On January 1, 1968, U.S. trade newspaper Variety began working on a project that would change forever the way Hollywood operated and the way the public perceived motion pictures. It single-handedly invented box office statistics, the weekly tabulation that is life and death for industry professionals and a terrific game for outsiders, trying to guess how any film will perform in its opening week/weekend.
Although there had been published information on box office, in the 1960s it was not something that generally speaking was of interest to the moviegoer. All the trade papers carried box office details in one way or another. Variety reported the weekly takings in about 300 first-run cinemas in around 20 cities. The rival Box Office magazine considered it more important that figures should relate to a cinema’s average weekly takings and so while not publishing figures produced data on a percentage basis so that managers were not simply blinded by income when they should be concentrating on profit. But while Variety posted a weekly Top 12 chart, it was largely irrelevant because openings were not coordinated as they are now. Variety also produced year-end results but these were based on rentals (i.e. what the studio takes after the cinema share has been parcelled out) rather than gross box office.
Variety proposed a revolution. Instead of this haphazard manner of gathering statistics, it would turn the whole issue into a cohesive, substantive whole. Investing in an IBM 360 computer, Variety sampled around 650-800 cinemas each week for an entire year in 22-24 of the largest markets plus smaller cities in the country. Given that there were about 14,000 theatres in total in the U.S. this might seem a ridiculously low sample, but in fact about 80% of a movie’s revenues came from a disproportionately small number of cinemas. Cinemas in big cities might have upwards of 1,000 seats with patrons paying top dollar while cinemas in small towns might only have a couple of hundred seats, only play movies for a couple of days, and charge their customers a fraction of big city prices.
Comparisons were made with the Nielsen system used to estimate U.S. television viewing figures which based its reports on a sample of less than 10,000 for an overall audience of 200 million. After running the pilot for a year and comparing it to overall box office, the magazine reckoned that its figures could be multiplied by three to give an accurate measure of how any picture was performing on a nationwide basis.
The pilot year of 1968 covered 729 titles – far more than might appear in any of the weekly reports – with a total of 35,510 playing weeks and was able to collect figures relating to the number of weeks a movie featured in the chart – i.e. whether a film had “legs” – as well as overall gross. Variety’s previous annual summation involved less than 100 movies because the annual box office chart only covered films which had taken in $1 million or more in rentals. This meant a gross in the region of $2 million.
But low-budget films found it harder to take a big percentage of the box office gross. Where a big picture from a major studio could command at least a 50% share, the smaller pictures often had to do with 30-40% (as I previously reported, Dr No only got bookings in the U.S. by agreeing to take a 30% share of the gross). So for a smaller picture to reach the $1 million rental threshold often meant it had to take in more at the box office than a bigger-budgeted film, perhaps as much as $3 million. Inevitably, such films were not well represented on the annual chart. In other words, profit outweighed popularity.
But by looking only at gross, and setting down no minimum qualification, the pilot study was able to include far more titles and to bring to wider attention how well, comparatively speaking, some of the less highly-regarded titles performed. By and large box office reporters concentrated on the top films, the roadshows and other big-budget pictures, but “of greater interest,” according to Variety, “is the listing of so many exploitation and sexploitation films about which little is said apart from notorious examples. Reissues, too, are well represented and some are surprisingly high on the list.”
Variety set out to produce a Weekly Top 50 Chart, based on grosses, to act as “a good barometer of films in current exhibition and their relative positions in regard to each other. The fact that most of the films play through most of the markets results in statistical standardization or any errors in reports and doesn’t change the essential relationship of a film to its competitors.” Receipts for each entry in the Top 50 would show the number of cities and theaters – broken down into Roadshow, First Run and Showcase (ie multiple run) – in which the movie was playing.
The weekly Top 50 made its bow on the April 23, 1969, edition, reporting figures for the week ending April 16. Topping the chart was Disney’s The Love Bug (1968) with $551,000 – equivalent to $4.1 million today – from 15 theaters, mostly First Run with two Showcase bookings. Runner-up Where Eagles Dare (1968) hoisted $396,000 from 22 First Run and 6 Showcases. Third came They Came to Rob Las Vegas (1968) on $311,000 from 44 cinemas, 42 of which were Showcase. Fourth and fifth were long-running musical Roadshows, Oliver! on $308,000 from 16 theaters and Funny Girl on $307,000 from 21. The presence of heist picture They Came to Rob Las Vegas with no major stars taking such a prominent position justified the chart’s existence. Exhibitors risking a booking would see at once that it was best played in a Showcase release and could generate a decent average.
Further down the chart the $116,000 from just three outlets for I Am Curious Yellow (1967), in 22nd spot, indicated its box office potential. That was hardly the case for crime drama The Devil’s Eight (1969) with just $67,000 in its opening week from 15 Showcase engagements. Showing initial promise were Hall Bartlett’s college drama Changes (1969) – $25,000 from three – and British shocker Baby Love with $19,000 from two.
The following week (for week ending April 23) the Top Five were comedy western Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) which cornered $572,000 from 58 theaters – 43 Showcase and 15 First Run – in twelve cities, The Love Bug, Where Eagles Dare, Funny Girl and Oliver!
SOURCES: Syd Silverman, “Computerized B.O. Chart Due,” Variety, April 16, 1969, page 3; “Computerized Tally of 729 films,” Variety, May 7, 1969, pages 34, 36, 198, 213; “Top 50 Weekly Grosses,” Variety, April 23, 1969, 11; “Top 50 Weekly Grosses,” Variety, April 30, 1969, 13.