The Screening Elite

She did explain, however, that special screenings "were conceived as an economic alternative to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for big premieres. By carefully limiting their guest lists to a small group of V.I.P.’s, press and celebrities who make a big noise, they could, in most cases, generate the same amount of attention and save a bundle.

Ms. Siegal also talked about her philosophy for populating these screenings, which she likened to "casting an audience." In other words, putting the right mix of opinion-makers in the seats who will then go out and spread the right word-of-mouth about the film.

"If you listen to the filmmaker and you go out and do what he thinks is reflective of his film and who he made the film for and what he’s trying to say, then it all becomes crystal-clear on how to screen these movies," Ms. Siegal said. And then, she explained: "What you do is you invite newscasters, and you invite politicians, and you invite literary geniuses, and you invite decorators, and you invite artists and you invite ballerinas," Ms. Siegal explained. "So the message is in the mix. It’s always been that way."

According to Ms. Siegal, however, each film requires its own mix.

"If Julian Schnabel is directing Before Night Falls , you’re going to have a larger contingent of artists coming. If you’re screening Pollock , it’s real important to get Eric Fischl in there, and Ross Bleckner, because you want some credibility in that arena," Ms. Siegal said. "If you doing The Fog of War ," Errol Morris’ documentary about former secretary of defense Robert McNamara, "it becomes real important to get Tom Brokaw because he is an authority on serious news coverage, or Ted Koppel." In fact, ABC News president David Westin will host one screening of The Fog of War on Nov. 18, and NBC News president Neal Shapiro will host another on Nov. 19. Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke will host a third on Nov. 20.

In the case of the Columbine-inspired Elephant , publicist Nadine Johnson, who orchestrated the night at Schiller’s with Mr. Callender, explained that the people at the screening and dinner were "an edgier crowd and a downtown location was mandatory."

Aside from the relevant artistic talent, there are a cadre of luminaries that are always invited to a special screening. They form the bifurcated core of the screening elite. On one hand, there are the Regis Philbins of the city who have ample opportunity to voice their own opinions through mass media. On the other, there are those, such as literary couple author Gay Talese and his publisher wife Nan, who are not only members of the media elite, they have the ears of other members of the fraternity.

On Oct. 23, Mr. Talese attended special screening that Ms. Siegal arranged for Miramax’s The Human Stain . Liz Smith, a longtime friend of the director, Robert Benton, was the host, and dinner followed at the Plaza Athénée’s restaurant, Arabelle. Mr. Talese left the dinner early because the Yankees were getting trounced by the Marlins in the fifth game of the World Series, but he said he attended the Human Stain screening not only because he’s a Philip Roth aficionado, but because he considers the experience a win-win situation.

"The conversation-with people who are sitting in front of you, or behind you, or in the aisles on the straight-back chair because they were too late-is pleasant," Mr. Talese recalled. "So even if the film isn’t a show worth seeing, the show itself, the atmosphere, the ambiance, made it worthwhile.

"Then you wind up as I did, with a Bombay gin martini, straight up with a twist, looking through the reflections of the simmering, shimmering, stupefying martini, and seeing the dazzling Mr. Anthony Hopkins," who showed up for the dinner at Arabelle.

As recounted by Mr. Talese, the experience sounds difficult to resist, but tell that to the likes of Mr. Brokaw or Vogue editor Anna Wintour or Newsweek ‘s Mark Whitaker, who are besieged with requests to attend screenings and premieres.

Which is why publicists like Ms. Siegal are always on the hunt for that special carrot that will snare a host. For the Nov. 1 premiere of Master and Commander at the Beekman Theater, for example, Ms. Siegal turned to former CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, who she explained was both an avid sailor and fan of Pat O’Brian’s novels. Mr. Cronkite introduced the film with a jaunty tale of cocktails with the author on a Mediterranean sailing cruise.

Speaking of cocktails, the lure of a free meal at a posh or hot restaurant doesn’t hurt, especially if it’s a place like Schiller’s, which supposedly doesn’t take reservations. Few V.I.P.’s want to risk not being recognized at the door and then having to wait at the bar with a crowd full of unwashed punks wearing nose rings.

Coppola, Not Hilton

As if in anticipation of the emergence of the screening elite, a number of swank screening rooms-alternatives to the somewhat creaky workaday accommodations offered by the long-standing Magno and Broadway screening centers and the Hilton-like MGM and Disney screening rooms-began to open beginning in the mid 90′s. The Sony screening room in the company’s Chippendale building on Madison and 55th Street used to be the place, but it has since been overshadowed by the Tribeca Grand Hotel and the Soho House, which both have private screening rooms, and are conceivably "neutral" territory.

"I think there’s a lot of screening rooms, while they have areas you can have parties in, they often have the smell and feel of a screening room," explains Soho House spokesman Tim Geary. "They’re often in a corporate [atmosphere]."