Atlanta offers plenty of opportunities to see advanced screenings.  Over the years, I’ve been to a lot of them–many sponsored by CHUD and others promoted by various radio stations, local stores, and the Atlanta Film Festival.  If there’s one thing I’m sure of after the recent Scott Pilgrim screening, it’s that the world needs a lesson on screening etiquette.

Free screenings are a marketing tool for the studios and a sponsorship opportunity for websites, radio stations, and local businesses.  The studios get their buzz and we get free, early looks at movies.  Advance Screenings are also one of the only opportunities left to see a movie where I can be reasonably sure that I won’t have to watch someone check Facebook from their phone for an hour.  Our great entitlement culture has somehow turned this symbiotic relationship into something ugly.  Often, people aren’t going to see movies they are excited about–they are just looking for a handout.  They aren’t content with seeing a movie early and for free–they want everyone involved with the screening to treat them like a VIP paying customer.  Here are some simple rules of decorum to help keep the screening process from devolving into mouth-breathing chaos.

1. Don’t Be Cheap – Yes, movie concessions are outrageously priced and the food on offer is only slightly healthier than an intravenous drip of cholesterol, but that doesn’t give you a free pass to bring in food from home.  People do this in normal movies that they have paid to see, but it seems to be vastly more prevalent with the free preview screening crowd.  Somehow the notion that the screening is free seems to lead to a feeling that no money at all should be spent on the event, including concessions.  I’ve seen people break out burritos, bags of chips, homemade sandwiches, bags of candy, cans of soda, bottles of water, and in an extreme case, an entire sack of food from McDonald’s that was stuffed into a purse.  When someone is giving you a pass to see a movie for free, the least you can do is respect the venue and not violate their rules about bringing in outside food and beverages.  If you don’t want to blow seven dollars on popcorn, just wait until the free movie is over and go home and make some Spaghetti-Os.

2. Don’t Be Late – The theater is overbooked to ensure a crowd.  I’ve been to a ton of screenings and only two or three of them were not completely packed.  I realize that every screening is probably someone’s first, but there are instructions right there on the pass that say “get to the theater early, you are not guaranteed a seat.”  Early does not mean “in time for The Twenty” since preview screenings rarely have trailers or anything like that attached.  If it’s a movie that you know has a geeky following, always get to the theater an hour early.  If the director and/or stars are rumored to be in attendance, double that.  It also helps to know which theaters tend to draw the screening faithful more than others.  As a rule of thumb, if I have a pass for an evening screening, I am in line 60-90 minutes before the scheduled start time.  That time waiting in line is a small price to pay to get to see a movie for free, and before everyone else, and with a crowd that is controlled by security!  If you do waltz up five minutes before showtime, don’t ask people to move so that you and your party of five can sit together.

3. Don’t Hold Places In Line – As mentioned above, getting into a free, advanced screening requires some sacrifice.  Hotly-anticipated movies or screenings for films with a built-in audience like sequels and comic book movies are going to draw more people than can get in.  These screenings also have seats reserved for press, studio people, and special guests so the theater is never completely available to the unwashed masses.  I got to the Scott Pilgrim screening three hours early because A) I knew people were excited about it, B) Edgar Wright and some of the cast were going to be there, C) I got to the Hot Fuzz screening a couple years ago 2 hours early and I barely squeaked in the door.  With three hours of wait-time, I was the fourth person to show up at the theater door.  By the time they started letting people in, I was number 18.  Even if the three people in front of me each had a pass good for two, there is no way that the math adds up.  It simply means that a few of us had to sacrifice our time so that a bunch of other folks could show up whenever they damn-well pleased and skip to the front.  Again, the screening isn’t an entitlement and just because you have a pass and know someone else in line does not mean that you get to cut.  If 15 people jumped ahead of me in line and if the same thing happened all through the line, there were no doubt plenty of people who showed up early, paid their dues in the heat, and never got in.  That’s just lame.

4. Don’t Be a Swag Hag – So you’ve already gotten a free pass to see a movie, you’re in your seat, and you see some poor person from the promotions department hauling in a battered cardboard box of more free stuff.  Trust me, whatever is in that box is not worth your dignity or the safety of those around you.  There’s a whole psychology of free that seems to suggest when things cost nothing, we are irrationally drawn to them.  The crowd of people scooping up Black Dynamite one-sheets was funny but easily topped by the rows of people yelling indignantly about getting Whip It T-shirts.  Most of this swag is awful or ugly or useless, but that doesn’t stop the frenzy of people climbing over one another to secure it.  In many cases, the folks who clamor for a Napoleon Dynamite t-shirt are the same ones who ask the studio rep if they have a different size!  Seriously?  Maybe we can all be happily thankful the next time we get something for free that we weren’t expecting instead of being righteously indignant that the schlub with the t-shirt cannon isn’t paying attention to us or doesn’t have the shirt we want.

5. Don’t Go See A Movie Just Because It’s Free – Sure, screenings can offer a good chance to take in a movie you aren’t sure about, but I’m sometimes appalled at the number of people in line who have no idea what they are even waiting to see.  Free screenings are a good source of entertainment if you are on a limited budget and I won’t take that away from anyone, but is it too much to show a little interest?  Maybe this rubs me the wrong way because I get very excited about the prospect of seeing a movie I have been following long before its release and I just don’t get the people in line for Be Kind, Rewind who don’t think of it any differently than the latest Jennifer Aniston dreck.  I guess free is free, but wouldn’t it be OK to leave one of those passes for a screening you have no interest in to someone who might actually be excited about it?

Of course what this all boils down to is being appreciative of the fine people who make preview screenings possible.  Screenings are a great opportunity for the studios and the audience, but the folks licking the stamps to mail out the passes or lining up to hand out shirts get almost nothing out of the experience.  Treat the theater, the screening promoters, and your fellow movie enthusiasts with a little respect and the whole process will go a lot smoother.