From Jedi to Blade Runner, from Darkness to literal First Contact, I’ve had a number of unique experiences at film premieres over the years. Whether it be technical difficulties or celebrity encounters or a focus-group advance screening of the most iconic sci-fi film of all-time, I wouldn’t change any of it, no matter how rowdy the crowd gets.
As a kid growing up in the 1970s, the decade that birthed big-budget summer movies, seeing films in their first run at major theaters was a rite of passage. From age 10 to 16 I saw everything on Day One, First Run. You name it – Star Wars, Star Trek, Empire, Khan, Jedi – I saw it.
Of course at that time, seeing a film on opening weekend was quite a different thing. Sure the crowds at the cinema today are still very large, but they are spread across multiscreens in multiplexes within multi-communities.
Back in the day it was one theater, one screen. And you had to plan your viewings well in advance and stand in long lines that noodled their way through the parking lot. It was a truly communal experience. (Lawn chairs from the back of the car? Check! Blanket? Check! Deck of cards? Check!)
I remember in 1980 getting my first true taste of a spoiler, or more accurately, a near-miss spoiler. As we were leaving the first showing of The Empire Strikes Back and I was still marveling at the ballsy cliffhanger ending, one of my brothers said: “I still can’t believe that guy in line said that Darth Vader was Luke’s father.” Excuse me? Guess I wasn’t paying attention when that happened, because I missed it. Thank god.
For pure folly, though, nothing rivals the premiere showing of Return of the Jedi that we attended in 1983. This was the first major Trek/Wars film release that was actually being debuted in multiple theaters and not at one set location. That was a little bit of a disappointment to me and my brothers, as it made everything feel a little less special—but no matter: We chose our theater, bought our tickets for the first showing, and still camped out early to get good seats.
For this type of event, our parents would actually let us skip school on a Friday to hit an early afternoon showing. (Side note: Encouraging your kids’ passions and interests is just damn good parenting. I’m eternally grateful for them, and if you are a parent, you should try it.)
So there we were, three teenage boys amped out of our minds waiting for the triumphant end to the Star Wars trilogy. (Never mind the shortcomings of the actual movie; this story is not about that!) As Jedi reached its midway point, our heroes found themselves in an exciting speeder-bike chase in the forest. Believe me; the theater was mesmerized as those speeders winged their way through the woods. At that point in time, no one had ever seen anything like that on film.
As one bike was destroyed after another, and the scene was approaching its climax, the film suddenly cut to a cold, metallic room with a view of vast space and Darth Vader swinging his lightsaber in full force down upon Luke Skywalker as they dueled in front of the Emperor.
“Huh? That’s weird. Luke’s on the station now?” I thought. “And he’s fighting Vader? How’d that happen?”
After a few dazed moments your mind starts to focus in on what is happening. You slowly…start…to…realize… “THE THEATER IS MISSING A REEL OF THE FILM!” One more beat, and then—chaos.
As 150 or so sci-fi nerds in the theater simultaneously started figuring out what is happening, the freakout was officially on. Pandemonium ensued as the geek herd quickly tried to migrate to the exits, covering their ears, averting their eyes, and caterwauling to drown out the film’s audio.
Before long the lights came on in theater, the projector was shut off, and everyone was milling around the lobby, angry and confused.
A frazzled manager soon appeared and offered up refunds, explaining to the masses that a reel of the film was missing but they decided to show it anyway.
Like we wouldn't notice? Extremely odd choice. But resilient as ever, my brothers and I found a newspaper, looked up another showing, and immediately made our way to that theater, where we saw the movie in its entirety, Ewoks and all.
A year earlier, my brothers and I had another amazing moviegoing experience, one that literally made us a part of cinematic history. We attended an early, focus group screening of arguably the greatest science fiction film ever made: Blade Runner.
To this day I have no memory of how we got the tickets. I just remember being a 15-year old sci-fi junkie sitting in a massive, big box theater in May 1982 watching an advanced screening of a seminal film. The moments on this special evening came fast and furious.
As we took our seats and were patiently waiting for the film to start, I heard a slow buzz rolling through the building. The Pacific Cinerama theater was massive, with five huge vertical sections separated by four aisles, and maybe 100 rows of seats. The audible rumbling was growing. We stood up to look around and see what was happening.
“Oh, my god!” my brother said to no one in particular. “That’s Harrison Ford!!!” And it was! He was sidling into the center of an aisle about 25 rows behind us.
The crowd exploded as everyone realized what was happening. As Ford took his seat, he stood and waved to the crowd, acknowledging their loud, standing ovation. Before long everyone was seated again, and the film was starting.
It was epic. I loved every second of it.
As it concluded, we were all asked to answer a few questions and provide our feedback on small white index cards that were being distributed. It was here where I and a thousand other people in the theater made our mark on film history.
My comments were glowing and I had no issues following the film’s narrative. I'm pretty sure it was the feedback from this showing (and others like it) that confirmed the studios decision to add the film-noir narration from Rick Deckard, which was included in our showing (but not at other advanced screenings conducted earlier in the year). The narration is an addition I actually prefer in terms of the film's different variations. With or without it, though, is not a big deal for me, but there's no question it’s one of the more debated elements in sci-fi film history.
With the buzz of the film and the buzz of the feedback still buzzing through our buzzed-out minds, we headed to the parking lot and began our bumper-to-bumper exit from the huge theater parking lot. But the night wasn’t over yet. As the three of us were driving out of the massive parking lot, we ended up stuck in a slow crawl right in front of the theater’s massive entrance and wall of glass doors.
Brake lights. Inch forward. Brake lights. Inch forward. It was the normal big event parking lot exit. And then it happened. Harrison Ford was whisked out of the theater by his handlers and into a limousine…right…in…front…of…us.
We were freaking out and our buzz was back! Not sure if it was me or one of my brothers (or maybe it was all three of us), but someone exclaimed: “Let’s follow him!!!” And the chase was on. Our excitement was off the charts and we whooped and hollered about the film, about Han Solo, about Harrison Ford being in a goddamn limo right in front of us!
I’m sure in all of our minds, we were going to pull up next to him at the restaurant or the hotel they were headed to and we were going to get out and hang out with him and be his best friends forever! It was totally going to happen!
After about 20 minutes of freeway pursuit through San Diego’s Mission Valley and into downtown, it finally occurred to my oldest brother (a wise sage all of 19): “What the fuck are we doing? I bet the driver in that car is totally freaking out that someone is following him.”
Whoosh, the air was quickly sucked out of the car. It was replaced by a heavy dose of reality, and the realization that the chase was fun, but, yeah, we weren’t about to be Harrison Ford’s new best friends.
So we went home.
Giving up the chase was a valuable learning experience. He’s just a dude. Leave him alone.
On the other end of the celebrity spectrum, I had the good fortune to attend the actual star-studded debut of Star Trek Into Darkness at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles in 2012. That theater was literally filled with Star Trek royalty. Nimoy. Abrams. Pine. They were all there. (I sat three seats from Peter Weller and Bruce Greenwood. Zachary Quinto was maybe 20 seats from me in the same row. Celebrities were everywhere. )
But maybe largely because of that Harrison Ford experience as a kid in 1982, I’ve never cared that much about meeting or greeting the big stars. Sure, I’d love to thank them for their work, but the thought of an autograph or photo has never been a pursuit of mine.
So even though I was surrounded by Hollywood stars, all I really cared about was Into Darkness—which was awesome, of course. My opinion was validated when the lights came on and the audience began the slow shuffle to the exits. As I stood for a minute to get my bearings, a large figure standing directly in front of me stood up to stretch and take in the atmosphere. He turned around and our eyes made contact. He smiled and said, “That was awesome, right, man? Really cool.”
I nodded in agreement and confirmed it was indeed awesome. The man extended his hand, and I shook it vigorously in a sincere man-bonding moment. It was then that his narrow, snaggletooth smile and distinctive, thin lips came into focus and I realized I was shaking hands with Quentin Tarantino. “Awesome, man. Really awesome,” he said again.
I had a much different, but no less invigorating, “debut” moviegoing experience for the release of Star Trek: First Contact in 1996. As a diehard Trekkie (something you may have noticed if you've clicked around this website), I was disappointed when a personal vacation I’d planned ended up conflicting with the U.S. debut of the film.
I was in Europe when the movie opened, so I wouldn’t be able to see it until two weeks after it was released. Upon my return home, I made immediate plans to see the first showing the next day. It was a Tuesday. It was 10 a.m. The film had been out for 10 days. The theater was guaranteed to be empty.
(Full disclosure: I’m pretty persnickety when it comes to my Trek viewing. I don’t want to be disturbed. I want to hear every tick of dialogue. I want complete, uninterrupted silence and concentration during my viewing. Yeah, I know, I’m a lot of fun.)
So, as I took my seat in the tiny shoebox theater in Kansas City, I was all by myself. Then one minute before the previews began I heard a loud but joyous commotion. I turned around and saw about 30 special education kids and their teachers entering the theater for movie day. (Did I mention they were loud?)
“Oh, no,” I thought, immediately picturing the short bus parked outside the theater, my heart sinking. “Disaster. This is an unmitigated disaster.” Those were my first thoughts. Just being honest. And boy was I wrong.
My immediate second thoughts were: “These kids are so excited to be here. They are so happy. Who gives a fuck if they are loud? I’m going to see this movie literally 50 times anyway.” So, as a famous film director once said to me, “This is going to be 'awesome, man. Really awesome!'”
And it was! The excitement and buzz in the theater completely matched the buzz in the crowd when Harrison Ford was joining us to watch Blade Runner or Quentin Tarantino was shaking my hand at the end of Into Darkness. The experience every bit as rewarding.
Missing reels? Harrison Ford? Quentin Tarantino? Thirty kids with Down syndrome and me watching Star Trek: First Contact? I wouldn’t change any of it.