Back in May of 1998 I was still working my way up the corporate ladder at the Sci-Fi Channel. My title and responsibilities grew that year as I was now the key point person for all movie acquisitions for the channel. I was the buyer. The tremendous perk to this was that I got to see just about every major science fiction or horror movie before their theatrical release. Here’s how it works; to build on the buzz generated by any theatrical release, the studio would offer private screenings to network and cable buyers in hopes that a deal can be made to bring said movie to television.
This meant that going to swanky private screenings of major movies became the norm of my job. Familiar companies like Paramount, SONY, Warner Bros and Disney have their own private screening rooms in NYC and I would hit them all. The people at SONY really knew how to throw a screening. These were catered affairs with wine and beer for all the buyers. There would be all sorts of swag. I got a great package of stuff when I went to the WB screening of WATCHMEN. This was easily the best part of my job.
There would also be occasions when I got invited to actual World Premieres. Yup, the red carpet, the cast and creators and all the press…these were super cool. I was fortunate to attend the World Premieres of KILL BILL, OPEN WATER, TALES FROM THE CRYPT: BORDELLO OF BLOOD, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, KING KONG & GHOST RIDER. (Maybe even a few more that I am forgetting.)
But then there was the World Premiere of SONY’s GODZILLA.
Now I consider myself to be a serious G-Fan. Some of the very first horror/SF films I watched as a boy were the G-films and other Toho greats. I even got to see many in theaters. As a result, the nickname “Rayzilla” was applied during my first few years at Sci-Fi Channel. So naturally an invite to the World Premiere of Godzilla was about as exciting as it got for me. Invites were also sent to a few of my co-workers at Sci-Fi along with some folks from our sister-channel USA Network. The premiere would be held on May 18th at Madison Square Garden.
This was easily the largest Premiere, hell the largest screening I ever attended. It was massive.
Outside of Madison Square Garden, Seventh Avenue was practically shut down. Limos, lights and news crews were everywhere. The cast and creators entered the building from one side while invitees were let in a difference entrance. As we made our way to our section everyone was handed a box of Godzilla popcorn and a soft drink of choice. The whole place smelled of popcorn. Now I had haunted the halls of MSG for decades attending numerous rock concerts and sporting events but this was the first time I was there to see a movie. The arena was partitioned to about 3/4th of it regular size…still pretty huge for a screening. The cast, crew and other VIPS were seated on the floor while industry riff-raff (like me) occupied the upper sections. There were a few speeches and after the SONY big wigs and Roland Emmerich had their turn at the microphone the house lights dimmed and the movie began.
Here’s an insight into my process; as a movie buyer for a television service, I would pay close attention to the pace of the film. Also, I would time the movies action beats to give me a sense of how the film would play with commercial interruptions on TV. So as an internal rule of thumb I would make a note of the first 25 minute mark within the movie. If I’m bored or uninterested at nearly 30 minutes in, then I would have my doubts about the movie playing well with commercial breaks added in. Commercials elongate and disrupt a films pace on TV. So I would take this into consideration when evaluating any potential acquisition.
As we all know and understand by now, SONY’s Godzilla sucked out loud. So I will spare you a recap of this cinematic mess because I want you to read further. Let’s just all agree it was a bad movie and move on…
As the movie numbingly made its way into the 3rd act, the nearly 10,000 plus audience began to grow restless. Its one thing to watch a movie attentively in a theater that seats a hundred people, but this was MSG. People began to get out of their seats and walk around like it was a basketball game. Voices began to rise and some small conversations began to add to the interference. Before I knew it, it seemed that many had lost interest in the film. It was incredible. I had been to bad screenings in the past but this was on a much, much larger scale. Damn, if you can’t win over the crowd at the swanky-freebie premiere you’re in for hard time at the box office. And then it happened…a moment I had never seen before or since at any screening.
For those of you wise enough to have never seen this movie, I’ll let you in on something, there’s a false ending. It’s a moment late in the film where the director frames up his central characters, the music swells and the camera does a slow pullout to a wider shot giving the audience a sense of conclusion. It was at this very moment that nearly the entire MSG rose to its feet to exit the arena believing the movie was over. The credits hadn’t even started and people just wanted to get the fuck out. My co-worker stood up getting ready to leave. I had to pull her back into her chair saying, “the movies not over, Godzilla isn’t dead”. Just then Godzilla’s roar came through the screen, the camera zooms back in and the characters react. Yup…the movie wasn’t over. This fact however did not stop many folks from leaving anyway. The movie was a turkey and just about everyone knew it.
Once the film actually came to an end we left. Disappointment was not the word being used by myself and my co-workers but more like confusion. The characters were so weak. The writing so pedestrian. The ending so predictable. This was one of the most hyped films of the decade and it did not deliver at all. Now to a person like me who was screening films for a living, seeing a bad movie was par for the course…the nature of the beast and all that. But too see and feel the film bomb in such an environment was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. It taught me that at the end of the day the audience always has the final say. A studio can spend millions on cast and special effects, marketing campaigns and toys. But in the end the audience has the final word.
A week later Godzilla opened to $55 million and ultimately made $130 million domestically. The budget was reported at $130 million. It was considered a financial success.