Thursday, March 29, 2018

Sneak previews

Who remembers sneak previews?

What I don’t know is if it’s an age thing or an LA thing. Did they have sneak previews in Kansas City? Here in Los Angeles they were the suburban rage.

Some background…

There once was a time when there were “first run” movies. They’d be released with great fanfare and play in big movie palaces. There were other movies that were released that didn’t have the star power, the budget, the Red Sea parting. They were called “B movies.” They opened in secondary neighborhood theatres and Drive In’s.

Those neighborhood theatres generally had double-features. Interesting that people could cheerfully sit through five hours of movies back then. (What this says to me is that two well-paced movies feels shorter than a single feature that is a half-hour too long.)

Once “first run” movies cycled out of the big movie palaces they too wound up in the neighborhood double-bills, sharing the marque with these B-movies.

But every so often there were sneak previews. The theatre would advertise that in addition to the former first run feature a brand new upcoming movie would be shown. What that movie was was always a secret.

Yes, it was a crapshoot for the theatergoer but also kind of exciting. It was our only chance to see movies before they came out. Today, of course, there are test screenings prior to release, but often you know something about the movie going in. Why? Because studios are only interested in target audiences so only specific people are recruited and to entice them into the theatre they’re told “It’s a new Will Ferrell comedy” or “It’s a superhero flick.” Etc.

Not so with sneak previews. You paid your ticket and took your chance.

As best as I could remember, the few times I attended sneak previews the mystery movie was a disappointment. I vaguely recall some Rick & Kris Nelson comedy. Ugh. On the other hand, I did see HUD as a sneak preview and that was startling. Paul Newman played this mesmerizing asshole and I was riveted.

But good or bad, you felt privileged because you saw a movie three months before everyone else. You were a Hollywood Insider even if it only meant you screened a Ricky Nelson film that would go on to sell eighteen tickets total.

My favorite personal sneak preview story takes place in, I believe, 1962. I was just a kid. We took my grandmother to the Lido Theatre in Pacific Palisades to see Billy Wilder’s new movie ONE TWO THREE and then a sneak preview. Going to a sneak preview was such a big deal that we drove thirty miles to get there.

The first run movie always screened first.  ONE TWO THREE was a great movie. Smart, biting, hilarious. Usually the sneak preview is a film that complements the first run. It only stands to reason that whatever new movie follows be geared to the same crowd. So we all had very high expectations – especially my grandmother.

There was that big moment of suspense. The lights went down and roaring onto to the screen was FOLLOW THAT DREAM starring Elvis Presley. My grandmother loudly called out, “What the hell is this?” Laughs from the whole theatre.  For the entire movie she grumbled. “Who watches this crap?” “This is stupid.” “Even these songs are no good.” I can only think of four or five screen comedies that ever made me laugh as hard as FOLLOW THAT DREAM with commentary by Pearl Levine. And I’m sure if Billy Wilder had been in that audience he’d be saying the exact same things she did (in a similar accent).  

God, I miss sneak previews.

50 comments :

Jan Niklas Fingerle said...

In Germany Sneak Previews (used as a German Anglicism, "Sneak" being used as a short name) are (still) a thing. But it's only the one secret movie, no double feature. And it's rather shown three weeks than three months before the regular start.

In Saarbr├╝cken (as in many university towns) there's not only the regular "Sneak" of German language (generally dubbed) movies: Once a month we've got an "OV Sneak", meaning "original version" - and in general those movies selected to be shown in their original English version are less crappy than the movies in the regular Sneak. And since it's "OV" and not "OmU" (Original mit Untertiteln / original with subtitles) its always an English language original version.

Macel said...

Sure, here in Germany when I was younger in the 90's we went to the sneak preview pretty much every second week. By the way, it's also called "Sneak preview" here, we didn't bother inventing a German word for it ;) It was always full and often you could win some price before the movie. And if I remember correctly if you left within the first 30 minutes you could get your money back, but we never did that even though a few times I wish we had.

I've heard that it's still pretty much a thing with the younger generations, only I'm not wasting my precious "without family" evenings on an unknown movie anymore ;-)

Steve Bailey said...

I distinctly remember seeing Disney's 1971 comedy The Barefoot Executive as a preview. I probably remember it ONLY because it was a preview.

Roseann said...

I do remember Sneak Previews but they were about 3 days before the opening. I do think they were in NYC.

Kirk said...

I still see sneak previews advertised here in Cleveland from time to time. In fact, just last week in an alternative newspaper.

Rick said...

I miss them too. Best film I saw as a sneak preview was "The Way We Were" in Westwood at one of the AVCO Center Theaters on Wilshire 2-3 blocks east of Westwood Blvd. (I think those theaters were the AVCOs...)

Thomas Anderson said...

When I was in college a buddy and I went to a sneak preview one night of what we were told was a new Western flick. When Frankie Laine started singing the title song we thought the lyrics were a little strange, and when the railroad gang started singing "I get no kick from champagne..." we knew we were in for something different. That was our introduction to "Blazing Saddles" and it was pretty cool!

Earl Boebert said...

Loved sneak previews when I was in the Air Force in San Antonio (which, for some reason, had a lot of them). Biggest win: Dr. No.

Justin Piatt said...

One, Two, Three is a fantastic movie! It's a shame it's not as well known now.

And I could absolutely see Billy Wilder doing the same thing

Ron Rettig said...

I remember seeing sneak preview of Elvis Presley "G.I. Blues" at the Westwood Bruin.

Ron Rettig said...

Also they used to have sneak previews regularly at the Palms Theater on Motor Avenue in Palms, west L A. when i was a kid in the 1950s early 60s.

Craig Gustafson said...

You couldn't really call it "sneak" because it was advertised, but I saw a preview of "Annie Hall." Two things I remember:

1. The extreme displeasure of those who thought they were going to sit through "Rocky" a second time for free. They walked out.

2. Woody Allen sneezing into the cocaine remains the biggest, loudest, longest laugh I've ever heard in a movie theater. They were well into the next scene before you could hear any dialogue.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I think B-movies were relics of the past when my generation came along (or, more specifically, I've never seen a double-feature at any theater in my town as long as I can remember). However, we do still have "sneak previews," it's just that now they're also accompanied by TV commercials and celebrity gossip segments.

Jeffrey Graebner said...

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s in the midwest, I remember that the "Sneak Preview" term was regularly used, but they did pretty much always advertise what the movie was, which obviously made the "sneak" part kind of meaningless. Usually it was shown as a double feature with something that had been around for a while (generally from the same studio) and the preview was always shown first. They also were usually 2-3 weeks before the movie was scheduled to come out. They were still fun, since we weren't bombarded by as many details about upcoming movies back then, meaning that even if the title was advertised we still often knew little to nothing about the movie.

Easily the most exciting surprise that I remember from a sneak preview was seeing "E.T." We went primarily because the ad in the paper said it was from the director of "Raiders of the Lost Ark", but otherwise we knew basically nothing about it. It remains the only time I've seen a movie get a standing ovation (a real one -- not people getting up to leave) at the end. The second feature was "If You Can See What I Hear", a romantic comedy with Marc Singer as a blind musician. Not surprisingly, it was a tad anti-climactic...

Barry Traylor said...

My favorite movies when growing up were the B movies.

Doug in Dallas said...

I did a semester abroad in Innsbruck, Austria about seventeen years ago, and every Friday night at the local theater, they did Sneak Preview night: Hollywood movies that had not yet been dubbed into German. Going in, they would tell you the genre of the movie, your only clue as to what you'd be seeing. I remember seeing Requiem for a Dream, which was billed as 'comedy.'

Steve said...

I fondly remember a double sneak preview in the early 80s at a movie theater in upstate New York. Both movies were about to be released. It was Michael Keaton/Henry Winkler's comedy "Night Shift" paired with the original Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner." How the studio or distributor came up with a double bill like this is lost to the ages.

Tom said...

I got to see a sneak preview of Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild" at the University of Chicago to christen a new movie theater the school was opening. A jolting, amazing experience. A few years before that, Joan Rivers came to the school on a promotional tour for her upcoming movie "Rabbit Test." She showed the first reel of the film (just godawful, I recall no one laughing even once), but then she did a Q&A and was charming and hilarious.

Gary said...

Ken, here's a Friday question for you: One of the most annoying trends in family sitcoms is that the children always talk like adults. In fact this is so engrained I don't think it can even be called a trend anymore. The last TV comedy in which the children actually spoke realistically may have been Leave it to Beaver.

To me, this is simply lazy writing. I assume it's easier to come up with a line an adult might say than to try and enter a child's mind. But the novelty of that child being so precocious is simply old hat and grating now. And I've never encountered any child who could say some of the ridiculously complex lines they say in sitcoms.

My question is, have you ever had to write any extended dialogue for children? Did you find it unusually challenging? And if so, how did you go about it?

Dhruv said...

Thanks for another wonderful insight of your place :)

Sadly no sneak previews here :(

"test screenings prior to release" - this was something I was waiting to ask. So today's blog presented the opportunity :)

I saw a movie called "What just happened". In that, few random people are asked to view a movie and based on their feedback, the movie is changed.

My question is: Is this common in your place? Have you ever attended one? If so, can you please share your experience.

I would love to know the entire process like - do they really re-shoot some scenes based on the views of these random people off the street? Do these people get paid or just popcorn and few drinks?

Thanks.

labelledamesansmerci said...

Lots of laughing from this end with the big reveal of FOLLOW THAT DREAM in your article. Thank you.

Laurie said...

I also saw ET as a sneak preview and was blown away by it. I don't even remember the other movie we saw that night.

Kevin Johnston said...

I can't recall ever having seen a sneak preview. The area I grew up in may have been far too small a market for any studio to make them available. But I do still remember "One-Two-Three' by Billy Wilder. It's a great film, with a stellar performance by James Cagney. Haven't seen it recently. I wonder if it's available on Netflix.

Bill O said...

By their very nature, sneaks are the last, mostly undocumented Hollywood process. Films have been gutted, refilmed on basis of a bad test. Magnificent Ambersons the most regrettable example.

I was at a legendary Once Upon a Time in America sneak, which caused it to lose over half its running time, the rest completely restructured....

Pat Reeder said...

I've been to a lot of sneak previews in my time, but one that stands out in my memory was one of the first. I had one of my earliest jobs in radio in Dallas and got a pass to a sneak preview of some new sci-fi movie that I knew nothing about. It was called "Blade Runner." I later heard that Harrison Ford was hiding under a hat in the back row, but I didn't see him when I left.

BTW, pretty good movie. I recommend seeing it.

YEKIMI said...

Must be a big city thing. Don't remember seeing any sneak previews [meaning movies that you knew nothing about] growing up in Florida in the 60s, even though I lived near a big city. In the late 70s/early 80s in Ohio I remember the theater I worked at sometimes ran sneak previews [but we always knew what the film would be] on Thursday nights of the new big releases IF they could get permission of the film companies and we usually had pretty good turnouts. Nowadays, every damn film has a "SNEAK PREVIEW' on Thursday nights, but you know what the film is about and the turnouts are usually pretty low unless it's a film geared towards adults and they'll show up so they don't have to deal with undisciplined teenagers yakking on their phones or thinking it's their own personal indoor playground on the weekends.

Donald Benson said...

San Jose used to be big for Sneak Previews, because of demographics, a high amount of movie-going, and convenience to LA. The one I remember was "Dragonslayer", a Disney / Paramount collaboration. Somebody announced before the showing that it was incomplete, but the only thing I noticed was the absence of credits (the closing shot of somebody riding a horse lasted for a full minute, so I assume that's where they were meant to go).

These days, when they have a Sneak Preview just a few weeks before the scheduled opening, does it really affect the movie itself? In the 20s-30s they could run back to the studio and re-edit, and even shoot new stuff in days -- all the talent was under contract and even the sets might be standing. But today, despite movies shot and distributed as digital files, I have trouble imagining serious editing so close to the wire. If nothing else, lawyers and agents would be involved. We do read about heavy reshoots after disastrous test screenings, but those seem to be way in advance of the Sneak Previews.

Could the modern Sneak Preview be mainly for marketing purposes? That is, an excuse to pour on extra advertising or just throw it to a quick box office death? The actual campaigns seem to be tested and nailed down long before release.

Mike Bloodworth said...

There used to be a place in Hollywood called the PREVIEW HOUSE. Apparently, they randomly mailed out invitations to people in the L.A. area. They wouldn't tell you what you would see. But, to entice you to reply they always hyped new movies or T.V. shows, et al. However, the few times I went they NEVER showed a movie. Most often it was commercials for products that were about to be introduced. Sometimes we didn't even get to see the commercial, just story boards. Then they'd ask, "What do you think of this product?" And, "Would you but it based on this ad?" Only one time did I see the preview for a sitcom. And it wasn't even a full pilot. It was one of these ten-minute, pre-pilot, pitch, "highlight" things. I don't remember the show or who was in it. I don't think it ever got on the air. Needless to say, after awhile I stopped replying to the PREVIEW HOUSE's invitations. The P.H. closed down a couple of years later. However, to get back on topic, a couple of years ago I was in the Burbank mall and they had a sneak preview of BAD SANTA 2. I was tempted, but I had other errands and couldn't spare the +/- two hours. Finally, Joseph S., I'm old enough to remember double features. I also remember when you could sit through a movie more than once. Of course we now measure time in nanoseconds. The consciousness had changed.
M.B.

RR said...

While my son was going to film school in Chicago only two to three years ago, he got hooked up with a local film group who regularly gave out passes for previews of films weeks before they came out. He saw a number of films like this ("Bridge of Spies", "Snowden", "CHiPs". Many had the directors and stars present to talk about the film afterward. His favorite was "Deepwater Horizon" (2016) which he said was a genuine sneak preview: the print he saw had many of the special effects yet to be inserted. The Deepwater Horizon was supposed to be out in the Gulf of Mexico but he said he could still clearly see trees and other bits of nature in the background on the long shots. So, yes, they do still happen.

Cap'n Bob said...

Five hours to see two B movies? That would have to include two hours of intermissions.

Pete Grossman said...

Growing up in a barely commutable NYC suburb somewhere between the city and the Catskills (anyone remember the Red Apple Rest?), We had sneak previews and double features at the local bijou and Drive-Ins. What was all the rage at the Drive-In back then? You could tune the sound in on your radio and listen to it via your car speakers instead of hearing it through that giant, clanging metal monstrosity speaker reminiscent of an outer space alien hanging on your window. Yay technology!

Leilani said...

I have a possible Friday question, Thoughts on the show, "The Good Place"? (With Ted Danson!)

Greg Ehrbar said...

@Steve Bailey Scoff if you must as The Barefoot Executive, but it was a canny little comedy about a chimp who chose hit TV shows and elevated the career young network executive (Kurt Russell). I guess if you do the same story on a respectable show like Taxi with Martin Short as the young exec, then it's brilliant. But I digress.

My mom also offers sparkling commentaries on movies and TV shows, sometimes painfully so if the production is especially dear to me ("OMG, You LIKE this, Greg? OMG, I can't stand that woman. I can't take any more of that guy either, I never liked him. In real life, she broke up his marriage and killed herself after 'cause she was a drunk. They were both no good. You like this movie? How can you like this?" I learned to limit screenings of films that made me too vulnerable, but what can I say? We all seek approval.

Anyway, she loved drive ins because you could use a whole car to walk out. Once when the second feature was "Harum Scarum." This is from memory, but I think Elvis (who I think had a character name other than Elvis in the movie but was very much like Elvis) was pursued by desert thugs (who would surely offend people now). He leapt over a high wall, where he found a bevy of lovely young ladies, eager to feed him grapes. He found a guitar and began serenading them.

"OMG Harold!" Mom said to Dad. "How stupid can it be. He stops to sing to the women when the guys with the swords... OMG. No. No. This STINKS. OMG. I can't take it. Go ahead, start the car."

I still don't know if Elvis ever got away and everything ended happily in Harum Scarum.

MikeN said...

I saw an apartheid movie with Sam Jackson and Juliet Binoche, In My Country, as a sneak preview, then called I kid you not, The Country of My Skull. Strangely, I was the only person there whose ticket had the name of the movie on it.

The directer John Boorman was there to take comments afterwards. One guy was giving crazy suggestions in a funny voice, and everyone laughed hilariously when he suggested rather than showing a scene with Sam's kids, he should just look at a picture in his wallet. I was surprised when I saw the movie again later, the scene was edited quite a bit more towards what the guy was saying, while the director ignored an almost unanimous opinion to get rid of the affair between the two leads.

Anonymous said...

Here's a preview story involving Ernst Lubitsch and his writers Brackett, Wilder, and Reisch

from Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise By Scott Eyman

At a preview of Ninotchka, Lubitsch brought along Charlie Brackett, Billy
Wilder, Walter Reisch, and a few studio executives, The film seemed to
go well,with laughter in all the right places. After the film ended, Lubitsch
swooped down on the filled-out preview cards and took them back to the
studio limousine, refusing to let anybody else look at them.
“He had this very serious expression as he was reading,” remembered
Billy Wilder, “and you could tell that it was pretty positive. Well, he gets
to this one card and he just stares at it for a while and then he breaks into
this howl of laughter. He was rocking back and forth on the seat and
pounding it with one hand. We were looking at each other and wondering
what the hell was so funny. Finally, he hands me the card and this is what it said:
“‘Great picture. Funniest film I ever saw. I laughed so hard, I peed in
my girlfriend’s hand.’ ”

A Noony Moose said...

Here's a preview story involving Ernst Lubitsch and his writers Brackett, Wilder, and Reisch

from Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise By Scott Eyman

At a preview of Ninotchka, Lubitsch brought along Charlie Brackett, Billy
Wilder, Walter Reisch, and a few studio executives, The film seemed to
go well,with laughter in all the right places. After the film ended, Lubitsch
swooped down on the filled-out preview cards and took them back to the
studio limousine, refusing to let anybody else look at them.
“He had this very serious expression as he was reading,” remembered
Billy Wilder, “and you could tell that it was pretty positive. Well, he gets
to this one card and he just stares at it for a while and then he breaks into
this howl of laughter. He was rocking back and forth on the seat and
pounding it with one hand. We were looking at each other and wondering
what the hell was so funny. Finally, he hands me the card and this is what it said:
“‘Great picture. Funniest film I ever saw. I laughed so hard, I peed in
my girlfriend’s hand.’ ”

Colin Stratton said...

I remember Sneak Previews. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were the cohosts. Low budget production, but it was PBS. Not a bad show.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Bill O, AMBERSONS was butchered because Welles was in South America. When the director maintains control, sneak previews can be useful. Billy Wilder changed the opening of SUNSET BOULEVARD based on the preview audience's reaction -- originally, the narrator was Joe Gillis in the morgue, talking to the other corpses. I think we can agree he made the correct decision.

The Lubitsch story is worth repeating.

Astroboy said...

Ken, Thanks for reminding me of "One, Two, Three," it had slipped out of my "what movie shall I watch now" memory locker for a few years now. One of my favorite James Cagney roles and Billy Wilder/I.A. Diamond films. Also a favorite for such wonderful sets and great black & white cinematography from Daniel Fapp (nominated for an Oscar for the film). Not to many comedies on the Cold War from the early 60s. Great dialogue. Going to have to watch it again soon.

Bert said...

Well, E.T. must have been screened quite a bit. That's the movie that I immediately thought of as I read Ken's post - and then I saw two other people comment they had seen it as well. In my case I remember it was shown in Wheeler Auditorium on the campus of UC Berkeley. It was much better than the economics class I had in the same room.

Bill O said...

AMBERSONS as butchered based solely on the horrible sneak. Whether Welles was present or not was immaterial. NO director had control of his films in that era - except Welles on Kane. When that failed, RKO renegotiated his contract and he lost director's cut.

scottmc said...

My memory of sneak previews is a little different. In New York they would advertise the movie being previewed. You knew the title and the stars before hand and you saw the previewed movie before the established feature. By that time the older movie had been in the theaters for several weeks. The ticket you bought was for the preview, that way the money generated went to the company producing the previewed movie. (Often the same studio produced both movies.) I saw Silence of the Lambs in previews and got to stay and see Dances With Wolves. I saw Forest Gump after the previewed Milk Money. In college I saw E.T before Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Afterwards, they gave out buttons that said 'I saw E.T.'

Kosmo13 said...

I wasn't with my Grandmother when she saw the Sneak Preview of 'Harum Scarum,' but we heard a lot from her after she got home about how awful it was.

The last movie I saw at a Sneak Preview was 'Thelma & Louise.'

Keith Nichols said...

If you didn't want to see the Elvis sneak, why didn't you leave?

Stuart Best said...

It might have been an LA thing. I remember sneak previews when I was a kid (in Toronto in the 1970s). But they would always tell you the name of the movie. In the newspaper listings, it would be like "Name of Movie, sneak preview 7:00 Monday." The movie itself would open a couple of weeks later, but this was a way to get interested people to see the movie early and create word of mouth. It was never a secret what the movie would be.

cadavra said...

When I was a mere yoot in Dayton, Ohio, my grandmother took me to a New Year's Eve sneak of SON OF FLUBBER, which didn't officially open till February.

BTW, Kino Lorber has a gorgeous new DVD/Blu of ONE, TWO, THREE, featuring a dazzling commentary by my dear friend Mike Schlesinger. ;-)

Bill O said...

Did ONE TWO,THREE cost much to make, considering it's basically a two hour product placement?

Kent Morgan said...

Here in Winnipeg sneak previews were held every Thursday evening for many decades. When I was a small boy, they were held at a theatre called the Tivoli in my neighbourhood, but I was too young to attend. We moved to northern Manitoba when I was in grade 5 and no sneaks were held in the Lido Theatre (check the interior on the Internet) where I took tickets as a teenager. By the time I moved back to Winnipeg the, sneaks had moved to the Uptown Theatre in a different neighbourhodd where I lived and I often attended. Can't remember any specific movies. The sneaks continued until the theatre was turned into a bowling allayy. Now as of this month the bowling alley had to move and the Uptown will be no more.

Frederic Alden said...

I remember going to a sneak preview in Berkeley in the early seventies and it turned out to be "Billy Jack", which many of the audience members complained about because they had already seen it. I watched about 2/3's of it before I could stand it no longer, and my opinion at that time was that it was total crap from every standpoint, but it was surprisingly popular for a time. I watched a bit of it twenty years later and saw that my original opinion was too kind.

Unknown said...

I saw Blade Runner as a sneak preview in the Edwards in Newport Beach. It wasn't the same cut as the latter release but it also wasn't the famous gory cut that made a lot of press. Something in between. This was an unannounced sneak preview, they didn't tell us about it until the lights went up on the first feature. (Which I don't remember what it was.)