One of our favorite company past-times is taking everyone to see big blockbuster movies. It's a great way for everyone to drop what they are doing on opening day, show up as a group, and tell their friends that they got to see the latest film first.
This year we saw the biggest movies, from The Dark Knight to The Avengers. It's always awesome.
There's really no way you can go wrong with taking the entire team out to see a movie. That is, unless that movie is the Phantom Menace.
Allow me to share a tale with you.
Let's Go Deep Nerd
The story of my geekiness goes back to the late 90's. Actually it probably goes back to my childhood, but that's for another embarrassing rant.
It was a cold day in October of 1998. Wait, let's go back further.
It was a ridiculously humid day in the Summer of 1997. I was sitting in my office interviewing a developer candidate. To give you some context, being a "developer" back then meant you knew HTML.
The developer walks in and notices a Darth Vader helmet coffee mug sitting on my desk. Said developer inquires about my affinity for Star Wars. I tell him the people who love Star Wars are nothing more than a wretched hive of scum and villainy. We bond.
The next week I get a present from the kind developer. It's a pen with a Darth Vader header, and 4 buttons that shout Darth Vader quotes, my favorite being "I have you now!". It still works.
The Force Grows Strong with this One
Now I had two Star Wars items on my desk and not much else. That same summer we won a massive account at the agency, which would have us hiring hundreds of people over the next year.
One by one, as interview candidates streamed in, they commented on my Star Wars collection, which was growing by the day without my help. I would mention they were given to me by other staff members. They returned the favor by bringing in more stuff.
I had a life sized card-board cutout of Darth Vader. An AT-AT walker. The list continues. Soon my office looked like an 8-year old boy had just taken first place on a game show.
The Fateful Date
Let's fast forward back to that fateful day in October of 1998. By this point the agency had grown to hundreds of people, an important fact I will also come back to later.
One of our designers, who by the way was selected for having created a 2 minute stop motion animation of Star Wars figures trying to date each other (hilarious), said that Mr. George Lucas had just announced the release date of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace – the 19th of May.
The moment I was provided with this valuable intel, I immediately phoned the local AMC theatre and asked to rent all 500 seats of the biggest screen for the opening midnight showing. This was going to be epic.
The Willy Wonka Ticket
Planning the invites and attendance for this event was harder than planning a wedding. We had extended the invites to our clients and their families from all around the country. People were booking hotels and arranging dinners.
Our creative team printed up special tickets just for the event. People were jumping out of their seats to get a handful of tickets, side deals were being brokered for clients, executives were looking for special deals (denied). It was a zoo.
Our PR Team Gets Involved
If you were lucky enough to be recruiting for talent in the halcyon days of 1999, you understood that recruiting was a full time job, and it was damn near impossible to find people. Anyone that could spell HTML was negotiating multiple offers.
For this reason, the PR team thought it would be a great idea to promote the fact that we were doing this massive event for our staff. We were maybe two weeks from the launch date, so Star Wars was everywhere in the press.
The moment our story hit the press wire, it was picked up by the Associated Press who hurriedly sent a reporter to cover the story.
A One Minute Photo. A Lifetime of Shame.
The reporter covered the facts, but also took this absolute gem of a photo. Every person has one photo that they simply wish were never taken. This was mine. Nothing captures how incredibly dorky I am or how deeply I fell into the rabbit hole of nerd-dom than this photo.
You can't undo this. The Interwebz are forever. I can't explain this photo. I can't explain why I look like I'm 9 years old other than I really did look like that. I can't explain that shirt. I can't explain anything in that photo. That's because I don't have to – the photo says it all.
This is my George Michael of Arrested Development moment. Enough said.
Lucas Drops the Hammer
The moment that story hit the wire, our phones lit up. Every paper in the country covered the story. Radio stations were calling me at 6 a.m. on my home phone which even I didn't know the number to. It was insane.
Yet one call I got stood out more than the others. It was from the corporate offices of AMC in New Jersey. More specifically, it was their legal counsel.
The AMC informed me that "Lucas' people" (read: Lucas) had read the story and insisted that there would be no advance sales of the movie under any condition. Furthermore, if the AMC didn't cancel the contract we had to sign to rent the theatre, they would pull the movie from all of the theatres in the city.
This became an agonizing event. I had 500 people coming to this thing. We just had every media outlet in the country covering the fact that we were doing this. Not going wasn't an option.
I can't say exactly what the resolution was in detail, but the short of it was that we negotiated to open the theatre up after hours, which means 1 a.m. so that they could still do a screening without violating specific agreements with Lucas.
Finally, opening night arrived. I showed up at around 12:30 with my girlfriend and a few co-workers to make sure everything was ready.
I walked to the front of the line to speak with the manager who by this point knew me better than he should. I casually asked him, "What movie theatre are we seeing the show in?" He pointed, almost surprised, to the line I had just walked past.
I looked back at him and said "Dude, this isn't us." He said "Yeah, it is. Look, they all have tickets."
What.. the …
Yeah. They all had Willy Wonka tickets alright. But they weren't our co-workers. Our co-workers, by and large, had scalped the tickets to bigger fans. I was entertaining 500 strangers.
By this point I didn't care. I was so happy to be done with this ordeal that I just wanted to go in and see the movie that I had waited 8 months to see.
The movie opened beautifully. 20 minutes into the showing, my girlfriend turned to me and said "I feel sick, I think I need to go home."
And we did. That was it.
In retrospect she saved me the embarrassment of sitting through one of the worst Star Wars movies in history, otherwise known as the Jar Jar Binks Pepsi commercial.
Since that night, and with every startup I've worked with since, we've always held the tradition of taking the whole company to see blockbuster movies. Iron Man, Batman, Avengers – all of them.
The only difference is we now go to the matinee on opening day. It's always empty, no matter what movie is playing, and I always get to stay until the end. The woman I married doesn't leave blockbuster movies.