Secret screenings, walkouts and ‘anticipointment’

What happens when your surprise film isn't Star Wars or Deadpool? People simply get up and leave, it seems....

Since 2013, Cineworld Cinemas have ran exclusive advance screenings for its Unlimited cardholders, giving them the chance to see a film a week or so before release. In the main, these films are advertised in advance and have recently included the likes of Goosebumps, The Finest Hours and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.

Five times in the last three years, the chain has taken bookings for secret Unlimited screenings, whereby the audience won’t know what film they’re going to see in advance or at any point before the BBFC certificate appears on screen. Going by social media, this tends to drive people absolutely bananas, particularly in the case of the most recent screenings.

The first two films that were screened for unsuspecting punters were Now You See Me and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, both of which are films that played to a fairly broad audience and seemed to go down fairly well. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes was a combo-breaker, as a highly anticipated sequel to a film that was universally appreciated, and perhaps it’s that one that has led people to expect a little more.

Then, on December 15th 2015, people got their hopes up a bit. Having taken hints that an advance screening that night would be shown in 3D and have a 12A certificate, some customers were convinced that they would be among the first to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens if they booked in. It turned out to be In The Heart Of The Sea. The #SecretUnlimitedScreening hashtag went into overdrive with dozens of reports of groans and even mass walkouts at the sight of the 12A certificate for the Ron Howard-directed action drama.

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It happened again with the most recent secret screening, which I actually attended. Billed only with a 15 certificate and shown on a Saturday night, five days before the UK release of Deadpool, the hashtag was abuzz with speculation that we’d get to see the Marvel movie, tempered with some more conservative guesses and reminders of what had happened with Star Wars.

I didn’t toss my chimichangas on the floor when it turned out to be Triple 9, the new movie directed by John Hillcoat, but I saw the walkouts with my own eyes this time. Many people, including a vocally disappointed group sat next to me, got up and walked out at the sight of the BBFC certificate.

First off, there’s a reason why this could be endemic in Unlimited screenings rather than secret screenings overall – with a flat subscription rate, customers haven’t paid any extra to see a film, so if they decide to leave it, they haven’t lost out on the price of admission. They pay the same no matter how many films they see per month and you would hope that people would use that flexibility to see films that they wouldn’t normally see. It’s a heck of a money-saver if you do go a lot, but you’d think that anyone who’s invested enough in cinema to keep abreast of advance screenings for unnamed films would be a bit more open-minded.

Audiences walking out at the sight of a BBFC certificate wouldn’t back that up, but in the case of the most recent screening, the walkouts didn’t stop there. True to the director’s form, Triple 9 isn’t your standard Saturday night multiplex thriller, and annoyingly, people kept walking out throughout the first hour of the film.

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There’s a certain anticipointment that might come with not seeing Deadpool if that’s what you expected, but there were just as many leavers who were happy to roll the dice with the film, only to decide to follow in the same early abandonment once they got to grips with the film. But the bottom line is that it’s unrealistic to go into a film that’s advertised as a complete mystery with any expectations whatsoever.

Odeon runs a similar series of advance screenings called Screen Unseen and makes a point of giving cryptic crossword style clues in the run-up to the films, which have included Inside Out, Me, Earl & The Dying Girl and Oscar contenders Room and The Big Short over the last six months or so. In this case, you might have a chance of guessing what it’s going to be, but they also charge a fiver a ticket. Cineworld seldom gives out more than a BBFC certificate, and sometimes a running time, so there’s hardly a science to the guesswork there, outside of looking which matching films are on the immediate release calendar – on that basis, the Triple 9 screening could also have been anything from Grimsby to London Has Fallen.

Common sense might have told you that the December screening wouldn’t be Star Wars, what with the intense pre-release secrecy around the film (not least because Cineworld told people it wasn’t!), but in real terms, there’s no stake involved and so, it’s disappointing that wishful thinking has led to walkouts. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes was an outlier at the time, but with an ever-growing number of big tentpole movies arriving week in and week out, isn’t it better that there’s a scheme that promotes the films you might not already have your eye on?

The level of entitlement in some of the post/mid-screening tweets is mind-boggling, but it’s easy enough to avert disappointment. If you’re the type who would walk out, for the sake of manners and consideration of other patrons, it might be best to avoid secret screenings unless you’re going in with a completely open mind. There’s little point holding your breath waiting for Captain America: Civil War or Rogue One to appear before you because you’re going to see those movies anyway.

Sometimes cinemas will have a little fun stringing people along while promoting them on social media, but in principle, secret screenings provide useful advance exposure to films that might otherwise disappear beneath the Deadpools and the Star Warses in the schedule.

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