All films released in Britain in the 1960s made their debuts in London’s West End which comprised a total of 18 cinemas, nearly half of these playing roadshows. While the performance of openers here was important, just as critical an indication of box office potential was length of run. Half the cinemas could seat 1,300-plus patrons. Ticket prices ranged from 70 cents to $4.20. The week ending May 4, 1965, provided this snapshot.
The top three films, all playing roadshow (i.e. two separate performances per day), were musicals. My Fair Lady at the 1,562-seater Warner pulled in $40,500 even though the movie was in its 15th week, some distance ahead of The Sound of Music which in its 5th week racked up $36,400 at the 1,712-seater Dominion. Much further behind, but setting a house record in the 16th week of its residency at the 600-seat Odeon Haymarket, was Mary Poppins which cleared $20,000. Both the Dominion and the Warner operated with the same ticket prices, cheapest seats setting customers back $1.45 with the most expensive seats costing $4.20, by far the dearest prices in London, no other West End cinema even breaking the $3 barrier. Tickets at the Odeon Haymarket ranged from $1.05 to $2.80.
Prospective longevity made the headlines ahead of new openings. Roadshows needed legs to justify the expense of running a movie at just one cinema in the British capital. Often, a major roadshow would play London weeks ahead of any other engagement in the country. The kind of wide release that was becoming increasingly common in the United States did not occur in Britain outside of the circuit releases in the two major chains, ABC and Odeon, which usually took product after it was played out in the West End.
Only two pictures made their debuts that week. Sylvia starring Carroll Baker was in pole position with $12,000 at the 1,889-seat Plaza (ticket prices $0.90-$2.80) just ahead of Robert Aldrich’s Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte which potted $11,000 at the 1,128-seat Carlton ($0.70-$2.10) but the latter, with its smaller seating and cheaper tickets, may well have been counted the winner.
The other big noise on the roadshow front was that the star-studded Samuel Bronston epic The Fall of the Roman Empire had entered its second year at the 1,474-seater Astoria. The movie had flopped in the United States where it had kicked off in 22 hard-ticket engagements in March 1964. In London in its 57th week it brought in $5,900. It would not go into general release, on the Odeon circuit, until September 1965; in other words, around 18 months after its launch.
Other roadshows displaying legs were: Lord Jim starring Peter O’Toole with $13,500 at the 1,394 seat Metropole ($1.05-$2.80) in its 6th week after moving over from the Odeon Leicester Square and The Greatest Story Ever Told grossing $16,000 in its 3rd week at the 1,155-seat Casino ($1.20-$2.80). Two Cinerama productions had been recently launched – Mediterranean Holiday snapping up $12,000 in its 3rd week at the 1,795-seat Coliseum ($1.20-$2.50) while The Golden Head marked up $4,700 at the 862-seat Royalty ($1.20-$2.50).
But other pictures playing continuous performance were held over if justified by box office returns. Peter Sellers in his second outing as Inspector Clouseau in A Shot in the Dark had taken $8,500 in its 11th week at the London Pavilion ($0.80-$1.80). In its 7th week at the 430-seat Ritz ($0.70-$1.15) was The Yellow Rolls Royce with $3,400. The 5th week of Ursula Andress as She posted $5,500 at the 556-seat Studio One ($0.50-$1.20). Anthony Quinn as Zorba the Greek turned in $5,000 in the 4th week at the 529-seat Rialto ($0.70-$1.90). The second and final week (truncated to five days) of Fail Safe at the 740-seat Columbia ($0.70-$2.10) knocked up $6,700. Films completing a third week were: The Americanization of Emily with $11,800 at the 1,330-seat Empire ($0.70-$2.10), Masquerade with $8,500 at the 1,375-seat Leicester Square Theatre ($0.70-$2.40) and Strange Bedfellows on $12,800 from the 2,200-seat Odeon Leicester Square ($0.70-$2.20).
New openings had been announced for the double bill of Invitation to a Gunfighter and That Man from Rio which was moving into the London Pavilion on May 13, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines flew into the Astoria on June 3 while Operation Crossbow hit the Empire on May 19.
However, there was often a considerable time gap between roadshow movies finishing their West End run and moving into general release on the circuits – dominated by the Odeon and ABC chains. My Fair Lady would not receive an ABC general release – and the rare accolade of an extended run of two weeks – until January 1967, nearly a full two years after it had premiered in the West End and it would be 1969 before The Sound of Music received an Odeon general release (and then only in London).
On the other hand, The Yellow Rolls-Royce, while still picking up decent coin at the Ritz, entered ABC general release at the end of January – and proved one of the top box office hits of the year on that circuit. She, enjoying a healthy stint at the Studio One, had been released through ABC in April. Mary Poppins would swing onto the Odeon circuit in time for the main English summer holiday period in August 1965. The ABC circuit played the double bill of The Americanization of Emily and To Trap a Spy at the start of May 1965, only a couple of weeks after its West End bow. Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, on the other hand, wasted no time in shifting into top gear, sent out onto the Odeon circuit virtually day-and-date with its West End showing, and Strange Bedfellows would head down the same route barely a month after its opening.
I should point out that general release meant a movie was playing at the local/neighbourhood cinema. The big cinemas in big city centres throughout Britain would have mostly, but not always, shown the movie shortly after the West End debut, occasionally simultaneously. To complicate matters further, in Britain general release meant London rather than the entire country. And even then the London release was split in two – to save on prints – the north side of the capital receiving the film a week ahead of the south. But I remember well, as teenager, scanning the adverts and the listings in Films and Filming magazine, noting with disappointment that films being shown in local cinemas in London had yet to be shown in any of the big cinemas in my home town of Glasgow.
SOURCES: “West End Firm Despite Few New Pix,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p8; Allen Eyles, Odeon Cinemas 2 (Cinema Theatre Association) p211-213; Allen Eyles, ABC (Cinema theatre Association ) p123.