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.
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]."
The new breed of screening room is more reminiscent of the private kind found in Robert Evans home or on the Bel-Air screening circuit. They are usually designed by architects and interior decorators who would be on Ms. Siegal’s list and almost always are within a few feet of a bar. The Tribeca Grand’s subterranean screening room has its own, located just outside the theater’s entrance. (Less vital, but still important is access to catering, or at least a few good restaurants.)
For Tribeca Grand creative director Tommy Saleh, a man who speaks in a tempered Egyptian accent, the hotel is a modern-day Algonquin, and the hotel’s screening room is based on "a vision of almost like Gertrude Stein, 1920′s Paris." He even acknowledged that the hotel exerts a certain amount of discrimination when it comes to which celebrities’ asses they want in their screening-room seats. "I don’t want to mention, oh, the Olsen sisters or the Hilton sisters are coming in," Mr. Saleh said. "It’s kind of like in keeping your integrity, you’re going to have longevity."
For instance, Mr. Saleh seemed particularly proud that the Tribeca Grand’s screening room served as the setting for an early screening of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation .
The Soho House is no different. In fact, on Nov. 13, Ms. Coppola will serve as the host of a screening of the 1965 film Darling , which starred Julie Christie, and will benefit The Week , a weekly newsmagazine that has no stake in the Oscar race, but is just as publicity-hungry as Miramax or Focus Features. (Ask Ms. Brown’s husband, Harry Evans, who is the publication’s consulting editor.) The posh members-only club, inspired by its across-the-pond predecessor, was recently the site of what may have been the most special special screening of them all: In mid-October, according to the New York Post , actress Nicole Kidman and her beau Lenny Kravitz caught a private, pre-release screening of Kill Bill there. The article didn’t mention whether anyone else was present at the screening or whether the couple made use of the Soho House’s White Room, with its zebra shag- Oh Behave! -carpets and fully stocked bar. But perhaps the beauty if it was that Ms. Kidman didn’t have to invite any press to her special screening. She just had to have someone leak it for her and then let everyone’s imagination go to work.
The only complaint that some special screening organizers have of the room is that it is a bit small. With a capacity of only 43, some companies have been forced to split up their screenings to accommodate all of their guests. But Mr. Geary countered that this complaint only underscores the screening room’s biggest draw: it’s privacy.
"It’s just sort of clandestine," said Mr. Geary.
And Ms. Kidman’s and Mr. Kravitz’s viewing of Kill Bill underscores why special screenings are the future of movie marketing. On Oct. 7 Miramax threw a big premiere for Kill Bill at the Ziegfeld Theater, followed by a party at Noche. Now ask yourself which one of those screenings you’d like to know more about.