s Steven Spielberg and ‘Jurassic Park,’ but what’s it doing at the shopping center twin? It can’t be as good as I thought.’ So, from the distributor’s point of view, if it has a jewel, it won’t want to mount it in brass.”

Word-of-mouth from line-waiters can make or break a movie, Murphy said.

“If they camped out all night and really hated it, they’ll come out screaming to people waiting for the next screening, ‘Save your money, this stinks!’ ”

Chris Pula, president of theatrical marketing at Warner Bros., distributor of “Batman & Robin,” said “early attenders” play a crucial role in an era of gargantuan budgets; “Batman” reportedly cost $175 million. Anticipating each new epic, these preview addicts run, not walk, to the theater and urge friends to go--or not.

“It’s a business of you gotta get butts in seats right away,” Pula said, “because there are too many movies out there.”

Line-formers can generate great publicity, he added.

“We love them. There’s nothing better than news coverage of people camping out to stand in line for a movie. . . . Also, it’s validation from your fellow consumer, sort of a two-thumbs-up from your fellow man,” not from a critic or a billboard.

But Woodin of the Edwards chain, one of the nation’s 20 largest, doesn’t view Foley and company as PR vehicles.

“They’re like close friends,” he said, “almost like family, because they’re there all the time. They know us, we know them.”

Rick West of Irvine, who knows Woodin as Jim, has been lining up at the Big Newport for 10 years. His most exciting prospect is “Titanic,” a $200-million-plus movie that’s getting good buzz despite well-publicized production troubles.

“That’s coming in December,” said West, adding with a tortured whimper: “I’ve got a long way to wait.”


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