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Viewers will gladly spend time for free movie screenings

by STEVE PERSALL Tampa Bay Times on July 23, 2014 10:50 AM

Quentin Parramore can’t pick a favorite among the estimated 1,000 movies he watched in theaters over the past decade.

Parramore can, however, say exactly how much all those tickets cost.

“I’ve been doing this since ’05 and I haven’t paid for a movie since,” said Parramore, 48, waiting outside AMC West Shore 14 to see another for free.

Sitting in a canvas chair. Doing needlepoint. Seven hours before show time.

Parramore benefits from the Hollywood marketing strategy of screening new releases days, even weeks before opening in theaters. In addition to invited critics writing reviews, movie studios want the average Joe and Josephine’s opinions, and to have them spread positive word of mouth.

“The thinking is that if you let one person see it for free and they like that movie, they’re going to tell three or four people who will end up seeing that movie when it hits theaters,” said Chris Miller of Gofobo.com, a popular source for such freebies.

Tickets are available to anyone, and screenings are strategically overbooked, ensuring a full house. That’s why Parramore and other movie obsessives with time on their hands arrive hours in advance, staking their places in a snaking queue of chairs.

It’s a loosely governed community, a recurring cast of largely retired or, like Parramore, disabled and unemployed characters angling for their favorite seats inside. The word “family” gets tossed around a lot. No pressure to hang around; many set up chairs then go home or stroll a mall to kill time. Someone is usually around, keeping an eye on everyone’s stuff. West Shore 14 is an accommodating venue, allowing use of restrooms and the concession stand.

Many more ticket holders will arrive closer to show time, each passing minute increasing the risk of being turned away.

This evening’s sneak preview is “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” two days before people on tighter schedules begin paying for tickets. People occasionally sneer at those who aren’t, and who don’t.

“We have been insulted, oh yes, by people wondering what we’re doing here,” said Celeste Felice, of Riverview, first to arrive at 6:45 a.m. with her husband, Aldo. “They want to know what’s going on and when you tell them, they’re rude.”

Others are curious, inquiring how they can join in, and not always getting a straight answer. Miller understands the first-come, first-served competitiveness, that the process is simple for anyone with a bit of computer savvy.

Search for a city or ZIP code on movie-themed sites like Gofobo.com and AdvanceScreenings.com to find a list of scheduled screenings in the area. Click on your choice, then follow the directions to access and print a ticket. Some may require an RSVP code issued by a media sponsor, say, to the seventh caller in a radio giveaway.

Tickets go quickly, even with overbooking. Screenings are added daily, so checking the site often is suggested.

Old-fashioned paper passes are still given away as part of the overbooking strategy but online ticketing offers studios another benefit. Just as important to Hollywood as positive word of mouth is the data Gofobo.com collects from viewers.

During a brief registration process, Gofobo.com members provide their name, age, gender, ethnicity and location.

After the screening they’re sent a short online survey asking them to rate the movie from 1 to 5 stars, write a brief review and answer two questions: Would you recommend the movie, and how did you learn about the screening?

“That information is observed in a very slice-and-dice manner,” Miller said from Gofobo.com’s Los Angeles headquarters. “We can say, for example, Caucasian males (age) 18 to 29 loved the film, and Asian females 30 to 49 were sort of ambivalent about it. That lets (studios) tailor their last-minute marketing efforts for the film.”

Opinions from dedicated users like Parramore are exactly what Miller hopes for.

“They’re willing to wait hours to see a film, so they’re passionate moviegoers,” Miller said. “It’s a natural fit that after they see a movie they want to let the studios know what they think.”

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