Early this past Wednesday morning in the parking lot of my local multiplex, my friends and I exchanged a few fleeting comments about the latest Harry Potter film. A solid installment, I thought. Not perfect but more than satisfying. After a few remarks about the lateness of the hour, the party disbanded and we each set course for our respective abodes.
After a long trudge through the parking lot, I finally made it back to my vehicle. I jumped in the driver’s seat, buckled my seat belt and hit the radio, ready for the drive home. But as I went to turn on the ignition, a wave of great annoyance came over me. One look over my shoulder revealed that I wasn’t going anywhere for a while.
My car was blocked in by a line of cars stretching back along the roughly half-mile distance to the theater. I looked around me and saw my fellow Harry Potter patrons passing the time amicably. Hordes of teenage girls stood outside their vehicles excitedly recounting their favorite moments. Twenty-something hipsters smoked cigarettes on their hoods and passed the moments in gentle whispers. As my eyes drifted to a nearby SUV, yowls of frat boy laughter resounded expressing satisfaction for this latest Potter flick.
I sat in that parking lot for a good thirty to forty minutes waiting for the traffic to die down. What I was seeing around me really did serve as a comforting revelation: these movies really do bring people together. You no longer have to be a child or a teenager or even a raging nerd to be up on Harry Potter. It is such a zietgeist-defining phenomenon that the barriers between demographics start to fall with each moment you inch closer to that magical, Tuesday-at-midnight moment.
But this post isn’t about the pop cultural power of Harry Potter. It is more about the forces that converged on that Wednesday morning and kept me sitting in my car, slightly annoyed but eerily fascinated, for the better part of an hour. Opening day numbers revealed that this was only one of many jam-packed parking lots across the country on the opening day of Potter 6. With $22 million pulled in from midnight screenings helping the film toward a world-wide opening day total of $104 million, it is obvious that the midnight moment of truth is no longer only for the uber-fans and die hards.
Let’s rewind to earlier in the night. After closing up shop at my workplace around 10, I grabbed a quick change of clothes and arrived at the theater around 10:30. When I joined my friends in line, I buckled in for the wait and made a cursory glance at the crowds around me. Pretty standard for a Potter opening, I concluded, knowledge accumulated via two previous midnight screenings for numbers four and five. But as we drew closer to viewing the latest film, I couldn’t help but notice the makeup of the crowd around me. Young mothers with four or five year olds in tow. Twenty-somethings like me and my friends. Fortyish looking husbands and wives. And then the coup de grace: a friend of mine, nineteen, there with her younger sister and her mom, in no way showing signs of discomfort about it.
There was a time when I could remember telling someone I was going to attend a midnight screening and being greeted with a sidelong acknowledgment of my infinite nerdiness. No longer the case. People who know how passionate I am about film ask, with expectation, if I will be attending a midnight screening for a big event film. When I confirm, they often lament that they won’t be able to see the film until the following Friday. My mind draws the logical conclusion from these encounters: I’m no longer a huge effing dork. Midnight screenings are now the place to be.
It would be easy to say that this is simply an indication of Potter’s widespread popularity, but it isn’t just Potter. This past July, we saw the same insanely packed crowds come together for The Dark Knight, giving it a record midnight opening eclipsed only by Potter 6. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was a similar story; though I didn’t go, I was later told of the size of the assembled masses, ready for shapeshifting robots and lots of splosions. I remember making a March excursion with my friends for Watchmen. Though it was a midnight screening in the middle of the week in a non-summer month, the crowds that turned out were definitely impressive. And for Public Enemies earlier this month, you saw a similar story. Public Enemies. A stirringly serious crime drama about bank robbers in the 1930s is even capable of drawing a midnight audience. In Louisville, Kentucky no less.
What explanation can there be for this? Can it simply be that event movies market themselves so impressively that the average movie-goer feels the earliest possible moment for a viewing is the moment for them? You can never know what motivates so many people, but I will say that this has unleashed an even more aggressively money-driven mentality on the part of the studios. You can no longer just go see a movie on Friday afternoon after you get done with work. The place to be is now in a movie theater at midnight on Tuesday. The gross for a true event film is now a five day gross. No excuses.
The only negative setback I can find to this shifting mentality is that box office records no longer mean much of anything. The five day opening record will continue to fall year after year after year. The midnight screening record will fall too. These categories will mean nothing after a while. Titanic‘s record as all time highest grosser will sit in supremacy for many years to come because it possessed one thing that doesn’t even exist in the dictionaries of most studio executives: longevity. It is no longer about longevity. It is about the first five days. Shit, the first five minutes is more appropriate. Get as many butts in the seats as early as you can and you have done your job.
But even if the popularity of the midnight screening enables this mentality among studio execs, I can’t really say that it bothers me much. Sitting in the parking lot, noticing all of the different demographics and social types represented around me, I was happy that a movie release could have this result. When I finally made it out, my mind didn’t sit with the intricacies of Potter 6, but with how large the crowds would be for Potters 7 and 8, and how many times the midnight screening record will have fallen by the time they come out.