For, Friday, May 19, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sneak previews in the old-fashioned sense are virtually a thing of the past these days, unless you live in Los Angeles. Sure, there are radio giveaways for free advance screenings, and there are early screenings the night before a film opens, but those hardly qualify. To explain, here’s a ‘Hicks on Flicks’ column that ran in the Deseret News on May 22, 1983, under the headline, ‘Most “sneaks” aren’t so sneaky!’ The Tommy Lee Jones pirate movie, by the way, was ultimately titled “Nate and Hayes.” I gave it a positive review when it finally opened in November 1983, but it was a box-office flop.

When I was living in Southern California years ago, I used to love going to sneak previews, because they were really sneaks — unknown quantities shown on a Friday or Saturday evening with the regular show. The titles weren’t advertised, and often there was no information at all about the storyline or the stars. Going in, the audience had no idea what the film would be about.

The purpose of sneak previews back then was to determine audience reaction for further post-production work, to see if any scenes elicited the wrong reaction, or perhaps no reaction at all, and should be changed, or perhaps excised. Cards were often passed out asking the audience to rate the movie.

These days, however, sneaks are very different. Usually they are nothing more than promotional gimmicks designed to gear up the audience for a film’s opening a week or two later, and the advertising always gives the title and stars. The most recent examples of this include “WarGames” last week, and “Blue Thunder” for two weeks running, prior to its opening.

Those weren’t really sneak previews — they were advance screenings.

So it was kind of nice to see an honest-to-gosh sneak in a Salt Lake theater last weekend, a preview of a film that won’t open until August, a fairly rough print with edit marks still on some frames, and an audience that went in with little or no idea what it would see.


You could hardly have missed the ad for the event, as it was half a page Friday and a full page Saturday. All it said was “Move over Butch and Sundance, here come Bully Hayes and the Reverend. It’s the good guys at their best, bad guys at their worst and adventure at its highest . . . in an exciting new movie.” Then it had the logo of the distributor, Paramount Pictures, and of Plitt’s Crossroads Cinemas.

Because “Bully Hayes and the Reverend” was in large bold type, many people waiting to go into the theater Saturday thought that was the film’s title. And because of the “Move over Butch and Sundance” line, many more thought it was a Western, and probably a comedy.

Actually, the film was a pirate picture titled “Savage Islands,” an adventure film with comic overtones, similar in style to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and starring Tommy Lee Jones, best known as Gary Gilmore in TV’s “The Executioner’s Song” and as Sissy Spacek’s husband in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

Paramount flew a goodly number of its executives in for the preview of one of its big summer films (and probably some skiing, as well) and the ads drew a big crowd, nearly filling the 546-seat theater.


Preceding the screening, someone told the crowd this was the first public U.S. showing, and that afterward another announcement would be made. When the film ended, Paramount execs asked that as many people as possible stay and fill out a survey form.

Cards with pencils were passed out, asking questions about the audience’s reaction, including particulars in the film and respondents’ background. I am not privy to the results of Paramount’s survey cards, of course, but it’s safe to say that the reaction was favorable, as most of the audience seemed to really get into the film, laughing at the wisecracks, thrilling at the action scenes and applauding when it was over.

Whether any cuts or changes will be made is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear that there’s an audience for unknown sneaks — and possibly for a return to the pirate genre, as well.