When it comes to the hugely hyped opening of the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, the question is who's crazier: the mad, murderous Joker portrayed by the late Heath Ledger, or the mad, manic fanboys who insist on lining up for hours just to see the film at 2, 3 or 6 a.m. on its opening morning.
With hundreds of midnight screenings selling out in the month since they were first available for Internet pre-sale, theaters across the country scrambled to set up more red-eye showings of The Dark Knight. As of 3 p.m. Thursday, tickets were still available for the 6:05 a.m. screening in Lincolnshire, Ill. The 6 a.m. show at the Mall of Georgia in Buford? No luck.
While red-eye screenings, especially midnight showings, have been on the rise since the release of the first Star Wars prequel in 1999, lines around the block for hours beforehand the tradition that gave birth to the idea of "blockbuster" films have become something of an anachronism. What was a necessity in the days before you could buy tickets on the Web has now become a matter of choice: lightsaber-wielding guys and Harry Potterbespectacled kids happily line up to commune before a film. "In the '80s, if you wanted to go see a movie on a Friday night, you braced yourself for a three- or four-hour wait sometimes," says Mark Harris, author of the recent Hollywood history Pictures at a Revolution. Harris recalls standing in the summer heat for hours to see Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and witnessing fellow line jockeys "literally fainting. A couple of people threw up and there was a fistfight."
That all began to change once Moviefone the phone-based movie ticket ordering system that started up in 1990 allowed consumers to order tickets from home. A decade later, the websites Fandango and MovieTickets were both established, opening Internet pre-sale options to a wide swath of Americans and largely eliminating the need to show up early at theaters, unless you were insistent on a prime seat. Between the two sites which have begun to sell advance tickets 30 to 45 days in advance for big Hollywood blockbusters nearly 4,000 midnight showings of The Dark Knight were scheduled. Thousands of weekend screenings have been sold out for days. "The midnight shows, especially, have really taken off in the last few years, and they've been surprisingly crowded," says Fandango spokesman Harry Medved. "Every major release now seems to have some. Hellboy 2 had just a bit over a hundred screens. And as of tonight, Mamma Mia! had 300 midnight shows."
The concept of the "midnight movie" began to change from a Rocky Horror Picture Show cult phenomenon into a routine promotional gimmick in May 1999, when the long-awaited Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace premiered one minute after midnight to hordes of fans who had waited days in line for the opportunity to get a first look. Those showings grossed $7 million. Episode II grossed $6.2 million during its opening midnight screenings and Episode III scored an astounding $16.5 million. The final Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King earned $8 million at midnight screenings. Each of those films drew long lines of moviegoers (including an absurd incident in which Star Wars fans lined up for a month and a half prior to the release of Episode III outside Grauman's Chinese Theater, despite the fact that the film wasn't scheduled to show there), mostly as a form of theater and camaraderie. "When it was actually necessary to line up for a movie ticket, people made the best of it," says MovieTickets Executive Vice-President Joel Cohen. "They made it a fun experience by dressing up and turning it into an event. But if it's still happening, it's somewhat unnecessary."
Even without its midnight showings, The Dark Knight will play on more screens at more hours than almost any film to date, and box-office returns are projected to be among the biggest of the year. One reason is the Heath Ledger factor. "It's been a very long time since there's been a posthumous performance of an actor that died in an untimely way that promised to be so big and intense and good," says author Mark Harris. "It's a movie with fanboy appeal, but it's also, in an odd way, playing out as a memorial service for Ledger." A bit grim for 6 a.m. but then, Gotham City isn't known for its good cheer.