The Screening Elite

On a rainy night in October, Schiller’s Liquor Bar was closed to the public. But anyone passing by the restaurant’s location at Rivington and Norfolk streets would have noticed that the restaurant was hopping. Inside, Colin Callender, president of HBO Films, looking casual in a black V-neck sweater, moved about the room conducting equally casual conversations that he punctuated with hearty laughter and toothy smiles. Mr. Callender was the host of a restaurant full of "friends" whom he had invited to see a special screening of Gus van Sant’s Elephant at the Tribeca Grand Hotel and then to dinner at Schiller’s afterward. In the restaurant were writers Bret Easton Ellis, Gary Indiana and Kurt Andersen, artist Vanessa Beecroft, hotelier Andre Balazs, Vietnam-memorial designer Maya Lin, director Gregory Mosher, publicist Bobby Zarem, and actors John Cameron Mitchell, Benicio Del Toro and Illeana Douglas, who was raving about the sticky toffee pudding that had been served for dessert. "I would come back for the pudding," Ms. Douglas said. "And the bathroom. The bathroom was super sexy."

Ms. Douglas’ comments about Schiller’s pudding and its bathroom mingled with discussions about the artistic qualities of the film, creating the kind of warm, giddy din associated with intimate dinner parties. And that was the intended purpose. Ms. Douglas, Mr. Balazs, Mr. Zarem, Ms. Beecroft and the rest were supposed to leave Schiller’s feeling happy and privileged. They had been handpicked to see the Cannes Palm D’Or winner before the rest of New York, then taken to the hottest restaurant in town to have dinner and discuss what they’d just seen. They were members of New York’s screening elite, an exalted group of media-savvy New Yorkers who are chosen to see the studios’ most crucial movies-in special screenings that precede the films’ general release-because their word-of-mouth can positively affect a film’s box office and possibly its consideration as an Oscar contender.

Special screenings are hardly a new idea. Publicist Peggy Siegal, considered by some to be the mother of this invention, has been doing them for more than 20 years. But their importance to film marketers-especially those with smaller budget art-house movies-has supersized in the last 30 days. Film marketing was already a difficult gambit in a 24/7 world of celebrity stimuli and instant, online gratification, but last month the Motion Picture Association of America made it even more difficult when it decided to severely limit how film distributors could raise the awareness of their films and still be considered for the one of the best marketing tools out there, an Oscar nomination.

With the MPAA dictating that movie distributors can no longer distribute screening copies of their movies to film critics and groups such as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and that the screeners-once delivered in sleek, slim DVD format-must now be rendered in the clunky, passé videocassette format, along with setting a number of rules about parties connected to screenings, the film distributors find themselves in the predicament of having to market their multimillion dollar films without looking like they’re marketing them.

And that’s one of the reasons that special screenings like Mr. Callender’s-filled with opinion-makers and media elite who don’t belong to the Academy-are dominating the social calendar this fall. As Miramax senior publicity executive Cynthia Schwartz explained: "I think that special screenings have always been incredibly important to the marketing of smaller films-we’ve always considered them very important-and this year they’re more important than ever given there were some restrictions placed upon us by the changes in the screener policy."

Which is why in the coming weeks New York will see a lot of unlikely people standing in front of posh screening rooms introducing big fall films. On Nov. 9, National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., his son, humorist and writer Christopher Buckley, society bandleader Peter Duchin, Andrew Roosevelt, investment banker A. Robert Towbin, conservative columnist Taki Theodoracopoulos and three commodores from the New York Yacht club will host a special screening of Twentieth Century-Fox’s Master and Commander , followed by a dinner at the club. Their connection to the film besides the fact that all of these men would look appropriate in a commodore’s hat? Mr. Buckley was a co-host with Walter Cronkite (who gave a speech at the film’s Nov. 1 premiere) of the last public appearance that the late Pat O’Brian, the author of the novel on which the film is adapted, gave at the New York Yacht Club. Mr. Buckley fils , Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Towbin are also members of the yacht club, and Mr. Theodoracopoulos is not only an avid yachtsman, he’s about the same height as Napoleon, who figures in the movie.

Eight days later, a private screening of Miramax’s The Barbarian Invasions , Denys Arcand’s film about a father-and-son relationship, will be hosted by a slate of celebrity sons, including Teresa Kerry Heinz’s kid Christopher Heinz, Norman Mailer’s producer son Michael Mailer, former Governor Mario Cuomo’s spawn, ABC News correspondent Christopher Cuomo, real-estate mogul Jerry Speyer’s son Rob Speyer and former U.S. Attorney Robert Abrams’ kid, MSNBC anchor Dan Abrams.

There’s not an Academy member in the bunch (although that’s not always the case), but the organizers insist there’s nothing sneaky about it. Rather, as Ms. Siegal explained to The Observer , "We are bending over backwards not to antagonize the Academy and still market the films in an intelligent way."

And regardless of whether a film is an Oscar contender, special screenings are seen among a number of film distributors as a powerful way to drum up awareness of a picture. "I don’t think you can ever underestimate the incredible power of word-of-mouth," said Dennis O’Connor, who’s in charge of theatrical releases for HBO Films. He added that "For me, word-of-mouth screenings are a cornerstone of the campaign of any sort of more specialized type of film release."

In the process, these screenings have had another effect on the city’s social hierarchy. Tina Brown may be complaining about them in her Washington Post column, but they’ve become welcome replacements to the indiscriminate rat fucks that numbed the social order during the mid-90′s and on into the new century. (Ms. Brown threw quite a few of them, if memory serves correctly.) And by virtue of their intimate size, these screenings have taken on the kind of status that, as Ms. Brown noted in her Post story and A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times on Nov. 3, was once associated with receiving a handsomely boxed set of DVD’s emblazoned with the phrase "For Your Consideration."

The Right Mix

When discussing special screenings, Ms. Siegal’s name is inevitably raised. She has been arranging and organizing the lion’s share of them-some lavish, some not-for the last 25 years. And like most publicists interviewed for this story, Ms. Siegal, who is currently partnered with Harriet Weintraub in the boutique publicity firm, Weintraub Siegal Coleman Cohen Group, was reluctant to make a big deal out of the current spate of special screenings.