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Private Screening: How Hollywood Watches Its Work

Feb 22, 2012
Originally published on February 23, 2012 12:54 pm

Before they made it to the Oscars, the nominated films — not to mention all the films that didn't make the cut — were viewed by some 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Many of those movies were shown in small, private, rented screening rooms all over Hollywood.

The studios have their own screening rooms, of course, but often directors want a more private place to screen works in progress — with no studio suits in sight.

Director-writer-producer Judd Apatow, whose films include Anchorman, 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, says it's essential to have the opportunity to show a film three or four times to an invite-only audience. It's a mistake to show a film to the studio too soon, he says, "because if they don't like it, then they want to tell you how to fix it. We always try to make the cut good enough, so by the time they see it, it's already good and they're like, 'Nice job.'"

So as part of the creative process, Apatow and other movie-makers rent small screening rooms somewhere in town to show a rough-cut — an unfinished version — to a trusted handful of friends and family. "I want them to tear me apart and tell me the truth," he says.

Apatow relied on these small screenings for his latest comedy, Bridesmaids. Before Bridesmaids became a blockbuster, the film's first, small audience gathered in the Charles Aidikoff Screening Room, a Rodeo Drive establishment that many movie-makers use. It rents for $300 to $500 per hour, and for that price, you also get Aidikoff, who just turned 97.

At a recent screening for members of the Motion Picture Academy, Aidikoff grins as visitors grab handfuls of brightly wrapped candies en route to their seats.

"People say, 'Why don't you have popcorn?' " Aidikoff says with a laugh. "You know what I tell them? 'I'll get popcorn on one condition: That you stay after and you clean up.' Suddenly they don't want popcorn."

So instead he sets out little packages of Mars bars, Milky Ways and Red Vines. It costs $700 every two-and-a-half weeks to keep this Hollywood Halloween bowl filled, Aidikoff says.

As the audience settles into their seats, Aidikoff offers an introduction — and a few ground rules. "OK, folks, my name is Charles Aidikoff. This is my little establishment," he says. "This is what is known as a cellphone. It would be very nice if you all pushed the little button and turned it off."

Up in the projection booth, Aidikoff's grandson Josh, who now manages the place, presides over a small, dark room that could match Dr. Jekyll's lab. Two huge projectors hold the hefty 35-mm reels of film. Each reel contains 2,000 feet of film — 15 or 20 minutes' worth. Tonight's movie — a press screening of a Chinese film called The Flowers of War — has eight reels. Josh and his assistant push buttons and switches on the wall to change over from one reel to the next. Every now and then, young Aidikoff peers out through a small window to make sure everything's OK on the screen.

"I've had several instances where film has ended up on the floor," he admits. "... Trying to put it back together again in the right order — that was a problem."

Four generations of Aidikoffs have been projectionists. A century ago, Charles' father, Max Aidikoff, ran silent movies in a theater in Coney Island. That's where his son Charles got the projection bug. At 97, Charles figures he has seen maybe 50,000 films. His son Greg worked in the booth for a while. Now, grandson Josh continues the dynasty. Josh learned it all from his "Pap" Charles.

"I was 12-and-a-half when I ran my first film for him," Josh says. At 15, he started running the films professionally. He still remembers Madonna's Evita — all 10 reels of it.

In this age of DVDs and instant streaming, one wonders about the future of screening rooms. The Aidikoffs have a big digital projector, too, but they think filmmakers will always want a safe place where they can show unfinished work to friends, and finished films to the press under perfect conditions. (You can rock in these seats without a single squeak.)

If it's up to Apatow, the Charles Aidikoff Screening Room will be around for quite some time.

"It's one of the great places; it's like a great deli," he says. "Sometimes you just love a deli [because of] that guy that greets you at the deli." He says Aidikoff's screening room reminds him of the deli his uncle owned in Bayside, Queens — only at Aidikoff's, he gets a movie instead of a hot dog.

With 57 seats, the Aidikoff Screening Room is like a miniature movie theater — but one where the people who make, review, star in and vote on movies can find a home in the dark for a few quiet hours.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Oscars are this Sunday, and some 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have picked the winners - after, that is, seeing loads of movies in the theaters and being deluged with DVDs and movies hoping to get their votes. Films are also shown in small, private rented screening rooms all over L.A.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says those screening rooms serve many purposes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE THEME, "THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL")

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: On a big Hollywood soundstage, in the 1952 film "The Bad and the Beautiful," actor Kirk Douglas plays a director shooting some Civil War scenes. Dissolve to a darkened screening room, plush leather seats, men in suits: the production team seeing the picture for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL")

STAMBERG: But director Kirk doesn't like what was screened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL")

STAMBERG: He really doesn't like it. Gets up, circles the cushy chairs, lights a cigarette - you know, 1952.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL")

STAMBERG: Director Kirk puffs and fumes in a studio screening room. All studios have them. But there are times a director wants a more private place with no studio suits in sight.

JUDD APATOW: It's essential that, three or four times, I can show any movie to people I've invited so I can see where I'm at.

STAMBERG: Director-writer-producer Judd Apatow. His films include "Anchorman," "40 Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." It's a mistake, he says, to show a film to the studio too soon.

APATOW: Because if they don't like it, then they want to tell you how to fix it. And so we always try to make the cut good enough so by the time they see it, it's already good. And they're, like, nice job.

STAMBERG: So, as a part of the creative process, Apatow and other movie-makers rent a small screening room somewhere in town and show a rough cut - an unfinished version - to a trusted handful of friends and family.

APATOW: I want them to tear me apart...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

APATOW: ...and tell me the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BRIDESMAIDS")

STAMBERG: Apatow did that as executive producer of his latest comedy, "Bridesmaids."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BRIDESMAIDS")

STAMBERG: Before "Bridesmaids" became a blockbuster, the film's first, small audience gathered in a Rodeo Drive establishment that many moviemakers use: The Charles Aidikoff Screening Room.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

STAMBERG: It rents for three to $500 an hour. And for that price, you also get Charles Aidikoff.

CHARLES AIDIKOFF: Hello. Hello. Nice to have you back here again.

STAMBERG: Thank you.

On this night, members of the Motion Picture Academy come to see a possible Best Foreign Film nominee. Aidikoff, who just turned 97, grins as visitors grab handfuls of brightly wrapped candies en route to their seats.

C. AIDIKOFF: People have asked me: Why don't you have popcorn? So you know what I tell them? I'll get popcorn on one condition, that you stay after when this is over and you clean up. Suddenly, they don't want popcorn.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: So he puts out little packages of Mars Bars, Milky Ways and Red Vines - the most popular. He says he spends $700 every two-and-a-half weeks on candy. It's Hollywood Halloween in a big glass bowl.

C. AIDIKOFF: OK, folks. My name is Charles Aidikoff. This is my little establishment.

STAMBERG: Once the audience settles in, Mr. Aidikoff elucidates the rules.

C. AIDIKOFF: This is what is known as a cell phone. It would all be very nice if you all pushed a little button and turned it off. It's the only way I get paid for this screening.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

C. AIDIKOFF: And I'm sure you people would like to see me get paid, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yes.

C. AIDIKOFF: So, thank you very much. Knock it off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE THEME, "THE FLOWERS OF WAR")

STAMBERG: The Chinese film is "The Flowers of War," about the 1937 Japanese takeover - the Rape, some call it - of Nanking. Producers arranged many screenings, trying to get an awards buzz going, but it didn't make Oscar's short list.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE PROJECTOR)

STAMBERG: Up in the projection booth, Charles Aidikoff's grandson Josh - who now manages the place - presides over a small, dark room that could match Dr. Jekyll's lab. Two huge projectors hold the hefty 35-millimeter reels of film. Each reel contains 2,000 feet of film, 15 or 20 minutes' worth.

This movie has eight reels. Josh and his helper push buttons and switches on the wall to change over from one reel to the next. Every now and then, young Aidikoff peers out through a small window to make sure everything's OK on the screen.

JOSH AIDIKOFF: I've had several instances where film has ended up on the floor.

C. AIDIKOFF: In fact, I'll never forget one time that the floor had maybe two or 3,000 foot of the film. That's not so bad. Trying to put it back together again in the right order, that was a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: Four generations of Aidikoffs have been projectionists. A century ago, in a theater in Coney Island, Max Aidikoff ran silent movies. His son Charles got the projection bug there. At 97, Charles figures he has seen maybe 50,000 films. His son Greg worked in the booth for a while. Now grandson Josh continues the dynasty. Josh learned it all from his Pap Charles.

J. AIDIKOFF: I was 12 and a half when I ran my first film for him.

STAMBERG: Did you do a perfect job?

C. AIDIKOFF: Yes. Yes.

J. AIDIKOFF: Of course, I did. I had to have. I think it was "Evita." I'm pretty sure the first film that I ran for you...

C. AIDIKOFF: Madonna?

J. AIDIKOFF: ...was Madonna's film, "Evita." It was a very long film. It was 10 reels long.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

J. AIDIKOFF: You know, you're hoping to get five changeovers right, instead of 10 changeovers right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: In this age of DVDs and instant streaming, you wonder about the future of screening rooms. Aidikoffs have a big digital projector, too. But they think filmmakers will always want a safe place where they can show unfinished work to friends and finished films to the press under perfect conditions.

C. AIDIKOFF: You all have such nice smiles on your face. You must have liked the film.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Thank you.

STAMBERG: And if it's up to director Judd Apatow, the Charles Aidikoff Screening Room will be around for quite some time.

C. AIDIKOFF: Howdy doody, folks? Hello.

APATOW: It's one of the great places. It's like a great deli.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

APATOW: You know, like, sometimes you just love a deli because that guy who greets you at the deli. Like, my Uncle Vic owned a deli in Bayside Queens, and it felt familiar to me, except I didn't get a hotdog. I got a movie.

STAMBERG: To relish in a screening room with 57 seats - you can rock in some of them without a single squeak - a red figured carpet, LED lights. It's like a miniature movie theatre, but one where the people who make the movies and star in them and review and vote on them can find a home in the dark for a few quiet hours.

In movieland, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON")

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, Susan spends time with one director nominated for an Oscar, while his movie "The Descendants" is viewed, touted and discussed.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STAMBERG: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.