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The Quest For Free Movies

By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 22, 2005 4:00PM

Every subculture has its own subculture of people who take their geek love to the extreme. These people are the ones the other geeks point to and say, “Well, I’m bad but I’m not as bad as THAT guy.” Chicagoist counts itself among those that scrounge for free movie passes through radio station websites and mail-in offers to local TV stations. But…well we’re not as bad as the guys in this story about the “underground” world of free movie screenings.

We’ve seen these guys (and they’re almost always middle-aged guys) at screenings. They are…the screening whores. They not only hit every screening possible, they also know all the secrets. For instance, when you get into the screening room notice how one or two people are bending down a lot and looking under the seats. It’s not loose change they’re after; it’s a telltale sticker or logo that gifts free movie swag to the occupant of said seat. Our opinion is: to the victor go the spoils. If you’ve got enough time on your hands to grub for free passes and get there early enough to score a choice seat, Chicagoist tips its hat to you, sir. The marketing firms complaining about all these "regulars" are missing one crucial point here. Those middle-aged guys? They love movies. A lot. They’re the ones with time to post on websites about how great a movie is. So try cozying up to them instead of fending them off.

More tales from the world of free screenings after the jump…

A few years ago, getting into a free screening was much easier than it is now. In some instances, you waited for a pass in the mail. But for most free screenings run by various local radio stations like Q101 and XRT, you would receive an e-mail that you could then copy to as many other people as you’d like. In the last year or so, marketing and promotions staffers have been checking IDs so that's out. Plus, the MPAA’s rage over BitTorrent sites has led to more pat downs and bag searches. And if you get through that gauntlet then there’s the most trying aspect of the free screening gamble: the waiting. If you don’t show up at least an hour before the screening starts, you’re probably not getting in. The regulars know that certain theaters are more accommodating than others. The Landmark, the AMC River East and the Loews at 600 North still treat those with freebies as customers. But the Nazi security guards at Piper’s Alley always seem surprised and put off by the throngs that queue up and constantly threaten to “throw out the next person” who doesn’t obey their commands to line up here or there and for God’s sake don’t sit down on the stairs! Are you people animals?


While we’ve seen some fantastic movies for free (Napoleon Dynamite, for one), more often than not the passes we get are for god-awful films like Anti-Trust and Say It Isn’t So. These films test the notion that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” If Chicagoist ran the world, we might choose not to hold free screenings for obviously bad movies to limit the amount of people who know it sucks before that crucial opening weekend. We'd also declare Thursday to be Free Beer Day but that's a whole other post.

Our favorite free screening moment of all time came before a showing of Scary Movie II (we told you most of ‘em sucked). Q101 had sent Freak to warm up the crowd with the usual assortment of t-shirt swag. At every screening we’d ever attended, Freak would throw a rolled-up t-shirt at the one-foot square porthole that led to the projectionist booth. At every screening we ever attended, he failed, often smacking the back of the theater wall with a disappointing thud. But that night the t-shirt sailed through the air and disappeared over our heads until the sound of breaking glass rang through the theater. Thuderous applause greeted this victory! The t-shirt had met its target; Ahab had captured his whale. (We can’t help but think that this brief moment of glory led to Freak getting his own morning show at the Zone). It was definitely worth waiting in line for an hour--too bad the movie wasn't.