Years ago, San Francisco theater manager Joshua Grannell was planning a midnight movie screening of the movie Showgirls, the notorious camp classic starring Elizabeth Berkley. But when the canisters showed up at the theater, to his dismay he found that the distributor had instead sent him the movie Striptease, starring Demi Moore.
When he called to find out why, he learned that the film booker had simply assumed that he’d made a mistake — that nobody in their right mind would want to see Showgirls. “They were baffled by it,” he recalls.
Those were the early days of Midnight Mass, a raucous riotous midnight movie spectacular hosted by San Francisco drag icon Peaches Christ (who has never been photographed with Joshua). For over a decade, Midnight Mass shook SF to its movie-going foundation, unspooling a parade of horror films, jaw-dropping flops, and beloved cinema ephemera alongside wild gimmicks. The Showgirls screenings gained particular notoriety, advertising free lap dances with every large popcorn. There were “world’s filthiest people” contests before the screenings, mud wrestling, costume contests, and live bands.
By comparison, Seattle has seldom offered much in the way of midnight movies. When they’ve happened, they’ve tended to be muted affairs, more sleepy than extravagant, like the 10 o’clock movies at Central Cinema that saw audience members nodding off, or the short-lived runs at the Egyptian, Harvard Exit, and Grand Illusion. It’s been years since we had a proper midnight movie scene.
So ... why not? The Stranger put the question to promoters and venue owners: Why hasn’t late-night movie madness taken hold here, and what would it take to fix that?
For a time, Seattle had something of a midnight movie scene at the Egyptian on Capitol Hill — that was around a decade ago, when it was managed by the Landmark Theaters chain. After Landmark left, a midnight series popped up a few blocks away at the Harvard Exit, but that venue closed in 2015.
“For a long time we kept doing it,” says Brian Alter, one of the volunteer managers at The Grand Illusion in the U District. Grand Illusion, which seats a few dozen people, ended their midnight movie series around 2012.
“It was hit or miss,” he says. “To get people to come out at 11 pm, not even midnight, for some reason it was a struggle.” The titles tended to be on the obscure side, appealing to film buffs of a certain age, like the 1980 sci-fi fiasco Flash Gordon or ‘70s psychedelia by British director Ken Russell.
The Grand Illusion is located just steps from the University of Washington, and college students are a prime audience for midnight movies. But it’s understandably difficult to elicit enthusiasm from a demographic that wouldn’t be born for several decades after those films were made.
On the other hand, it might make sense to pay some form of tribute to the cinema scene of a half-century ago, when midnight movies occupied a place of greater prominence in pop culture — particularly with the rise of experiences like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was often more about the live show than the movie itself. (Here’s a pre-fame Michael Stipe waxing poetic about the Rocky Horror crowd:)
Talk to any midnight movie organizer and you’ll quickly gain an appreciation for just how important the live component of the experience is. From coast to coast, a successful midnight movie event is something that people talk about for years afterwards — and sometimes decades.
“I loved the idea that you couldn’t see this movie anywhere else,” says Christian Meola, who hosted midnight screenings in Los Angeles before the pandemic. He was inspired by the Eldin Theater in New York, widely credited as having invented midnight movies.
“You had to be at this theater in New York in 1970 and you only found out about it from people who went,” Christian says. “You just had to be there.”
Christian’s 2019 screenings at The Lyric in LA featured an unpredictable hodge-podge of found footage, audience submissions, and “Internet oddities” in a 90-minute block, preceded by a chaotic live show.
“I loved having random performers coming,” he says. “There would be a magician, or a child in a cowboy hat singing the national anthem. ... I hired a Santa Claus to come.”
“It was a renegade punk rock party,” Joshua says of Midnight Mass (which he recently turned into a podcast with co-host Michael Varrati). “It’s hard to call it a movie screening. Yes, a movie did screen, but it was an otherworldly event.”
Recalling some show-stopping incidents between Peaches and fellow performers, he says, “I remember doing mother-daughter mud wrestling one night and accidentally dislocating [fellow drag performer] Martiny’s shoulder. … I’ll never forget L. Ron Hubby on the fourth of July, pulling an American flag out of her ass. … She pulls another American flag out of her vagina and I thought the roof was going to explode.”
On one night, he arranged for drag performers to engage in a hazardous roller derby around the theater; on another, police responded to a noise complaint and arrived to find a theater thick with pot smoke. “How did I not get arrested?” he wonders.
Whether in an all-night town like New York, in San Francisco’s bohemian period between dot-com bubbles, or in early-to-bed Seattle, memorability is key, organizers agree: spectacle outweighs timeslot.
Tommy Swenson, co-founder of The Beacon Cinema in Columbia City, agrees that midnight movies are more than just a timeslot — to succeed, they must be a cultural force.
“The concept of the midnight movie, to me, is a chance for a bunch of people to get together and experience something transgressive, or operating on a heightened emotional level,” he says. A former programmer at the Alamo Drafthouse, he’s planning to revive an edgy late-night feel when The Beacon re-opens in September, with horror and kung-fu nights.
Live entertainment aside, the choice of film is crucial, organizers agree — and audience tastes have dramatically shifted over the decades. In the ‘70s through the early 2000s, curious crowds would come to see weird films they’d never heard of, because there was simply no other way to see them. But online availability has made obscurity far less of a draw. Now, Joshua says, nostalgia is a far more potent selling point. Where he used to arrange screenings around The Wall, Clockwork Orange, and Eraserhead, now he finds more success with The Goonies and Legally Blonde.
“There was a shift in the late ‘90s when we started booking things that people grew up watching on cable television,” he says. “We discovered, oh my God, even though they’ve seen it a million times, they want to see it in a movie theater with other Goonies fans.”
That was certainly Christian’s experience. His events struggled to find an audience, he says, and laments, “I think it would have helped if I had screened a movie that people had heard of and wanted to see.”
But it’s not just nostalgia that pulls in a crowd, organizers say — it’s the fellowship of watching a beloved film in the company of other fans. And attracting a young crowd is key.
“Most people willing to be out until 2, 3 am are mostly young people,” says Tommy, and that requires a careful selection of films and outreach to the right communities. “If it’s all a bunch of 50-year-old white guys reliving something from the past, that’s a totally different vibe from a roomful of people in their 20s having a moment of discovery,” he says. “Ultimately I think the most crucial thing … is to get people all on the same page so they’re having that collective response, so someone’s not mad that some people are rowdy and having fun.
An ability to draw a younger crowd has been a challenge for some venues. “We’re a little too far from any colleges,” says Kevin Spitzer, co-owner of Central Cinema. He notes that given their usual audience, they’ve found success with events that are more about the experience than the time slot. “When we have our 10 o’clock movies, people are often nodding off or not laughing as much,” he says. “We do culty fun stuff that’s not so late.”
So what would it take for a midnight movie event to succeed in Seattle? After talking to various organizers and venue owners, a picture starts to emerge: It would need to appeal to a 20-something crowd. It would need to offer movies that have an intense and widespread nostalgic appeal. And it needs a rowdy pre-show that can’t be duplicated by watching online.
That all seems like it would be doable, doesn’t it? Especially if Seattle had some sort of media organization with connections to local venues and performers, decades of cultural expertise, and the infrastructure to handle ticket sales. An opportunity to emerge from pandemic lockdowns with a massive group event, joining fellow fans in a big raucous tribute to the movies we love? Sounds good to me. So if someone was to organize something like that — speaking hypothetical-like — what would you, our precious Stranger weirdos, want from the experience?