When Roadshow Ruled

The 70mm roadshow didn’t rule for long, in reality just over a decade. Beginning with Ben-Hur in the final month of 1959, the peak came six years later with the double whammy of The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago. But towards the end of the 1960s flops outweighed hits and the youthquake of Easy Rider (1969) spelled the end of audience acceptance of excessively-budgeted pictures.

But there was nothing new about roadshows. By the time the likes of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) hove into view the concept was already half a century old. Initially, the term came from the stage, from the travelling troupes taking a famous play from city to city, in essence taking a “show” on the “road.” A similar principle applied to the first big-budget pictures. Prints were limited and so one print would tour a wide area, moving on only after demand had been sated.

Roadshow anomaly – sent out on general relase in the U.S. but given
the proper roadshow treatment in Europe.

It was a premium-priced concept and to make it sound even grander the audience could book in advance for separate performances. For Neptune’s Daughter (1914), showing in Chicago, the adverts proclaimed “every seat reserved $0.25 and $0.50” at time when going to the movies usually cost less than a dime (10 cents). The Birth of a Nation (1915) – seats topping out at $2 on its New York debut – was the most celebrated roadshow by dint of being the most successful movie of era.

Roadshow became shorthand for a movie trying to make a big splash, Gone with the Wind (1939) the best example, but it faded in and out of fashion and by the 1950s only a handful of pictures including the Cinerama series, Oklahoma (1955),The Ten Commandments (1956), War and Peace (1956), Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and South Pacific (1958) took this route. These films were being made in 35mm or its widescreen equivalent.

But when MGM’s massive gamble on the 70mm presentation of Ben-Hur paid off big style, the other studios took heed. It wasn’t just the size of the screen but the length of the picture. Audiences accustomed to watching double-bills were more than satisfied with an epic.

And where going to the movies was still for many a relatively inexpensive weekly habit, attending a roadshow was on a different level – an event – akin to a night on Broadway, with all the extra cost that entailed: pre-show cocktails, perhaps dinner, babysitter, a brochure, parking and candy or popcorn, not to mention perhaps a new dress.  (Anyone who moans about the high price of going to the movies these days, just remind them it was a fraction of the cost of buying a ticket to a roadshow.)

Even accounting for an odd failure like Can-Can (1960), Cimarron (1960) and The Alamo (1960), the next few years opened up a box office gusher from the likes of Spartacus (1960), Exodus (1960), West Side Story (1961), Kings of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Longest Day (1962) and Cinerama pair How the West Was Won (1962) and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Even the budget escalation on Cleopatra (1963) did not prevent the movie doing huge business, and eventually it would turn a sizeable profit.

The all-star cast – some starrier than others – became synonymous with the roadshow.  Some stars with waning marquee value suddenly found their fees rising as they became an essential element of a supporting cast. And it often meant that a star-studded cast – Grand Prix (1966) springs to mind – did not require the presence of an out-and-out box office name.

Shown in 70mm in France and the rest of Europe, just not in the US.

Studios revelled in the double whammy of box office kudos and Oscar cachet. In six of the ten years, a roadshow took the coveted Best Picture Award, only one of these (A Man for All Seasons in 1966) not being made in 70mm. In addition, roadshows enjoyed longevity, not just remaining at one theater for six, seven, eight months, over a year in some cases, but gaining another marketing spurt when the movies went into wider release “at popular prices.”

Just as audiences appear to tire of historical epics, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Lord Jim (1965) among the more poorly-received, along came David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) to restore faith in the mini-genre while studios struck 70mm gold with musicals My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965).

Waiting and its marketing partner-in-crime, anticipation, had never been so effective. Unlike now, you could not just go and see a movie when you wanted. When virtually the global cinema system revolved around continuous performance – i.e. in favor of the audience – roadshow was separate performance which required a moviegoer to turn up at a specified time. And not necessarily a date of your choosing. Advance booking meant it might be months before you could find a free seat.

Roadshows provided ongoing advertising for such movies. Any big city cinema showing any roadshow would advertise its continued presence for as long as it ran. As a by-product that meant it was promoting said movie to a larger audience that could not afford premium pricing and would wait avidly until it turned up at a lower-priced local theater a year or two years later.

There were significant financial pros and cons. A roadshow could run for a considerable time in one prime cinema in a big city at peak prices, and while that distribution technique could result in bigger grosses, it also took longer to pay off while interest charges mounted.

And once the movies had played out their runs in roadshow and general release, they usually came back within five or six years for a wide reissue. That was usually a prelude to being sold and sold again – to television. Event pictures made for event television. The networks shifted their programming to accommodate these big movies, usually splitting them over two nights, and running them on peak evenings at peak times.

In the second half of the decade, despite huge revenues garnered by roadshows as diverse as Hawaii (1966), Grand Prix, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), the revamped Gone with the Wind (1939), Funny Girl (1968) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), bloated budgets were beginning to take their toll, and what had once been seen as the saviour of the industry increasingly spelled its financial doom.

Sharp changes in distribution and marketing saw an end to the earlier type of roadshow run. Patton (1970) was limited to a 16-week run anywhere with a general release scheduled immediately after in order to create a coordinated release pattern. The last roadshown picture of the era was Man of La Mancha in 1972.  While the curtain came down on the advance-booking-separate-performance juggernaut, films like The Godfather (1972), initially given restricted release, and The Towering Inferno (1974) would easily have fitted the pattern.

Apart from movies put into production with the specific aim of being launched as roadshow, Hollywood took advantage of the added hoopla roadshow provided to release, if only briefly, other movies in that fashion. Step forward Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and The Blue Max (1966). Other films expressly made for U.S. roadshow release found few takers or none. Khartoum (1966) and Ice Station Zebra (1968) fitted the former category; The Comedians (1967) and Isadora the latter.

Conversely, films that failed to gain any roadshow traction in the U.S. were welcomed as 70mm separate performance attractions – blown up from 35mm if necessary – elsewhere, The Great Race (1965), Cinerama pair Custer of the West (1967) and Krakatoa – East of Java (1968), Alistair MacLean duo Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Ice Station Zebra, and even The Wild Bunch (1969) enjoying extensive runs in British and European cinemas.

Some films roadshown in their country of origin were denied such a release pattern in the United States – Zulu (1964), The Battle of Britain (1969) and Alfred the Great (1969).

Of course directors still like to shoot in 70mm but it’s not quite the same without the curtains opening and closing, the overture, intermission and entr-acte. It’s not the event it once was. Lucky for me, the Bradford Widescreen Weekend operates in the prescribed fashion and once those curtains begin to open you know you are in for a whale of a long-forgotten time.

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.

4 thoughts on “When Roadshow Ruled”

  1. Back in the 60’s, I saw the Roadshow presentation of EL CID, THE LONGEST DAY, HOW THE WEST WAS WON, IT”s A MAD, MAD WORLD, CLEOPATRA, FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and DR. ZHIVAGO. I was just a kid but I liked most of them except for CLEOPATRA which bored me to tears.

    Liked by 2 people

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