In the days before computerised box office figures and the internet permitting easy access, fans of the sport had to make do with the weekly tallies in the “New York Showcase” section run every week in Variety. The “Showcase” was an early version of the wide release but instead of the 3,000-4,000 cinemas involved today in an opening week launch, movies would hit the Big Apple in 23-60 theaters. No matter the low theater count, it was still considered the most accurate prediction of how a movie would fare nationwide.
Some films opened straight into the showcase format, others ran day-and-date with a glossy opening on Broadway or a prestigious arthouse, and for a few this was the first step in general release after a roadshow run.
The same rules applied as today. A movie was retained for a further week only if the picture hit the target. Long runs were rare, two weeks the standard. As we shall see, some were movies making their 1969 debut while others were going wide after opening the previous year, the delay accounted for by holdover success in first run or Oscar recognition.
Just over 200 theaters took part in the showcase splurge, divided into five main strands generally through circuit or distributor affiliation plus one that brought together suburban arthouses. Not all the streams were in full-time operation, some weeks saw four new releases others six. Movies could count on losing theaters after the first week.
And, as with now, while overall receipts were the main factor, the per-theater gross could also offer up some indication of future performance.
The best single week’s take in 1969 was achieved by Dustin Hoffman comedy The Graduate which took $760,000 from 43 houses (per-theater average: $17, 674) followed very closely by Ali McGraw debut Goodbye, Columbus with $757,000 from 44 ($17, 204 per theatre). Steve McQueen thrill-ride Bullitt nabbed $684,000 from 45 ($15,200). In fact all three pictures placed twice in the single-week top ten.
Others flying high, at least for one week, were: Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice ($540,000 from 48), True Grit ($531,000 from 49), Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel ($522,000 from 42), psychedelic outing The Trip ($520,000 from 49), sexploitationer Fanny Hill ($506,000 from 42), The Boston Strangler ($481,000 from 38) and I Am Curious Yellow ($480,000 from 40).
By contrast, at the other end of the heap, Marlon Brando in Night of the Following Day could only manage $125,000 from 31, The Assassination Bureau scraped up $82,000 from 22, Elliott Gould in Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch hit $48,000 from 26 while Michael Caine performed abysmally, Play Dirty knocking up just $91,000 from 24, The Magus $80,000 from 20, The Battle of Britain tumbling stratospherically from $366,000 from 32 one week to $101,000 from 27 the next.
But the showcase system also breathed life into arthouse hits attempting to break out into a wider marketplace. John Cassavettes’ Faces rocked up $469,000 in three weeks, Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour $329,000 over the same period, Brian De Palma’s Greetings $263,000 in a fortnight while one week of Robert Downer Snr.’s Putney Swope registered $205,000.
Reissues were also prime fodder to stoke up a distribution system creaking at the seams due to lack of new product. Gone with the Wind (1939) was the plum, $658,000 in three weeks. Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson (1960) chopped down $418,000 in two and Clint Eastwood pair A Fistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More – both released Stateside in 1967 – $279,000 in a fortnight. More usually, reissues lasted just a week, filling a gap in the annual program.
Even so, they could pull in some decent numbers: Peter Pan (1953) grossing $300,000, Sidney Poitier double bill Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)/To Sir, With Love (1967) $272,000, perennial favorite The Sound of Music $230,000, Rosemary’s Baby (1968)/The Odd Couple (1968) $215,000, James Bond dualer Goldfinger (1964)/Dr No (1962) $162,000, another Eastwood pair The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1967)/Hang ‘Em High (1968) $155,000 and a lengthy coupling of Planet of the Apes (1968)/ Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) $115,000.
The overall winner in the annual New York Showcase stakes was The Graduate which over a five-week run grossed $2.24 million. Bullitt was the runner-up with $1.99 million over six weeks, though the last sally was in a double bill with Bonnie and Clyde. Goodbye, Columbus came third with $1.95 million over four weeks. Romeo and Juliet lasted a record eight weeks to pocket $1.69 million. Fifth was Swedish sensation I Am Curious Yellow on $1.28 million after five weeks.
After playing first run for the best part of six months Rachel, Rachel hit the showcases following an Oscar nomination for Joanne Woodward, bringing in $1.08 million over three weeks. Another anomaly was I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, such a flop the previous year it was ranked 78th in the annual box office race, but now emerging as a showcase front-runner with $1.03 million over five weeks.
Eighth spot went to The Boston Strangler ($932,000 in three weeks) followed by Charly – Oscar win for Cliff Robertson – on $910,000 for six weeks. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was tenth with $900,000 in two weeks – the western had launched at the tail end of the year and did so well it ran for another five weeks in 1970 to capture an extra $1.5 million.
Filling out the top twenty were, in order, Easy Rider, Ice Station Zebra, The Night They Raided Minsky’s, The Wild Bunch, Popi, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, True Grit, Oliver!, Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice and Fanny Hill.
In general terms, New Yorkers response to showcase releases was mirrored throughout the country. The majority of the high-flying films mentioned ending up in the annual box office top 20. But there were some anomalies. Rachel, Rachel had finished the previous year in 37th place in the annual chart, hardly suggesting it was prime candidate for an exceptional showcase run. The Night They Raided Minsky’s came only 32nd in the 1969 chart. Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice did not earn enough around the country to qualify for inclusion on the annual chart. And, frankly, I’m mystified as to why I Love You, Alice B. Toklas did so well.
By contrast Paul Newman racing picture Winning performed so indifferently in the New York showcase that for the final two weeks of its three-week run it was bolstered by John Wayne oil adventure The Hellfighters, yet it ran out 16th for the year. Three in the Attic (18th in 1969) and Support Your Local Sheriff (20th) failed to match expectations in New York.
2 thoughts on “New York Showcase: 1969 Box Office Race”
Whatever happened to Alice and the Graduate were most memorable for me that year. I lived next door to several potential Claires! Ruth Gordon and Geraldine Page made what could have been a B horror thriller movie into an A. Thanks for mentioning those glorious art house films! I’m still trying to make sense of S&G’s Mrs. Robinson song….
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I’ve not seen Alice since but am looking forward to seeing it again. Graduate was the number two box office film for the enitre decade so not quite arthouse though it definitley has that feel. Mrs Robinson is a twisty number. As a famous poet once said you’re not meant to understand it, just enjoy it.
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