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Grand Opening, Grand Closing: The Rise and Fall of the Hollywood Mega-premiere

Say goodbye to ‘Godzilla’ galas. Movie studios have slowly but surely begun to end the tradition of massive, oddly elaborate premiere parties. Why did they disappear?

Dan Evans

It was an early-summer evening in 1998, and Godzilla was about to swallow Manhattan.

For months, moviegoers had been primed for what seemed destined to be the last big-screen smash of the ’90s: Godzilla, the $130 million lizard tale from the lowbrow-brilliant Independence Day filmmaking team of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. Sony Pictures Entertainment had teased the movie with ads on buses, taxis, and buildings around the country, focusing on the film’s big-shtick-energy catchphrase: “Size Does Matter.” As the film’s opening neared, “We thought, ‘Let’s follow through on that motto,’” recalls former Sony marketing chief Bob Levin. “‘Let’s have the biggest premiere that anyone has seen.’”

And so, on May 18, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani held a press conference proclaiming “Godzilla Day” in New York City. A few hours later, revelers began arriving at Madison Square Garden, where Godzilla would be unveiled for reportedly more than 13,000 attendees. They included the film’s own Matthew Broderick—who arrived with wife Sarah Jessica Parker—as well as Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page, whose clumsy, “Kashmir”-cribbing soundtrack single “Come With Me” blared on a noisy loop as revelers filed in.

But Godzilla’s guest list wasn’t limited to its cast list. In keeping with Sony’s maximalist ethos, the studio had invited boldfaced names that spanned industries, decades—even species. Muhammad Ali, a fixture at the Garden since the ’60s, showed up. So did Chow Yun-fat, Nick Nolte, That’s Incredible! cohost Cathy Lee Crosby, the cast of Cruel Intentions, and Heavy D. For hours, the arrivals area looked like a crowded, Sgt. Pepper–style overview of late-20th-century celebrity. And right in the middle of it all: Gidget, the diminutive 5-year-old spokes-pooch who was best known for her TV-commercial slogan—“¡Yo quiero Taco Bell!”—and whose fast-food employer had been one of Godzilla’s numerous tie-in partners.

“We were laughing, because the Taco Bell dog was right behind us on the carpet the whole time,” remembers Fred Schneider, longtime frontman of the B-52’s, who arrived with bandmate Kate Pierson. “I thought, ‘My career’s really taking off if that’s a celebrity.’” Notes Levin: “The Taco Bell dog got more press attention than some of the celebrities.”

Inside the Garden, moviegoers watched Godzilla on an 80-by-35-foot movie screen with a concert-worthy sound system (“You could feel your sternum vibrate,” marveled once-cool web scribe Harry Knowles). By the time the credits rolled, it had become obvious to a few observers that the movie was a disaster in its own right (“I like Godzilla movies—except that one,” says Schneider). But over the next few days, countless TV programs, websites, newspapers, and magazines would regale their audience with visual proof that Godzilla had conquered New York City, however briefly. “That night,” says Levin, “was probably the best the movie ever played.”

Years later, the Garden event, with its incongruous mix of rando celebs and rampant marketing, would come to represent a peak moment in ’90s synergistic excess. “It was a marketing blitz worthy of the archives,” notes Julio (no last name given) in an email, a movie-premiere aficionado who recently immortalized the Godzilla night on his popular Twitter feed, @NightOpening. “I truly miss when films would need a Taco Bell item, a killer soundtrack with Jamiroquai and Diddy, and ad campaigns all over city buses and Madison Square Garden.”

For most of the 20th century, traffic-stopping premieres like the one that heralded Godzilla were a fixture of the Hollywood hype cycle. These were giddy, glittering affairs—the kinds of nights when seemingly every random star in the world was gathered under one marquee—and they filled newsreels and gossip columns throughout the movie industry’s golden age. But such fêtes reached steroidal new heights in the late ’90s. Not long after the Godzilla party, in July 1998, Walt Disney would reportedly spend several million dollars on an Armageddon shindig at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, complete with a brand-new, 500-seat theater built just for the occasion. Like so many late-’90s premieres, “These were next-level events,” notes Turner Classic Movies host Dave Karger, who covered the Godzilla and Armageddon premieres as a correspondent for Entertainment Weekly. “This was right after the massive success of Titanic, and the studios were trying to make every one of their tentpole movies as big as they could.”

Two decades later, Hollywood’s desire for such next-level epics has never been greater. Yet the studios’ love for splashy, pricey, randomly populated premieres has noticeably cooled. When the new Godzilla: King of the Monsters is released later this month, it will no doubt receive a lavish coming-out party. But such functions no longer command the world’s attention, nor leave the same massive media footprint, as they did 20 years ago. In 2019, it’s almost as if size simply doesn’t matter.

To understand just how crucial a role movie premieres have played throughout Hollywood’s history, consider the opening moments of the greatest movie about movies ever made: Singin’ in the Rain. Released in the early ’50s, and set in the late ’20s, the film begins with a lavish, floodlight-bathed celebration. “What a night,” notes the event’s host. “Every star in Hollywood’s heaven is here.” As fans scream nearby, a procession of dolled-up screen legends—played by actual legends, like Gene Kelly—waltz down the red carpet, pausing only to wave at admirers or to dish out a few glossy sound bites.

The pretend premiere depicted in Singin’ is half ego trip, half sales pitch—just like the flashy bashes broadcast to millions of moviegoers during Hollywood’s early years. Newsreel cameras captured such mega-events as the three-day Atlanta debut of Gone With the Wind in 1939complete with parades and actual Civil War veterans—and the bicoastal arrival of 1963’s Cleopatra, which threw the streets of both Los Angeles and New York into chaos. Watching footage from those celeb-packed, carefully choreographed functions now, it’s easy to see why they made for such a powerful marketing tool: In the newsreels, moviegoing was presented as a high-end, high-excitement pursuit. How could you not want to see a film that had left hundreds, maybe even thousands, screaming in the street?

By the ’80s, the fervor over such big league premieres had grown even louder. The studios’ reliance on expensive blockbusters—and the increased need for massive opening weekends—meant the celebrations got larger budgets, too. And with the arrival of syndicated TV programs like Entertainment Tonight, and the ascent of magazines like People, the right event could suddenly get in front of more eyeballs than ever before. “There was less proliferation of media,” notes communications vet Dan Scheffey, who served as director of Disney’s East Coast publicity team from 1985 to 1992, and later worked for Sony and Miramax. “It wasn’t at the magnitude that the cable world exploded into. So you got a lot more bang for your buck, because the pie wasn’t cut up into as many pieces.”

While at Disney, Scheffey helped coordinate several ambitious premieres, like the 1986 party for the Tom Cruise–Paul Newman drama The Color of Money, in which attendees were piled into buses outside Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theatre and whisked to a downtown pool hall. A brick wall had been torn down inside, allowing party-goers to walk past the game tables and straight into the famed Palladium nightclub right next door. (“We rebuilt it afterward,” says Scheffey. “But it’s sort of crazy to think about now.”) That’s just one of several events Scheffey worked on while at Disney, which also included the Who Framed Roger Rabbit premiere at Radio City Music Hall; a Down and Out in Beverly Hills party at the Museum of Modern Art; and the multi-city arrival of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which took place in both Washington, D.C., and Orlando, Florida, in 1990.

Back then, the goal was to land a few minutes of coverage on syndicated shows or local-news broadcasts, and to populate newspapers and magazines with photos of the big night. And to earn that kind of interest, the studios needed some major names to show up. Organizers would consult services that tracked stars’ whereabouts, and craft their invite list accordingly. Maybe Martin Scorsese really did want to make sure Tony Danza, Andy Warhol, and Shelley Winters all got an early look at The Color of Money. Or maybe they just happened to be in town on the night of its premiere. Either way, the more names that could be wrangled, the more airtime and column inches could be commanded. “If you were going to get a bunch of pictures of the stars of the film, you wanted to make sure you supported it with other celebrities,” says Scheffey. “That gave some weight and gravitas within the context of the entertainment world.”

And as the premieres grew more expansive, so did the number of invitees. Especially in the ’90s. This past March, Julio—a culture-loving 33-year-old history teacher from Miami—launched the scroll-rewarding @NightOpening, which features hundreds of movie-premiere paparazzi shots, focusing largely on the Lollapalooza-like events of the past 25 years (a companion podcast started up last month). The feed’s photos capture the odd pop-culture egalitarianism of the ’90s, when one could spot Gene Simmons and Shannon Tweed strutting the red carpet for the Schindler’s List premiere, or Donald Trump checking out Nell (according to Sony exec Levin, the future president was a fixture at New York City premieres: “He’d come by just to get his picture taken, and very seldom stay for the movie. It was just part of the creation of him being a celebrity”).

For Julio, the photos collected on @NightOpening make for “a never-ending wormhole,” he says, one full of minor mysteries: “Why did [Rugrats’] Tommy Pickles show up to the premiere of The Phantom Menace? Is that the cast of Boy Meets World at Mulan?” In addition to the strange cameos, the photos also capture the carefree fashion choices of the pre-web era: the ill-advised sweaters, the ill-fitting jeans. It was a time, Julio says, when some actors showed up on the red carpet looking as though “they’d found the wrong luggage at the airport, and opted to wear somebody else’s clothes”—and yet no one seemed to mind.

The Godzilla party attendees, not surprisingly, made some decidedly ’90s-specific fashion choices on the movie’s big night, including Jason Priestley and Drew Carey, both of whom sported the same goatee-and-platinum-hairdo look. But Sony’s execs didn’t care what the celebs looked like, so long as the premiere dominated the news cycle and helped send people to theaters on opening night. By the time of Godzilla’s release, box office tallies were being reported like sports scores, with pundits quickly declaring the latest winners and losers before Sunday was over. And with international release dates increasingly bunched together, a would-be blockbuster had just a few weekends to capture the world’s attention. “It was like running a political campaign,” says Levin. “You’re just marshaling your forces towards that Friday opening.”

Covering these premieres also required military-grade precision. For reporters, the star-packed events often represented their best shot at grabbing a few minutes with a filmmaker or an actor. Karger was a 25-year-old staffer at Entertainment Weekly when the magazine flew him from New York City to Florida for the Armageddon extravaganza. (“I remember thinking, ‘Wait—I’m getting on a plane to go to a premiere?’” he recalls.) His main assignment was to get a quote from star Ben Affleck—not an easy task at a party populated by thousands, especially in an era before everyone had a cellphone. “It was kind of like finding a lost relative at Disney World when you’ve been separated from your family,” Karger says. “But there wasn’t as much media there as there is now, so having five minutes with Ben Affleck at a premiere felt like a huge deal.”

Karger eventually cornered the actor and got his quote, which ran in a 250-word story that captured the night’s luxe-life details: A shellfish buffet. A 45-minute Aerosmith concert. Even a Coolio cameo. The article also chronicled the event’s red-carpet drama: Would the press-averse Bruce Willis, who’d just announced his split from Demi Moore, show up for his own party? Willis eventually made it to the shindig at the last minute. Back then, the festivities were so over-the-top, even the crankiest star in the world didn’t want to miss a thing.

Throughout the early ’00s, studios continued to throw massive bashes that, while not quite Godzilla-sized, still managed to feel epic. There was the party for 2002’s Spider-Man that featured acrobats, Velcro-covered wall-jumpers, and sandwiches from “the Green Goblin Deli.” In 2005, Universal debuted Peter Jackson’s King Kong on nearly 40 New York City–area screens in one night, then threw a 3,000-person bash (you can probably guess which other Manhattan-based real-estate brute showed up for that one). And no matter their scale, the era’s premieres could still attract a gonzo cross-section of celebrities: The tip sheet for 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded fête includes such invitees as Prince, Andy Richter, Tara Reid, a J.Lo-free Cris Judd, and at least four Wayans brothers.

But, like so many once-mighty 20th-century phenoms, the mega-premiere struggled to navigate the scattered, unpredictable media terrain. As magazines and newspapers lost pages and readers—and TV networks struggled to pull people away from their phones—a simple star-powered get-together could no longer easily seize the attention of moviegoers. Instead, much of the pre-release conversation was taking place on the internet. “The way people become aware of films and TV shows has shifted,” notes Andrea Oliveri, a veteran magazine editor and cofounder of the creative agency Special Projects. “And the studios have had to meet that.”

Social media, Oliveri notes, gave marketing teams and actors new ways to get their films on moviegoers’ radars: On-set photos are posted on Instagram; behind-the-scenes videos populate Facebook; and even trailers have trailers, courtesy of Twitter. “You’re able to consume all of this information about a project, from inception through shooting through post-production,” says Oliveri. “By the time the movie comes out, you feel like you have this innate sense of what it’s about, and if you want to go see it. And it’s all so far in advance, the premiere sometimes isn’t as necessary” to build excitement.

Special Projects helps to organize smaller, more focused “tastemaker” screenings, like a recent gathering for Jonah Hill’s Mid90s that featured an afterparty DJ’d by Prince Paul. Such events are the anti-Armageddon, of course, and similar get-togethers have been part of awards-season campaigning for years. But in an industry towered over by tentpoles, smaller films are often better off building word of mouth with carefully targeted screenings or intimate Q&As than with one big opening-night party. That need to connect is also partly why, in recent years, studios have rolled out relatively modest premieres at film festivals in Toronto, Los Angeles, or New York City: You may as well take your movie directly to the people who want to see it—and who will eagerly talk about it afterward.

It’s not just film execs who have rethought their relationship with big movie premieres in recent years; it’s the stars, too. For decades, the red carpet was where all sorts of larger celeb narratives—some staged, some genuinely scandalous—played out in front of millions of viewers. Who can forget the time Billy Bob Thornton claimed he and Angelina Jolie “fucked in the car” on the way to the Gone in 60 Seconds premiere?

But even though actors still pass through trench-like walls of reporters and photographers on their way down the red carpet, they’re far more cautious about what they say (and what they wear: Julio, the @NightOpening founder, believes many actors’ fashion choices grew less adventurous around 2005, partly to avoid being mocked by cruel-intentioned bloggers like Perez Hilton). Instead, most stars now save their gripes or grand pronouncements for social media. No publication would throw a reporter on a plane to a premiere to get a quote from Ben Affleck in 2019; they’d just keep an eye on his Twitter account.

And sometimes, it’s better to keep the stars out of view altogether. In the past few years, several high-end premieres have been canceled due to tragedy or controversy. In 2012, events for both Django Unchained and Jack Reacher were shelved following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Last fall, red carpet walks for Widows and Destroyer in Los Angeles were scrapped following widespread wildfires. And in February, the red carpet premiere of Cold Pursuit was kiboshed due to star Liam Neeson’s “revenge” comments. Whether they’re being scuttled out of respect, or out of fear, the big premieres can now be undone by the 24-hour news cycle they once dominated. Sometimes, they’re just not worth the hassle.

On a Monday evening last month, the Los Angeles Convention Center was temporarily transformed into Avengers HQ. A massive purple “A” was erected in the building’s lobby, populated by a swarm of camera operators, photographers, and reporters—not to mention stars like Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johansson. Deeper inside the building, the main floor had been transformed into a 2,000-capacity movie theater, complete with a Dolby sound system and a self-service snack depot featuring shelves full of free candy—along with Avengers-decorated plastic bags—and a constantly refreshed supply of soda, water, and popcorn.

The world premiere for Avengers: Endgame was the kind of big to-do that few releases can earn, and that only a behemoth like Disney can pull off. Before the film began, guests like Matt Damon and Kevin Hart chatted excitedly in the near-nosebleed section, while Disney chief Bob Iger greeted stars as they made their way up the aisles. After the credits rolled, nearly all of the attendees—including numerous Marvel stars—headed to the afterparty on the other end of the hall, where they were greeted by a DJ, more free food stations, glass cubes full of Avengers costumes and memorabilia, and multiple open bars serving, among other drinks, a specially concocted “Whatever It Takes Zingers.”

Every few months or so, the studios still throw themselves a ridiculously show-offy party: The Star Wars: The Last Jedi premiere at the Shrine; the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom fest at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. But such get-togethers are no longer the kind of public-awareness ploys that can help make or break a film’s opening weekend. Instead, they’re a pre-emptive celebration for a movie already destined for domination. By the time Avengers: Endgame made its big-flex premiere in downtown L.A., the film had already made more than $100 million in pre-sales. Fans didn’t need a premiere to convince them to show up for opening weekend. They already had their tickets in hand.

Still, the evening was about as charming as a corporate-controlled, shareholder-value-maximizing event can be. Watching the spiffed-up stars make small talk in the buffet line, or schmooze over banquette tables, or pose for photos, was a reminder of the happy illusion the grand premieres of the past once evoked: The feeling that, for one night, every star in Hollywood’s heaven had assembled in one place. Oliveri had a similar experience last year, when she attended an equally ornate launch for Black Panther—an event that stopped traffic, brought out dozens of celebrities, and hosted a red carpet that seemed happily endless. “It was like you’d gone back in a time machine,” she says. “It really felt like the ’90s.”

Brian Raftery is the author of Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. His work has appeared in Wired, New York, and GQ.

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