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Moviegoing at the midnight hour

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.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

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.”

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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.

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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

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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.

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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 Hollywood.com. 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.

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“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.”

Fellman and others dispute that the shooting had such a dramatic effect — “We were doing earlier shows way before that, and that was such an isolated incident,” he said — but regardless, both exhibitors and studios see an upside to earlier shows. Hollywood executives are lumping the receipts from multiple Thursday evening screenings into their much-touted weekend box office reports, which traditionally have covered three days: Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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A few weeks ago, the Tom Cruise film “Oblivion” started its run at 7 p.m. Thursday in a number of locations. Universal Studios included ticket sales from that evening when reporting that the film took in $37.1 million in its opening weekend. “The Great Gatsby” will have some 10 p.m. showings Thursday ahead of its Friday debut. That’s raising questions about whether runs may start even earlier Thursday.

“Honestly, to me, whether 10 or 12, I don’t really care,” Aronson said. “It’s when you go at 7 or 8 that you might as well open the whole day up.”

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Phil Zacheretti, president and chief executive of Phoenix Big Cinemas Management, said many of his 25 theaters won’t even offer a midnight screening of a movie if there is an earlier time to see it on Thursday.

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“Those early shows are just taking the place of the midnight screenings,” said Zacheretti, who has cinemas in 15 states, from California to Tennessee. “There are so many benefits: Employees are able to go home earlier. Folks don’t have to go home at 2:15 a.m. and risk taking paid time off from work the next day. Concessions even do better because by 12:30 a.m., not a lot of people are stuffing their mouths with a snack.”

Local turnout

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The Cinefamily on Fairfax Avenue is one anchor of the Los Angeles midnight movie circuit along with the New Beverly Cinema and the Nuart Theatre. Programmers for these venues say they’ve seen no downturn in attendance since Aurora.

A recent Friday midnight screening of the blood-soaked 1991 Hong Kong martial-arts prison movie “Riki-Oh: The Story of Riki” at the Cinefamily had a warm, almost clubhouse air about it, as midnight regulars greeted one another in line and welcomed those new to the party. In a show of hands before the screening, it was almost an even split between those who had already seen the film and those experiencing it for the first time.

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“I think the kind of audience you’ll get at midnight will be different than the casual audience at 7:30,” said Phil Blankenship, who programs the eccentric Heavy Hitter Midnites series at Cinefamily, which seats fewer than 200. “It’s going to be people who really are making the commitment to come out, who really want to see it.

“I think it’s the opportunity to see it on the big screen, on film, with fans or people who want to see the movie. This isn’t a multiplex on the weekend where people are just going out to see whatever opens.”

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Blankenship’s Heavy Hitter Midnites program alternates weekends at the Cinefamily with the Friday Night Frights series programmed by Joshua Miller and Sebastian O’Brien. Underscoring the passion and commitment among midnight movie fans, in October, there were 30 nights of midnight screenings of rare horror films at the Cinefamily, and some 100 people attended for 20 nights or more.

Programmers acknowledge it can be a balancing act to find films that fit just right for a midnight show while trying not to fall back on the overly familiar.

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“You’re always going to get a crowd for ‘The Big Lebowski,’” said Julia Marchese, special guest programmer at the New Beverly. She is planning a regular series of midnight screenings of the 1988 John Cusack-Tim Robbins comedy “Tapeheads” in hopes of growing its own cult fan base.

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Mark Valen, film buyer for Landmark Theatres, who books midnight shows at the Nuart and other theaters in the national Landmark chain, noted that a recent Nuart midnight show of John Boorman’s 1981 “Excalibur” drew a smaller crowd than anticipated.

“Certain films make a better revival at 7:30 that for the midnight might not work,” he said. “There’s definitely a difference in cult films between a regular evening show and a midnight show as far as what might work. It’s tricky to figure out what will work for midnight.”

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The gender-confused midnight granddaddy of “Rocky Horror” has been a steady performer at the Nuart for many years. There were even slight upticks in attendance after a Halloween episode of TV’s “Glee” featured songs from the movie as well as when last year’s sleeper hit “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” featured a scene with characters attending the movie. But in general, as programmers have expanded the definition of what makes a midnight movie, classic titles such as “Pink Flamingos” have seen some dropoff.

Among the signature films of this new midnight moment would have to be “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” The film was a box-office disappointment in its initial summer 2010 release but was soon after revived for a midnight screening at the New Beverly and has been playing there regularly ever since.

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“It’s weird for me to think that it didn’t do well [in its initial release], because whenever we show it, it does fantastic,” said Marchese.

Director Edgar Wright often comes to the “Scott Pilgrim” screenings when he’s in Los Angeles, as do others affiliated with the film. Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead came to the most recent showing and screened a new short film by her husband, Riley Stearns, before the feature, and Bryan Lee O’Malley, who wrote the series of comics on which the film is based, was there as well. Some audience members were dressed in character.

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Wright said it was “gratifying” to see the film revived as a midnight staple. From those first shows at the New Beverly, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” has shown at midnights all around the world.

“I think with any midnight movie, the passion that surrounds it is the same,” Wright said via email. “You see a movie that speaks to you, you may feel that you are alone in your love of it, but when you see it with a midnight crowd that knows every line, you realize you are far from alone.

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“I think there’s a certain fervor with a midnight crowd. You don’t show up at that time of night unless you love movies.”

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mark.olsen@latimes.com

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

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