The movie Cinderella story to end all movie Cinderella stories. Quite how The Wicker Man came to earn its cult status given that for more than a decade it was hardly screened is quite a remarkable tale. An occult picture that as authoritative a producer as Michael Deeley (Blade Runner, 1982) deemed one of the ten worst films of all time – and without even the compensation of falling into the “so bad it’s good” category.
Most people who saw it during its original British release did so by default. They had gone to see Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) with top stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie and tagged onto that box office hit – and critical smash – was this other movie critics had dismissed. That it surfaced at all was because British Lion put it out on the lower part of a double bill in order to legitimately defray its costs by snipping off some of the revenue accrued by Don’t Look Now.
It certainly wasn’t that the Nicolas Roeg picture needed a helping hand on the box office front. Prior to opening, Don’t Look Now had already covered its $1.2 million budget by selling off foreign rights with Paramount taking it for the United States. Despite having the same budget of $1.2 million, The Wicker Man, did not attract the same foreign interest, or indeed any foreign interest. and for the time being was put on the shelve. British Lion had been sold to EMI who put Deeley in charge and his assessment of The Wicker Man‘s worth put paid to any prospect of a high-end launch.
Don’t Look Now opened, minus The Wicker Man, in October 1973 at the London West End’s most prestigious cinema, the Odeon Leicester Square and in phenomenal fashion. An opening week $32,000 (equivalent to $126,000 these days) was bettered by a second week of $44,000 ($174,000 equivalent). A further two weeks brought in $41,000 and $35,000 respectively (or about close on to a total of $600,000 in today’s money).
Then it switched, still minus The Wicker Man, virtually next door to the equally prestigious 1,402-seater Leicester Square Theater. An opening salvo of $29,000 dropped just $1,000 in the second week. A six-week run garnered $138,000 ($546,000 equivalent). Four weeks into that run it also opened at the 1,394-seat Metropole, this time as a double bill with The Wicker Man. It wasn’t a genuine double bill. A proper double bill consisted of two films of roughly equal standing that might both have premiered in the West End, top billing given to the movie that had performed best at the box office.
The Wicker Man had been on quite a different trajectory to Don’t Look Now. Despite it being promoted in “a savvy publicity ploy” at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1973 with a 30ft high “wicker man” set on fire on the Croisette, once Michael Deeley took control, replacing Peter Snell, also producer of The Wicker Man, he had no intention of giving a solo launch. By piggybacking on a hit movie, it was guaranteed to bring in some income.
However, initially, it seemed a disastrous idea. The Metropole double bill opened in mid-December 1973 to a miserly $5,300, second week no better, just $4,900.
But then something extraordinary happened. The third week was through the roof, a whopping $13,700. Over seven weeks it snapped up $57,000 (equivalent to $225,000 today). It wasn’t that surprising, however, since in the first two weeks it was still showing at the Leicester Square Theatre, but once the Metropole was the only option, the figures jumped up. Assuming revenue would taper off, in the fifth week of the Metropole run it began playing simultaneously at the 1,883-seat Odeon Kensington – probably to coincide with the general release – where the first week raked in $16,800. It continued at this cinema for six weeks, bringing in another $57,000.
And even then it wasn’t done. Towards the end of February the double bill switched to the 600-seat Odeon Haymarket, also in the West End. and opened with $6,000. A decent enough tally for a movie that had been on the market for over four months, but it turned out that except for its eighth and final week, that amount was the lowest it grossed. It ran out with a similar sum to the other two cinemas, $56,200. And then it moved again to the 150-seat Cinecenta 3, just off Leicester Square in London’s West end for a final flourish of $5,300 in two weeks, the second week improving on the first. All told, the double bill grossed $175,100 in the West End (just under $700,000 at today’s figures). The double bill also went out on general release on the Odeon circuit in Britain at the start of February 1974 – and not in December 1973 as has been argued (the London West End screenings were what would be termed “pre-release” activity).
How much of the double bill’s success could be attributed to The Wicker Man is not that difficult to calculate. As we have seen, Don’t Look Now was already an enormous success before it took on a perhaps-unwanted partner. Not every Odeon general release required a supporting feature, often a short would do. Without another film on the program, Don’t Look Now would have received more daily showings which could boost receipts and at the very least been more profitable for not having to share the box office.
Whereas Don’t Look Now sailed into New York on a tide of box office and critical glory at the 549-seat Sutton with a first week tallying $30,000 and had massed $110,000 in five weeks, The Wicker Man was deemed a massive flop. British Lion wrote it off to the tune of $470,000, a substantial amount.
There was no chance of British Lion fobbing off the more astute Americans with the notion of The Wicker Man running as the stablemate of Don’t Look Now. Major U.S. distributors bought pictures that had been hits on release in their home country. Perhaps not surprisingly, the main contender for the rights was Roger Corman, a horror specialist, and he thought he could make it work if the film was editing from the original 102-minutes to 86-minutes, a timing that make it more appealing in a double bill. But Corman could not meet EMI’s terms.
However, it was bought in 1974 for American release by the Beechwood Properties – which Variety mispelled as “Beachhead Corp” but only initially as as a tax shelter. However, Beechwood succeeded in drumming up a distributor, National General Corporation which distributed John Wayne movies Rio Lobo (1970) and Big Jake (1971) as well as Little Big Man (1971) and Le Mans (1971), The Getaway (1972) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972). NGC was taken enough by the movie to pay EMI $300,000 for the rights.
But then NGC hit a financial brick wall and pulled out and the project passed on to Warner Brothers after it picked up the top prize at the International Festival of Fantasy and Science Fiction. As a prelude to a release, Warner Brothers submitted it to the American censor where it earned an “R” (restricted) rating in keeping with its British X-certificate. Warner Brothers test-marketed the shortened version as a solo feature with 24 prints playing the San Diego and Atlanta regions. But when the movie failed to attract an audience it was deemed a flop and shelved.
And in summer 1974 it was officially shelved.
So it sat in limbo for another three years before in 1977 Cinefantastique magazine dubbed it “The Citizen Kane of Horror Pictures” and devoted a 32-page spread to it in its Vol 6 No 10 issue, so determined it had uncovered a work of genius that it took out a substantial advertisement in U.S. trade paper Variety. That appeared to elicit some distributor interest and it was purchased in 1977 from Beechwood by New Orleans company Abraxas, headed by Stirling Smith, John Alan Simon, and Ron and Micheline Weinberg. Abraxas got the rights for a song – just $20,000.
But then the Weinberg’s split from Abraxas and set up a company (I am presuming) called International Films. It looked like they were licensed to show The Wicker Man, which they did in a kind of hit-and-run strategy, racing all over the country with the movie in the back of the car, and renting it out to around 30 arthouses, presumably assuming the “Citizen Kane” tag might attract an audience.
Distributed under the banner Summerisle Films, some of these showings were indeed propitious. In January 1979 at the 300-seat Lumiere in San Francisco with tickets priced at $4 it knocked up a “boffo” $19,000 (equivalent to a meaty $75,000 now). There was none of the steep fall-off either that you might expect. The second week hauled in an excellent $15,500 ($59,000 today) and the nine-week run brought in total of $93,000 (a very good $368,000 in today’s terms). It was deemed so successful that it achieved in exhibitor parlance a “move-over,” transferring to the 300-seat Cento Cedar.
Results were similar in Los Angeles. At the 763-seat Los Feliz Westland 1, also primarily an arthouse, it racked up opening week figures of $19,000 and after six weeks had powered to $61,900 plus another $37,000 from a two-week run at four suburban houses. There was a decent performance in Seattle, close on $40,000 in a five-week run at the 700-seat Crest. Enough to counter a poor showing in Minneapolis at the 461-seat World where it opened to a “slow” $2,000. And excepting that result, the prospects must have looked rosy.
That is, until the wheels came off.
International Films turned out to be beset by financial problems. Weinberg had been due to pay Abraxas a total of $150, 000 by December 1978, paid off in three tranches, an initial amount of $30,000 by December 1977, another $50,000 by June 1978 and the the remaining sum by December of the same year. When the debt was not settled, Abraxas took Weinberg in court in July 1979 and the outcome was that the rights reverted back to Abraxas, now headed by Smith and Simon. And that was timely from a publicity perspective for the movie had just been named Best Horror Picture and Best Screenplay by the Academy of Fantasy and Horror Films.
So Abraxas started all over again, sticking to the precedent of opening it in arthouses. But it looked like they sold off regional rights for the movie appeared under different distributors, Horror Films as well as Abraxas and the original Summer Isle banner April 1980 saw The Wicker Man set a new house record at the 200-seat Orson Welles III in Boston with a $15,000 opening and over the next eight weeks it locked up a hefty $73,500 ($256,000 equivalent). The same month it hit New York, but an excellent opener of $21,000 at the 533-seat Paramount dropped to just $9,000 in the second week, then $4,400 in the third and $4,000 in the last. In December it scored $7,500 at the 150-seat Cerberus II in Washington D.C, finishing with $16,000 for three weeks.
In January 1981 it was the last movie shown in a 12-week season of revivals at the 560-seater Fine Arts in Kansas City and, despite registering only a “mild” $3,500, it moved over the Watts Mill 2 for a $3,200 opener and an $8,400 total over four weeks. But a four-screen “showcase” in Miami produced a “remote” $3,700. There was some publicity derived for being selected, eight years after initial launch in Britain, at the Cleveland International film Festival.
But success in the independent field required momentum and despite excellent results in a handful of cinemas, The Wicker Man never really took off.
Salvation came via another route – video. Without VHS and then DVD it is doubtful if the movie would ever have achieved its current cult status. It’s not the first film to hit the ground running in the video format after a less than stellar performance in the cinema. I doubt that anyone, years after it was first shown, believed The Wicker Man had a hidden pot of gold. But my guess is the video rights cost little and in the burgeoning market where taste was not stifled by choices made at a cinema chain head office it was a film that finally found an audience.
SOURCES: “Michael Deeley Replaces Snell at Brit Lion,” Variety, April 11, 1973, p4; “Doing The Cannes-Cannes,” Variety, May 23, 1973, p26; “Form Beachhead Corp To Handle Wicker Man,” Variety, Jan 2, 1974, p4; “This Week’s Code Tags,” Variety, April 24, 1974, p4; “Wicker Man Wins Top Prize at Fantasy Fest,” Variety, May 1, 1974, p7; “British Lion 6 Months Slips to 890G,” Variety, January 29, 1975, p39; Advert, Variety, November 16, 1977, p38; Stuart Byron, “Something Wicker This Way Comes,” Film Comment, November-Dcember 1977; “Abraxas Corp Sues Ronald Weinberg,” Variety, April 18, 1979, p5; “Enjoin Weinberg Re Wicker Man,” Variety, Jul 4, 1979, p35; “Cleveland: 45 Titles: 3 Situations,” Variety, April 1, 1981, p24; “Metropolis Strikes Deal with Magnum,” August 10, 1988, p34. Box office figures all from the following issues of weekly Variety: Oct 24, 1973-April 24, 1974; October 5, 1977; March 21, 1979, April 11, 1979; April 18, 1979; April 25, 1979; May 7, 1979; April 23, 1980; December 3, 1980; February 4, 1981; April 1, 1981; May 20 1981.