Paid Advance Movie Screenings Are Becoming the New Normal

Hotel Transylvania 3

With ‘Jumanji’ and ‘Hotel Transylvania 3,’ Amazon continues to bend the rules of traditional theatrical distribution for the better.

It seems like we’re always arguing over Netflix and the future of film distribution these days. Nobody knows what the future holds for exhibition, but that doesn’t exactly stop studios (and adventurous film critics) from making some wild guesses. I’ll even take it one step further: articles about film distribution remain one of my favorite things to read, because we’re in such an exciting period of experimentation. Studios are throwing a bunch of different ideas at the wall — advance screenings, blended releases, subscription services, you name it — in an attempt to figure out what the saving roll will be for the traditional exhibition model. And if you were paying attention this past week, you might’ve noticed that one newish experiment by Sony was paying off in spades.

Free tickets to advance screenings are old hat for discerning moviegoers, but with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, Amazon seems to be toying with a new model. Under their new system, Amazon Prime members are given the opportunity to attend advance screenings before a film’s opening weekend and at full matinee and evening prices. In both cases, Prime members were able to buy up to 10 seats through Atom Tickets for a screening at one of 1,000 locations worldwide. Jumanji was sold at standard evening prices; befitting its status as movie for kids, Hotel Transylvania 3 was offered at matinee prices. And both screenings were considered quite the success for the studio: Deadline estimates that Sony grossed $2 million and $1.2 million for Jumanji and Hotel Transylvania 3, respectively.

As noted by Deadline, the concept of paid advance screenings has become increasingly common, the latest attempt by Hollywood to find a winning strategy for some if its mid-tier releases. Given the speed with which Hollywood has adopted day-and-date distribution and hybrid theatrical releases — hybrid releases like the one we saw for Alex Garland’s Annihilation — I’m not at all surprised that studios are now tinkering with pre-release screenings as their latest experiment. These screenings create an event atmosphere for films that might need an edge; people who may not otherwise plunk down full-price for a Saturday afternoon screening of Hotel Transylvania 3 could be enticed by the prospect of seeing it days before anyone else.

And these advance screenings have more than held their own when measured against the success of other specialty screenings in first-run theater chains. Take, for instance, Fathom Events. Purveyor of specialty screenings, sporting events, and simulcast live performances, Fathom helps diversify the programming of the Regals and Cinemarks of the world with more targeted content that nevertheless brings people into the theater. Box Office Mojo has tracked the grosses for a total of 42 different Fathom screenings in the last three years, and 19 of them — nearly half of the recorded events — have grossed more than a million dollars at the box office. The highest grossing events include Batman: The Killing Joke, Mayweather vs. McGregor, and Is Genesis History?, a triptych of titles with limited broad appeal that nevertheless earned $8.96 million between them.

But with this kind of money being kicked around for one-off events, why aren’t things like advance screenings and Fathom Events given more ink outside of trade publications? Last week, our own Meg Shields argued that independent theaters are shifting to focus on the three ‘C’s of shared cultural experiences: curation, community, and convening. “What indie theaters can offer that streaming can’t is a sense of location-based community,” Shields wrote, noting that independent movie theaters serve as “places where we can disengage from the outside world, together.” Ultimately, Shields argues that if we are to save the theatrical experience as a cultural event, we have to be willing to support it financially, and that’s where the Amazon Prime model bumps up against some resistance.

I’ve often felt that moviegoers who are most interested in saving the theatrical experience are also the ones least open to changes to its business model. We want our movie theaters to be cathedrals, holy sites that adhere to centuries of tradition. Instead, movie theaters are often acting like big screen pay-per-view channels.  Film distribution needs more than just niche audiences to ensure its long-term success; if movies are to survive outside the arthouses and museums of the world, there has to be some crossover between commercial success and artistic endeavor. And that means Hollywood being open to grand experiments, even if you don’t want to support them yourself. I may not feel any need to pay for an advance screening of a film like Jumanji — public advance screenings do conflict with my own identity as a filmgoer, important experiment for Hollywood distributors or not — but I’m not going to feel like other people are encroaching on my ‘C’s if someone decides its worth their money.

It won’t be long until studios like Sony begin to test advance screenings with movies that possess broader audience appeal. When an upcoming Marvel or Star Wars movie makes four million dollars before its official release, the traditional standards of film openings will mean less than ever before. Whether your local theater is a multiplex or an arthouse, there are bound to be changes to your venue’s business model as distributors find the right format to keep things afloat. Don’t be afraid to open your space and community up to some odd experimentations in the interim to see what works.

Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.