Box office performance is really the only measure the concerns Hollywood – Maverick: Top Gun setting a new Memorial Day high – but it’s not the only record studios are interested in breaking. Setting records for highest screen average and numbers of screens utilized is also important because it provides an indication, hopefully of a potential smash, at the very least of studio intent and exhibitor initial response to a movie. So the notion that Maverick: Top Gun received the biggest-ever U.S. release – in terms of screens – would not have gone unremarked by the industry. The more screens, the bigger the prospective pie.
In the run-up to opening when studios had little more than hype to sustain publicity, the number of screens was seen as a marketing tool. If that many exhibitors had signed up, they must be right. Many films in the past did not reach their box office potential simply because they were starved of screens and in failing to involve the necessary number of theaters opened themselves up to piracy.
The new screens mark set by Maverick: Top Gun was 4,732. You might be surprised to learn screen numbers in this range were being targeted as long ago as Shrek 2 (2004) when the animation juggernaut slammed into 4,223 palaces, beating with a vengeance the previous record held by Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) by over 500. See what I mean – the bigger the volume of screens, the more screenings, the screens-plus-screenings equation resulting in bigger box office, usually, as in this case, of the record variety.
But Shrek 2’s record was there to be challenged – and it was. Madagascar (2005) set a new screens record followed by others like Mission: Impossible 3 (2006), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), Spiderman (2007), The Dark Knight (2008), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), Twilight: Eclipse (2010) all the way to Despicable Me 3 which debuted on 4,535 screens. Sequels also had a built-in awareness factor.
The idea of getting a film out on as many screens as possible as soon as possible is not a new idea. Go back almost a century, to the advent of sound, and Warner Brothers employed the same technique for The Jazz Singer (1927), not exactly at launch, but a few months later in March 1928 in 235 theaters and not for the reasons laid out above but to give exhibitors who had installed expensive sound equipment a crack at a proper full-length movie. Following this was a system that would last from the silent era all the way through to the 1970s-1980s.
First-run was the key rather than what was initially called “saturation” or “simultaneous release” or “wide release” or “day-and-date” and also fell into the localized subset of “showcase.” Movies were launched in giant (by today’s standards) theaters seating 1,000-6,000 (Radio City Music Hall) and played there until the first-run juice had been extracted and then moved down a food chain delineated by ticket price down to as many levels as twelve, an automatic delay built into each shift down to ensure that moviegoers who wanted to pay the cheapest prices did not get ahead of the queue. In the silent era, prints were expensive and they were in short supply, so day-and-date was a risky prospect. Movies opened in different cities at different times and the same print went through hundreds of hands until it was unplayable.
Even so wide release – of any number – was viewed very early on as a marketing tool, Carl Laemmle the first to recognize the possibilities when he played Traffic in Souls (1913) in nine houses and by 1921 the idea, driven by phenomenon, had taken off when Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) was shown day-and-date in 300 venues. But such a wide release remained a rarity, most films going down the traditional route. The next stage was signaled by Cecil B. DeMille, wearing his marketing hat, when he invented the local world premiere. The Buccaneer (1938) launched in New Orleans and used the unprecedented nationwide publicity – gained by ferrying hundreds of reporters down from big cities in specially-appointed trains on an all-expenses paid jaunt – to precipitate a simultaneous release in 200 cinemas.
Area saturation was a natural development. The Westerner (1940) opened exclusively in Texas and broke 94 records in its first 94 engagements. Then came marketing genius Terry Turner who created the sequential area release, shifting huge numbers of prints week-by-week state-by-state. By concentrating advertising expenditure on a single area, Turner started “blitz marketing” and not necessarily for star-driven vehicles, Hitler’s Children (1943) the first to benefit.
But with too few movies being made, especially after studios were forced to sell off their lucrative cinemas chains by government decree in the late 1940s, first-run cinemas were inclined to hold onto big hits for weeks and months on end rather than participate in any simultaneous release program whose biggest beneficiaries were always the smaller cinemas. By the end of the 1950s and start of the 1960s, simultaneous release was accorded pictures of the here-today-gone-tomorrow variety, horror, sci-fi, exploitation and other low-budget items. One of the reasons why The Magnificent Seven (1960) did so poorly at the box office on initial release was it was sent out on the area saturation system, meaning in the first place it could not be held over since the prints were due somewhere else the following week, and it was viewed by audiences as a movie that fitted that low-budget criteria.
It was the exhibitor who revived the area saturation plan for pictures with decent marquee values. Wisconsin theatre owner Ben Marcus organised exhibitors into area groupings to assist studios in launching such films as The Great Imposter starring Tony Curtis and The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961) with Frank Sinatra and Spencer Tracy. Out of this emerged the “showcase” release pattern whereby in, initially, New York and Los Angeles, movies headed straight into multiple engagements either immediately after first run or bypassing first run entirely. In 1963 a total of 124 movies were shown in Los Angeles using this system resulting in a $21.8 million gross from 3,769 playdates. By 1964 in New York The Carpetbaggers raked in $862,000 from just 25 theaters and with the Bond movies racking up box office records in first run their appearance in showcase proved invaluable.
But just as saturation was booming, demand suddenly slackened, shortage of movies, the collapse of studios, the demise of the roadshow, ensuring that by the early 1970s saturation release, whether national or local, was largely being used by low-budgeters, reissues, blaxploitation, king fu, soft porn or movies that went “four-wall” (i.e. the theaters were rented by a studio rather than the exhibitor doing the renting). Four-wall was largely the remit of nature documentaries, but Warner Brothers used it for Billy Jack (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), United Artists for Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Universal for Breezy (1973) directed by Clint Eastwood.
Legend of course has it that Universal created the modern wide release with Jaws (1975). That just happens to be myth. Jaws opened day-and-date in just 409 theatres. What Jaws instigated, purely by chance, was a reversal, a different approach to high-end big-budget pictures. “Studios with what they believed were guaranteed winners had consistently used a different scenario. The Exorcist opened in 24 theaters, Earthquake (1974) in 62, Papillon (1973) in 109 and The Godfather Part II (1974) in 157. Movies that opened in the Jaws range and above – Magnum Force (1973) in 418, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) in 635, The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), Breakout (1975) and The Master Gunfighter (1975) in 1,000-plus were not expected to last as long. Statistics proved that for features with high box office expectation the slower limited roll-out was the more effective approach,” I wrote in 2019. I argued then and still believe that Universal expected Jaws to be a movie, as evidenced by the release strategy, that made a quick buck and the studio was as astonished as anyone when it skyrocketed.
But as production costs increased it was essential to get revenue in as quickly as possible so, except in rare cases, from the 1980s onwards, wide release became the norm. Even so it was another decade after Jaws before releases on 2,000 screens appeared, Rambo: First Blood II (1985) first there. Four years later – front-loading now the aspiration – the summer of 1989 saw 2,327 screens for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 2,202 for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, 2,410 for Ghostbusters II and 2,194 for Batman. Crocodile Dundee II (1988) had already upped the ante by opening in 2,837. A new high of 3,012 screens set by Mission Impossible (1996) did not last long, The Lost World (1997) leaving that in the dust with 3,565 screens. Screen records switched from studio to studio until the 4,000-mark was busted.
Maverick: Top Gun is just the latest in a long list of would-be blockbusters to take a similar approach. Any takers for next year’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning – Part One to be the first to hit 5,000 screens?
NOTE: The following week Cruise broke his own record when Maverick: Top Gun added another 19 screens. The new record is 4,751 screens. On top of that it had a record low box office fall of just 33% at a time when blockbuster generally drop 50% or more in their second week.
SOURCE: Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release, 1913-2017 (McFarland, 2019).