You’ll probably never have heard of Ben Marcus but without him you would not be seeing movies the way you do these days.
Polish-born Marcus owned a chain of 36 picture houses in Wisconsin and he was growing alarmed at two aspects of a fast-changing business: how long it took for big movies to reach his theaters and the fact that by the time he did get hold of them audience interest had been sapped by their long runs in big city houses.
So he invented the Marcus Plan. In the early 1960s there was no such thing as a national wide release as there is now, the same movie appearing at the same time in every multiplex in the country. Instead, there was a drip-feed down the long tail of a food chain, some movies taking a year or more to complete their release.
There had been some experiments in localized wide release – what was then known as “saturation” – The Magnificent Seven the most high-profile movie shown in this manner, bundled from one small group of states to another over a matter of months, but mostly pictures that went down this route were low-budget exploitationers, gone before word-of-mouth could sink them.
Marcus thought it would make more sense for exhibitors and studios to work together in a concerted fashion, equally contributing to a marketing campaign, to come up with a longer-term strategy for coordinated wide release. So he set up a test project in 1961 and soon had the box office figures to prove that movies as disparate as Operation Petticoat, The Time Machine and Gidget could make more by using the plan than Pollyanna, The Apartment and Ocean’s 11 could without.
Just to prove the idea did not depend on star names or films with an inbuilt attraction, he ran the experiment again, this time revolving around The Trapp Family, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, Hoodlum Priest and Operation Eichmann with nary a star between them and The Great Imposter starring Tony Curtis whose initial prospects had been considered bleak. The Trapp Family was not just already six years old but a foreign picture, made in West Germany, the only element in its favor that Twentieth Century Fox had snapped up the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway hit The Sound of Music based on their story.
The five pictures sent out in this fashion did so much better than expected that trade magazine Box Office called the Marcus Plan a “magic device.” United Artists, Columbia and Universal became enthusiastic supporters and worked alongside exhibitors to develop the idea. But it was the participation of Warner Brothers which took the concept to the next stage.
The studio was persuaded to switch release dates to suit exhibitors and brought forward Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane from March 1963 to November 1962 resulting in a release in a thousand theaters in three consecutive waves. It went into profit in the first two weeks and the modern wide release was born.