In defence of Odeon Screen Unseen

Odeon's Screen Unseen scheme offers mystery discounted previews. Why, then, have people been grumbling?

On Monday night, I settled into the Odeon Dudley at 8 o’clock. It was a half-full screen, and we’d each paid a lower than usual price – just over a fiver apiece – for a surprise film.

It’s part of Odeon Cinema’s ongoing Screen Unseen programme, whereby it puts on an upcoming release, with the proviso that you don’t find out what the movie is until the BBFC certificate at the start tells you. You don’t get lots of ads – just a handful of trailers – and then you’re into the movie itself.

Odeon does like a little tease ahead of such screenings. It likes to posit a series of clues on its Facebook account, clues that tend to bear little to no relevance whatsoever to the film itself. For instance, Monday’s clues were ‘Kennedy called it’, ‘88% commended’, ‘104m eyes pa see straight through’ and ‘11201 NY’. These clues feel like they were set by the people behind the 80s quiz show 3-2-1 (look it up, young people), to the point where the subsequent explanation of the answers made less sense than the questions.

Following the guesses under the Facebook posts, most had not unreasonably assumed that the tennis movie Battle Of The Sexes was the prime candidate. A trailer for that film though put paid to that theory, and the certificate that popped up turned out to be The Florida Project.

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What tends to happen, if you’re new to Odeon Unseen, is that people walk out. Some, for instance, were expecting Thor: Ragnarok, others Murder On The Orient Express. But such preview and taster screenings are never going to be used for big blockbusters with massive marketing budgets. Rather, such surprise preview screenings are used by distributors for films that need word of mouth. I’ll come to more examples shortly.

“We’re always looking to bring our guests the latest and best entertainment the big screen has to offer”, Odeon film booking manager Alex Crawford explained to me. “At Screen Unseen, guests can enjoy a whole variety of the newest films for less, often weeks before everybody else. All the films picked are designed to inspire conversation and expand guests’ horizons. Watch this space, we’ve got plenty more to come!”

Going back to Monday night, there was a minor groan when the name The Florida Project came up, and only one or two people instantly left. Most sat through the movie. Most, based on the reaction at the end, didn’t seem to like it. Pending a full review closer to the movie’s release, I warmed to it a lot, but its freewheeling tale of a Florida motel against the backdrop of the tourism industry was always going to be something of a tough sell.

A chunk of the film is spent in the company of small children running amok. As one woman loudly protested on the way out, “I’ve spent a day watching the bloody kids”. Another? “That was the worst film I’ve ever seen”. In truth, half the screen seemed to erupt in laughter of disbelief at the end. Conversely, some of us left quietly, clearly shaken by the movie.

I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong response, by the way. The whole idea of a secret screening is to get an honest response to a movie with few preconceptions. On the basis of what I saw and heard, The Florida Project is going to be a tough mass market sell, but also that those who love it are really going to love it.

Appreciating that Facebook comments rarely give you a balanced verdict on life, in this instance, they were full of stories of people walking out, and guffawing at the film. In fact, in some cases, they were people calling the entire Screen Unseen idea into question.

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“I’ve no problem with arts films”, argued one, “but for Odeon Unseen you need to have commercially viable films that appeal to the masses”. Another argued that the choice of The Florida Project was “killing Screen Unlimited [sic] for us all”, whilst another said that whoever chose the movie “should be fired”.

One of the more constructive responses, though, argued that “If I was Odeon I would take a long hard look at the whole Unseen process. I know you won’t please everyone, but the clues in my mind are purposely misleading, and there are still a few who believe they are going to get a ‘big movie’ on one of these. Tonight is the first big strike out for me, but I do wonder if the money made on these showing is worth the obviously lost goodwill after every showing”.

For my own money, I wonder if Odeon is damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t here. Across the Screen Unseen programme, audiences have got low cost, early previews of films such as The Death Of Stalin, Hidden Figures, Moonlight, The Big Sick, Baby Driver, Mindhorn and Manchester By The Sea this year alone. Each of those films fall into the category of needing to find an audience willing to fight for it. That the perception is that the Screen Unseen programme is about big films is, I wonder, a legacy of its success. Many of the films concerned have become box office hits, but they were far from sure things. Marvel, for one, will never put one of its blockbusters into a Screen Unseen secret screening, simply because it doesn’t need to.

But The Florida Project needs its friends. Its distributor is Altitude, a growing UK presence – who screened Moonlight as part of Screen Unseen – but not one that’s going to spend heavily to plaster the buses of Britain with advertising for the film. By offering a low cost preview for what is after all a richly acclaimed movie, it’s picked up some intelligence on where the film played well, where it played badly, and how it needs to tune its distribution strategy.

James Warren of Altitude told me that “Given the screening programme requires an element of surprise, we understand that it is a risky move and will not please all audiences, but we stand by the decision and applaud Odeon for continuing to explore these opportunities in order to show distinctive and otherwise incredibly well received films in the cinema in the face of an increasingly homogenous line-up of spandex suited event movies and well crafted TV shows that are only available to screen at home.”

He also made the point that The Florida Project is the kind of film that’ll be widely screened around you if you have a W1 postcode, but not the traditional fare that gets to your local multiplex. Utilising Screen Unseen, Altitude was able to do just that.

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Odeon’s Screen Unseen is a deliberately mass market preview system, that in theory offers something for all involved (its Scream Unseen programme does the same with horror movies). Inevitably, you pick a surprise film, and some you win, some you lose. It’s disappointing to see people throwing their toys out of the pram because they got The Florida Project and not a mass market blockbuster, and perhaps some expectation realignment all round wouldn’t hurt. Maybe then, there might be fewer reports of 30% of an audience walking out of a film early.

Those clues, mind, really could use some work…