I arrive at the Regal LA Live Theater in the heart of downtown LA. It is Thursday, April 26, Opening Night for Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War. I’ve been counting down the days to this night for past two months. Everything about the marketing campaign for this film has been immense and this campaign, more than any other, has kept me awake at night.
I’m standing in front of an art installation breathing a sigh of relief. I have been working with James Raiz, an illustrator from Toronto, on this Marvel Studios 10th Anniversary celebration piece. He spent 250 hours hand-drawing 18 character panels, representing each of the 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The centerpiece is a giant Thanos – the villain in Infinity War. Ten years of movies have all been leading up to this. The piece is impressive. Fans are engaging and taking pictures. The artist texts me. He is on his way to the theater.
I see the team from Moviebill arrive. I’ve also been working with them to launch the debut issue of their publication. It’s like a Playbill, but for movies and with a 3D augmented reality overlay. It features interviews with talent, behind-the-scenes editorial, and exclusive art. The Avengers: Infinity War Moviebill will be handed out to one million people at Regal cinemas opening weekend. The excitement of launching a new product is evident on their faces. It’s a big day for them, and I’m curious to see how fans respond to the product.
But I’m not at the theater for either for the artist or Moviebill. I’m here for the fan event – a premium ticket early screening of the film that includes a collectible coin, exclusive bonus content, and popcorn. My team planned these events at nearly 600 locations across the country. This morning, I received word from the studio PR team that Joe Russo, one of the directors of the film, would be coming to the LA Live theater to make a surprise visit. My phone rings. It is Joe’s driver. He’s here.
I meet Joe outside, and I bring him into the theater. We make a stop to get popcorn. He is relaxed and easygoing. I lead him to the holding room where we wait until it’s time for the introduction.
Joe is glancing at his phone to see who his Cleveland Browns take in the first round of the NFL draft. We make small talk. We talk about the shocking ending. If there was any concern about the movie, it was how fans would react. The film opened the previous night in European markets. So far, the response has been positive.
Joe tells me that he has some time before he has to be at USC for a lecture, maybe he’ll stick around for a while and watch the movie with the fans. I tell him no problem. I text my co-workers and tell them we need a seat for Joe. It’s a sold-out show. Fortunately, they find a fan sitting near the exit that is more than happy to give up his seat for the director and a fifty-dollar gift card.
The trailer package ends, and we enter the side of the darkened theater. The anticipation is palpable like the eagerness of a child waking on Christmas morning. I take the microphone and step to the front of the theater. I introduce myself and welcome them to the Fan Event. I tell them that there is someone here that wants to say something. They gasp. Immediately and in complete synchrony, I see 200 faces disappear as 200 camera phones are lifted to record whatever happens next. I introduce Joe, and the fans erupt.
Joe is a pro. He thanks the fans for being so great and talks about the year-and-a-half journey leading up to this night. He takes his seat. The movie begins. The excitement hits a fever pitch.
I stand off to the side and watch the first 10 minutes. The fans’ reaction was mix of laughter and cheers. So far so good. I leave to find James, the artist, who has just arrived at the theater.
I find James in front of the art installation interviewing for his YouTube channel. His wife, kids, and parents watch from a distance. The previous day, James and I connected over lunched. He told me his story. His parents emigrated from the Philippines to Canada before he was born. His parents hoped he would become a doctor. When he was in high school, he told them he wanted to go to art school. The news did not go over well.
In his parents' mind, an artist was a person on the street who draws pictures for change. That is not why they moved to Canada, so their son could beg for money on the street. He brought his parents to Los Angeles tonight to show them how far his art has taken them. He wants them to see, to understand, that he can be successful with his art. I speak to his parents, beautiful people who sacrificed much so that their children and their children’s children might have a better opportunity to prosper. I point to the art piece and say, “Look what your son has done. I hope you’re proud of him!” “We are proud of him.” They respond with a gracious smile.
Here are a couple pictures of the art installation. I snapped these pics with my phone, Not great pictures, but you get the idea. That's James giving an interview in front of time-lapse videos of him drawing the pieces.
My phone buzzes with a text. Joe is heading out of the theater. I reunite with him to thank him for coming. He doesn’t know it yet, but he is the director of the movie that will have the biggest box office opening of all time, but right now he is hungry, and he is going to grab a bite to eat before his next engagement.
I’m hungry too. A few of us decide to grab a drink and satisfy our appetites.
I arrive back at the theater during the final minutes of the movie. The tone in the room has changed. That ending. The fans are stone silent. When the final scene plays, and the movie rolls to credits, a collective exhale releases from the audience with audible “No!” What?” “Holy S***.”
One fan cannot contain himself. He jumps out of his seat and runs to the side exit hall where my co-worker and I are standing. “Oh, my God.” He cups the temples of his head with his hands. “That was so epic!” He recognizes us from the beginning of the show and introduces himself. “My name is Cameron.” He can’t stand still. He is checking his phone, rubbing his head, swaying back and forth. He is processing.
No one leaves the theater. Everyone is waiting patiently for the end credits scene. It comes and drops a reveal. The audience erupts. Cameron runs out of the theater. I follow him and find him half-running half-skipping down the hall toward the lobby yelling “That’s what I wanted! That’s what I wanted!”
I stand to the side and watch the fans stagger out of the theater. Their heads down, they look like they have just come back from the front lines of a major conflict. One fan, heavy-set, long hair, wearing a shirt with pictures of the Avengers on it, looks at me. “Devastating man.” He shakes his head. “Devastating.”
I drive home that night, and I am relieved. Avengers: Infinity War is finally out in the world. All the long days at work have paid off. I think about the movie. It’s just a movie, a fantasy/adventure with a bunch of costumed superheroes. I think about the reaction it solicits, the way it affects people, and I understand that for many it’s not just a movie.
We live in a time of deep polarization. Maybe a movie like this, which brings people from all countries, languages, and worldviews to a theater to sit next to each other and watch our heroes try to be the best versions of themselves they can be – because the fate of the world depends on it - is just what we need.
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES