Hollywood Sneak Previews


Growing up in Southern California was a movie-lovers paradise! My home base of Bellflower, California was relatively equidistant to Long Beach, Hollywood and Westwood – each with an abundance of movie theaters to tempt my attendance.  Beginning in 1955, at age 10, my parents allowed me to take the bus every Saturday morning to my grandmother’s house in Long Beach, where I earned a dollar an hour doing yard work. I arrived very early Saturday mornings so my afternoons would be free to see as many movies as possible before the 6:00 pm bus would deliver me home. Then when I hit my teens, my parents permitted me to add Hollywood and Westwood to my weekly movie expeditions.

Hollywood being the movie capitol of the world, I soon discovered the tradition known as the “Major Studio Sneak Preview.” There are two kinds of “sneak previews:” those shown nationwide in promotional campaigns designed to help spread word of mouth for a new movie, and others, mostly shown in and around Hollywood, that are legitimate test screenings attended by studio execs to gauge audience response and develop marketing strategies. Since the titles are kept secret, these “genuine” sneak previews are included free with the admission paid to see whatever is playing that week. Audiences are occasionally asked to fill out survey cards and rate the movie after the screening.

The excitement of attending genuine sneak previews was in not knowing what new movie would be screened. They were usually scheduled on a Friday or Saturday night with only a small notice in the newspaper atop the ad for the regular feature that simply said: “Major Studio Sneak Preview Tonight at 8:00.” Secrecy was important, as the studios were seeking a genuine response from an audience not already inclined to favor the stars or genre of the film being tested. To assure I got in, I would routinely arrive around 6:00 and sit through the regular feature even if I’d already seen it. I would know it was an important screening when several rows of seats were roped off and reserved for the studio brass.


The biggest thrill was seeing What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) as a sneak preview at the State Theater in Long Beach. As the movie got underway, the audience grew increasingly restless. The movie was in black and white, and the very long extended sequence before the opening credits had many in the audience booing the screen, especially when little Baby Jane began singing “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.” The booing morphed into cheers and wild applause once Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s names finally appeared. According to the preview cards, the studio was concerned about retaining the scene wherein Bette serves a dead rat to sister Joan. Imagine that being a concern today!

A similar reaction attended the first quarter hour of the sneak for Play Misty for Me (1971). Clint Eastwood had not yet attained his iconic status, and after a casual start the audience had no idea where the story was going. Groaning and seat shifting permeated the theater. Once it became clear the film was a thriller and the Jessica Walter character a psycho, the roller coaster ride was on and the audience fully engaged. Clearly Eastwood had established that not only could he act, but could admirably fill the director’s seat as well.

Jack-LemmonAnother disconcerting audience reaction was at the sneak for Days of Wine and Roses (1962). We were used to seeing Jack Lemmon excel in comedies like Some Like it Hot and The Apartment, but I’m sure I wasn’t alone at the outset in waiting for the laughs to kick in as Lemmon delivered his incredible Oscar-nominated performance which earned enthusiastic applause over the closing credits.

The most fun I had at a sneak preview was attending the first public screening of Blazing Saddles (1974) at the U. A. Theater in Westwood. This was early in Mel Brooks’ film career, and he had the audience rolling in the aisles from the opening moments –- and especially during the infamous campfire flatulence scene. After the movie when the lights came up I noticed an exhilarated Mel Brooks sitting in an aisle seat in the roped off section, along with Harvey Korman and several other actors in the film.

lonelyarethebraveOther special moments I recall enjoying at sneak previews include Ann-Margret’s titillating performance of the title song in the opening and closing sequences of Bye Bye Birdie (1963); the inspired pairing of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in McLintock! (1963); Rock Hudson in the underrated The Spiral Road (1963); and Kirk Douglas’s brilliant portrayal of a modern day cowboy in Lonely are the Brave (1962).

I vividly recall one Friday during my junior year in high school being excited about attending a sneak preview announced in the L.A. Times that morning. The ad included a hint that it was to be “Jerry Lewis’s newest movie.” Sadly, that Friday happened to be on November 22, 1963. Anticipation turned to anxiety and shock when our political science teacher announced to the class that President Kennedy had just been assassinated. The preview was cancelled, of course, as were most entertainment venues.

At the outset of the 1970s it seemed to me that the quality of life in Southern California was beginning to deteriorate, as was the experience of going to the movies. The long established onscreen traditions of verbal discourse and human behavior were shifting into a new realm of “anything goes,” and with increasingly little left to the imagination. In 1977 I abandoned a beginning career in real estate and moved my family to Southern Oregon in search of greener pastures and a more purposeful life. Three years later my passion for classic movies evolved into a new career recreating the movie-going experiences of the 1930s, 40s and 50s for PBS in an original TV series called Matinee at the Bijou.

The-FormulaThe last sneak preview I ever attended was on a trip to L.A. on behalf of the Bijou series. Being a political junkie it was especially gratifying for me to be in the audience for a sneak preview of The Formula (1980); a “big oil” conspiracy thriller starring Marlon Brando and George C. Scott. During the intermission prior to the screening I learned while chatting with an usher that along with the studio execs in attendance were several major oil executives checking out the proceedings. The final shot of the film lingers on a congested L.A. freeway interchange and resonated for me as a kind of deeply personal affirmation of my new life in Oregon.

Bob Campbell was co-creator and producer of the original PBS series Matinee at the Bijou. He is currently working to bring back the series in a sequel to be hosted by the magnificent Debbie Reynolds.