The Box Office Equalizer

Variety’s experiment in extending its box office coverage beyond main city roadshow and first run showed its first results when analysis of a full year of statistics for 1968 produced data for over 700 pictures rather than the hundred or so that qualified for its annual rentals  chart.

The drawback with the existing annual chart was limitation – films had to earn more than $1 million in rentals (the amount returned to studios from the overall gross) to qualify. The tabulation process simply ignored how hundreds of other films performed and therefore as far as Variety was concerned failed to offer the information exhibitors required to run their businesses in more complicated times when increased product shortage was exacerbated by long runs of either roadshow pictures or movies held over for months on end in first run in the big cities.

The business still primarily operated on a stepped released basis. Movies that opened in roadshow or first run remained in their initial theaters until demand was exhausted and only then moved into second-run or multiple run (Showcase) or the drive-ins, leaving those cinemas further down the food chain crying out for fresh product. What companies were meeting that demand and how their films performed at the box office was generally a mystery.

The expanded chart for 1968 covered grosses rather than rentals (the former the overall take, the latter the part of that that went back to the studios). A sample of up to 800 cinemas nationwide first of all cast light on a whole section of mainstream underachievers. To come to an accurate assessment of how these grosses reflected overall a film’s overall annual performance, Variety suggested tripling the numbers. To reach a rental figure, the measurement of profit, you would need to halve that. (More straightforwardly, add 50% to the figures below to work out the annual amount returned to studios in rentals in 1968 and multiply by eight – for inflation – to put these figures into perspective from today’s point of view.)

Among the films mentioned were Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer which was now shown to have grossed $1.314 million, Burton-Taylor fiasco Boom ($557,000), Albert Finney as Charlie Bubbles ($526,000) and films reviewed in the Blog such as The Shoes of the Fisherman ($611,000), P.J./New Face in Hell($415,000), The Lost Continent ($338,000), Sol Madrid ($268,000), Hammerhead ($233,000), Sebastian ($162,000) and The Girl on a Motorcycle ($104,000).

Others worth mentioning were Duffy ($709,000), Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum in Secret Ceremony ($671,00), Michael Caine in Deadfall ($614,000), Lee Marvin in Sgt Ryker ($417,000), How I Won the War ($321,000), Night of the Living Dead (318,000). When we casually refer to movies as flops, we often have no idea just how big a failure they were – these figures redress that balance.

Reissues pulling in decent business included Thunderball ($867,000), The Carpetbaggers/Nevada Smith ($244,000) and on the back of Sidney Poitier’s elevation to box office peaks the seven-year-old A Raisin in the Sun ($159,000)

Much further down the line came Danger: Diabolik on $24,000 and Subterfuge with just $8,500. At rock bottom, ranked 729th, was Tony Richardson’s The Sailor from Gibralter with $1,000 in the kitty.

The survey also served to highlight the impact of the growing number of foreign imports. While sophisticated fare like Therese and Isabelle ($2.19 million), Francois Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black ($511,000), Claude Lelouch’s Live for Life ($495,000) and Scandinavian medieval drama The Red Mantle ($396,000) had broken out into the mainstream from their arthouse launchpads, the various strands of the spaghetti western genre would have headed straight for the drive-in or Showcase led by A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die ($865,000) and Any Gun Can Play ($230,000).

In part what Variety sought to show by covering such a wider stream of releases was to assess the growing dominance of the sexploitation picture. Around one-third of the movies featured fell into this category. The Female ($492,00), The Filthy Five ($322,000), Inga ($267,000) and Aroused ($168,000) boasted impressive numbers, especially given the limitations of the survey. The fact that many others – Alley Tramp, Touch of Her Flesh, I, A Woman, Hot Spur, Professor Lust and Brand of Shame – even made an appearance on the extended chart showed inherent demand for this kind of product. That most of these achieved only low grosses in the Variety chart was an indication more of the types of cinemas surveyed. It would be a rare first run house that would book a sexploitationer and even the Showcases steered clear. But that they were mentioned at all was indication of a sea change.

Sources: Syd Silverman, “Computerized Tally of 729 films,” Variety, May 7, 1969, pages 34, 36, 198, 213.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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