How Old Bond Changed New Hollywood

These days you need the impetus of an anniversary or the accompaniment of a live orchestra for an old movie to do the rounds on the big screen apart from perennials like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) at Xmas and Casablanca (1942) on St Valentine’s Day. In attempting to turn a revival into an “event” these are mostly treated as one-screening-only affairs such as was the case with Dr No (1962) on the occasion of its 60th anniversary. While that milestone marked the birth of the Bond phenomenon, it ignored another landmark, one that played a significantly more important role in the 1960s than virtually any other picture – the rebirth of the reissue/revival.

For the first James Bond double bill Dr No/From Russia with Love which appeared in 1965 in the wake of Goldfinger (1964) created a new market for old pictures, triggered the “threeissue” bonanza, boosted the coffers of virtually every studio in Hollywood and saved many an exhibitor from the perennial product shortage.

Quite how momentous this particular double bill was can be seen from the fact that no reissue beyond Gone with the Wind (1939), irregularly revived, had ever featured in the annual top ten at the box office. Dr No/From Russia with Love was the first oldie ever to reach fifth on the annual rankings, beaten in the 1965 year-end chart only by Mary Poppins (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Goldfinger (1964) and My Fair Lady (1964). It earned more than Peter Sellers-Peter O’Toole smash What’s New Pussycat (1965), James Stewart in Shenandoah (1965), Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in The Sandpiper (1965), Cary Grant comedy Father Goose (1965), Frank Sinatra war picture Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and comedy western Cat Ballou (1965).

Reissues had come to rescue of beleaguered studios in a major fashion several times before, most recently in 1948 and 1952 but in the 1960s exhibitors were wary of giving old movies a big-screen berth for fear that this was a mere prelude to an appearance on television and being faced with angry moviegoers duped into paying for a film they could have seen a few months later for nothing. So except for the umpteenth revival of Gone with the Wind in 1961, and Bridge over the River Kwai (1957) re-released in the wake of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)  in 1964, few reissues had been welcomed by the marketplace.

In fact, there was no solid reason to bring back either of the first two Bond pictures in the United States, if judged by their initial box office. The sensational figures achieved in Britain were not repeated across the Atlantic, Dr No bringing in just $2 million in rentals, From Russia with Love double that, but neither in the box office ballpark that might automatically justify a rerun. In fact, both pictures had already been re-booked in cinemas, and as double-bills, though not with each other, but engagements of From Russia with Love/The Definat Ones, Dr No/The Manchurian Candidate and Dr No/Toys in the Attic elicited such low response the experiments were quickly terminated.

Nor was the idea precipitated by Goldfinger hitting the mother lode on its U.K. launch. What made United Artists executives in Hollywood sit up were not Goldfinger’s whopping figures.  In the same week, however, that Goldfinger opened in London’s West End at the Odeon Leicester Square, Dr No was re-booked into the Leicester Square Theatre across the street and From Russia with Love into the Pavilion just around the corner. Neither oldie impinged on the audience for the new Bond, instead attracting their own avid moviegoers, desperate for a second chance to see the films that kicked off the whole phenomenon. In due course, Dr No and From Russia with Love were shunted onto the Rank circuit where they played as a double bill to great success.

When the double bill was announced as a prospective program in the United States, exhibitors were beating down UA’s door, despite the stiff terms demanded, a 60 per cent share of the receipts. That was an extraordinarily high sum for a reissue, especially one that would allow exhibitors time for only one showing every evening rather than the two showings afforded a single bill.

Unlike Britain, UA was disinclined to run the risk of the two oldies cannibalising demand for Goldfinger. So the double bill was held back until April 1965, five months after Goldfinger had opened, long enough for that picture to have been milked in first run, and long enough also for it to act as an effective trailer for the new pairing.

The double roared out of the traps, collaring, in first-run single-cinema opening-week debuts, $57,000 in Chicago, $42,000 in Philadelphia, $40,000 in Dallas, and $36,000 in Cleveland. The Bond reissue bandwagon proved unstoppable. These were the kind of figures attained by box office  home runs. Second weeks drops were relatively small. The double bill grossed $1.3 million (equivalent to $11.9 million today) from 103 cinemas in its first week. When it entered multiple run in New York, the only film that did better over the course of the whole year was Goldfinger. From 26 houses Dr No/From Russia with Love gobbled up $649,000 – an incredible per-theatre-average even at 1965 prices – and the second week was $264,000. Total gross over four weeks: £1.29 million. Demand was so high that in June UA ran out of prints – 400 were in circulation. The Los Angeles showcase (multiple run) produced $647,000 in three weeks from a maximum of 30 houses.

The double bill notched up $8 million in rentals, virtually solid profit, since costs had long since been covered and the movies sold themselves. As much as UA realized that each new Bond film was a potential goldmine, so they also quickly understood the rich seam available from bringing back the older movies.  

UA tested out the new idea the following year, this time with Goldfinger/Dr No. The result was $4.6 million in annual rentals, enough for seventeenth spot in the annual chart. Further pairings appeared – Thunderball (1965)/From Russia with Love and Goldfinger/Dr No in the wake of You Only Live Twice (1967). UA took the double bill reissue to its logical conclusion by dualing the “Dollar” features – A Fistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars (both released in the U.S. in 1967) followed by Hang ‘Em High (1968)/The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (U.S release 1967). UA took the idea in a different direction by doubling up You Only Live Twice and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In fact, in 18 months between April 1968 and September 1969, UA sent its entire portfolio of Bond and ‘Dollar’ films back into the marketplace. The “threeissue” – a movie returning three times to cinemas in a short space of time – was born.

UA’s bounty created a new template for Hollywood, the opportunity to pair known winners  not long after the originals had first been seen, rather than the traditional delay of seven-to-ten years. For some studios this was films with an Oscar link – Columbia’s Cat Ballou and Ship of Fools (1965) combo racked up $1.3 million in rentals, Warner Brothers with Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Wait until Dark (1967). For others the twinning was an attempt to prolong box office as with Bonnie and Clyde (1967)/Bullitt (1968) or arthouse breakouts like Belle de Jour (1967)/A Man and a Woman (1966).

In the 1970s when there was an even greater product famine the UA speedy reissue experiment was vital to studio finances. After initial release, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) generated $24.8 million in rentals from two separate reissues. Brought back three times were Billy Jack (1971) with an extra $25.2 million, The Exorcist (1973) with a bonus of $21.4 million and Blazing Saddles (1974) with $26.4 million.

In other words around $100 million in extra revenues from just four pictures in the 1970s thanks to studios adopting the speedy reissue template initiated by United Artists for James Bond. At a rough estimate additional rentals (i.e. the money paid straight into studio coffers)  from reissues in the 1960s and 1970s could easily have reached the half a billion mark.

SOURCE: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You. A History of the Hollywood Reissue 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016). Over 250,000 words devoted to the only history of the reissue.

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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