Selling Boris Karloff, Or At Least Trying To: Pressbook for “The Sorcerers” (1967)

Exhibitors measured a movie’s commercial potential in large part by the size and shape of the Pressbook. There was a correlation between a studio’s marketing budget and box office expectation.

This was the era of the 16-page A3 (twice size of a sheet of A4 paper) Pressbook/Campaign Manual that would contain what a cinema manager required to make the most of the picture through newspaper exploitation. This included snippets that would be passed on as nuggets for the editor of the entertainment section – incidents that occurred on set, details of location, hitherto unknown facts about the stars, interesting quotes – and for the newspaper’s non-editorial section that came in the form of a series of  different advertisements, six or seven not unusual.

These adverts were core to what you might see in your local newspaper. The cinema manager simply cut out the preferred size of advert – they were offered a huge range of sizes that often took up to half the Pressbook – and handed that in to the newspaper which duly, with cinema name attached, used it to make up the printed ad.

The point of the A3 Pressbook was to accommodate ads that size (11.7 x 16.5 inches / 297 x 420mm) and encourage the cinema manager to consider paying for such a hefty space in a newspaper. Beginning with the giant size indicated studio confidence, which, it hoped, the cinema manager would match. Of course, should he or she not, then there was a wealth of smaller-sized ads – which might themselves start at roughly A4  (8.3 x 11.7 inches / 210 x 297mm) that the cinema manager might feel more appropriate to the picture house’s marketing budget.

The various ads accommodated a number of different taglines and images, so that a cinema manager could choose the best one for targeting their specific audience – most commonly, for example. an action picture might be sold on the love interest.

The Sorcerers was released in the U.S. by Allied Artists. Once a big name, producing Friendly Persuasion in 1956, it had now fallen on harder times and largely reverting to its Monogram origins except for a financial boost from the unexpected success of the French-made A Man and a Woman (1966). Whatever imapct that had on Allied’s coffers did not translate into expenditure on the Pressbook for The Sorcerers. Cinema mangers would not have been filled with any great confidence. In size and in the advertisement material it did not shout box office winner.

This is an ad from the British campaign which showed more originality than in the U.S.

The Pressbook was 8-pages A4, of which more than half was advertisements, one full-page A4. But there was only, effectively, one ad, though presented over five pages in twelve different sizes, from the aforementioned A4 down to what would be little more than a slug, one inch running the width of one newspaper column (about two inches).

Boris Karloff’s brooding features, intercut with a man knifing a woman, dominate the advert. There is a tagline: “He turns them on…he turns them off…to live…love…die or KILL!” At the foot of the ad is a montage of young things, dancing, kissing, a girl in backless dress the height of the titillation portrayed. The rest of the near-dozen adverts are all exactly the same, with, as the adverts grow smaller, bits of the main ad dropped out.

The problem with marketing any film starring Boris Karloff was the actor himself. Although a legendary name in movies thanks to Frankenstein, that career-making role had been three decades before and anyone who had seen it in the 1960s had done so on television where it was shorn of a lot of its power. Karloff had only intermittently popped up in horror movies during the 1960s, most recently in Die, Monster, Die (1965).

Director Michael reeves (left) with Tony Tenser of Tigon and Karloff.

Karloff was not, to put it mildly, a major marquee attraction. And part of the reason was his determination not to be typecast. So, in the 1940s and 1950s he was more likely to be seen on stage, in Arsenic and Old Lace or The Lark, for example, or on television. He only made eight movies during the 1950s.

There had been some kind of horror comeback in 1963 with The Raven, The Terror, Black Sabbath and The Comedy of Terrors, but since then movie appearances had been sparse. And, of course, for an actor of his age, there was nothing new to say, although perhaps just to remind people that he had been born William Henry Pratt in England.

None of the other performers were remotely well-known. Ian Ogilvy had supporting roles in She Beast (1966) and Stranger in the House / Cop-Out (1967). Elizabeth Ercy had small parts in Doctor in Clover / Carnaby M.D. (1966) and Fathom (1967). Each was given an one-eighth page biography. Despite directing She Beast, Michael Reeves wasn’t mentioned at all.

The company you keep. Tigon’s line-up for 1967.

So you get the distinct impression from the Pressbook that it’s Karloff or nothing and since the actor, as noted, was hardly a major player, nobody was going to much trouble to sell the picture.

The Pressbooks I’ve presented in previous features in the Blog have all had considerably more going for them, but this was the downside of the movie business. When there wasn’t much to sell, the distributor wasn’t going to waste his money trying to achieve the impossible.

The Pressbook, printed in 1967, did not appear to achieve any success. The movie did not win a single first run or showcase booking in any of the major cities whose box office was reported by Variety magazine. However, in July 1968, the film was awarded the Grand Prix at the Trieste Sci Fi Festival, with Elizabeth Ercy named Best Actress. That did not appear to brighten the movie’s prospects.

But in 1969, it turned up at the bottom of two horror triple bills. In Boston in first run at the Center it grossed $7,000 (Variety, February 19, 1969, p8) supporting Island of the Doomed (1967) and Castle of Evil (1966). In Los Angeles in a Karloff triple, it was topped in the billing by The Comedy of Terrors and The Raven, earning a decent $110,000 from 12 houses. (Variety, April 30, 1969, p8), it was top-billed in first run in Chicago taking in a “neat” $5,500 at the Monroe (Variety, October 15, 1969, p8).

But it’s possible these few bookings and doubtless others on the drive-in circuits and in smaller towns might still have helped turn a profit on the picture since it only cost $210,000 to make in the first place.

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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