When Roadshow Didn’t Rule

When two pictures made in the Cinerama process – Custer of the West (1967) and Krakatoa East of Java (1968) – didn’t make it onto the U.S. roadshow circuit, the industry was in shock.

There were two reasons for the unexpected decision – distribution logjam and cash flow. For a start you needed deep pockets not just to launch a movie in roadshow but to keep it there bearing in mind the ongoing outlay in interest costs for the production and the longer advertising schedule. That is, if you could find enough available cinemas.

Although there was still a production shortage as far as the general cinema marketplace went, that was not the case for first run. By 1967, studios were not dependent on roadshow for hits. In 1966, only one roadshow featured in the box office top ten. In 1967, the number rose to three. But that still meant the vast majority of first run movie theaters never ran short of product, especially when, should all the regular roadshow houses be already taken, they might be called upon to host a roadshow for a month or two.

Some movies – The Blue Max (1966), for example – which had not been made with roadshow in mind, were launched in a handful of cinemas as roadshow for prestige purposes. Conversely, other movies, produced with the express aim of being released in the roadshow format, skipped that element of the distribution chain and went straight into general release. The Great Race (1965) was shown in hard-ticket only in the Pantages in Los Angeles, but first run general release elsewhere. In Harm’s Way (1965) lasted just one day in roadshow.

But neither had been made in Cinerama which was considered the bedrock of the advance-booking separate-performance high-ticket-priced roadshow. There were two problems with that format and that company. The first was that cinemas equipped to show Cinerama were far fewer than those who could accommodate roadshow, so if they were full to capacity with existing pictures, opportunities to open elsewhere were not only limited but undesirable.

The second was that while in the past major studios had lined up to use the Cinerama format for their movies – Warner Brothers for Battle of the Bulge (1965), MGM for Grand Prix (1966), for example – now Cinerama had decided the company was best served by it taking control of output rather than sharing potential profit with anyone else.

Rather than simply licensing its film-making and projection equipment to studios and cinemas, respectively, and taking a small percentage of picture grosses and a fee for every ticket sold, Cinerama embarked on a bolder strategy. It would turn into a major production outfit – the dozen movies in its first tranche included, as well as the two roadshows, Charly, Shalako, The High Commissioner/Nobody Runs Forever, Candy and Stiletto. It also aimed to virtually double the number of cinemas equipped to show Cinerama, so there would be no shortage of roadshow outlets for its most prestigious pictures productions, and set up its own global distribution system.

But since Cinerama no longer had alliances with major studios, and in fact was now hellbent on competing with them, it lost those studios’ relationships with the big roadshow cinemas in New York and Los Angeles. There were only two houses in New York equipped with Cinerama, and Warner owned one and MGM had an almost symbiotic partnership with the other – Loews. That meant no place initially for Custer of the West.

But there was another option. Open it overseas. Roadshows often played for longer in European capitals than they did in New York or Los Angeles and those cities were often inclined, when demand was at its highest, to switch a big first run house into a roadshow theater.

And there was precedent. MGM had opened How the West Was Won (1962) in the Casino Cinerama in London ahead of its Stateside roadshow release. The Cinerama western had cleaned up, record takings, a massive run into the bargain, all serving to heighten expectation across the Atlantic. So, Cinerama opened Custer of the West in that cinema with top seats costing $3.50 and separate performances (two a day, three at the weekend) and to initial public and critical success.

The much-touted “record” opening week disguised the fact that the only record it took down, and then only by $200, was that of How the West Was Won five years previously; Battle of the Bulge’s opening salvo of $41,608 remaining intact. In any case ticket sales soon tailed off and Cinerama had second thoughts about the cost and wisdom of opening it in roadshow in the U.S. especially when the lack of theaters would produce further delay.

So it took another strategic, possibly perilous, route in deciding to miss out New York and Los Angeles – and Boston and Chicago for that matter – from its initial roadshow roll-out. The assumption was that big box office elsewhere would soon have New York and LA houses queuing up. The film’s U.S. premiere took place in Dallas and Houston on January 24 and it managed another 15 roadshow bookings in the months following.

Except for a “big” $15,000 in Detroit, the other opening week results were so soft – “fairish” $8,500 in Cincinnati, “just okay” $7,000 in Kansas City, $4,000 in Portland which was less than the previous week’s run-of-the-mill picture – the studio called for a rethink. “Due to spotty out of town dates thus far it seems an unlikely bet for New York roadshowing,” opined Variety. And so it proved. Cinerama promoted its general release as “direct from reserved-seat engagements” but it fared little better, a “thin” $171,000 from 34 houses in its first New York salvo.

With none of its ambitious slate beyond Charly striking box office gold, Cinerama tore up the rule book for Krakatoa East of Java. In some respects it followed the launch template of Custer of the West with the movie being seen first overseas, world premiere this time in Japan, six months ahead of the May 1969 U.S. opening. But the London launch, at the Astoria – where it ran for nearly six months – came after, on July 31, not before.

But there was clearly an unwillingness to risk all in roadshow. So, Cinerama came up with a clever compromise. While not strictly speaking entering roadshow in that it abandoned advance booking and high ticket prices, it stuck to separate performances but, to compensate for potential loss in box office receipts, operated on four performances daily rather than two. Cinerama called this “scheduled performances” and it was somewhere between roadshow and general release. But it was initially screened in Cinerama in those houses equipped with the projection equipment and only after those semi-hard-ticket bookings were complete did it enter general release.

Even without roadshow, the movie exploded onto screens on opening weeks – a “big” $60,000 in New York (and $55,000 in the second week), a record-breaking $31,764 (and $36,345 in week three) at the Pacific Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, a “giant” $50,000 in Cleveland, “hotsy” in Detroit with $36,000, $22,000 in Denver and a “mighty” $18,000 in Washington.

Between the Dome (a genuine roadshow with 14 performances a week) in Los Angeles and the Broadway Cinerama (the hybrid with double the performances per week) in New York it grossed $1.2 million. Overall, the various hard-ticket strands kept the movie on screens for most of the summer and into the autumn before a general release targeted for Thanksgiving and Xmas kept up the box office heat.

The studio put an unusually hefty marketing push behind the general release. Having gone round the houses, literally, once with promotional ideas, the company rejigged the best ideas and brought in new suggestions. But, basically, the word to new exhibitors was to learn from successful strategies used in the semi-hard-ticket release. “Rather than rest on its laurels,” the studio packaged the best ideas into a six-page A4 advert and stuck in in Box Office magazine. It knew what worked and just wanted to repeat and expand the process.

One of the marketing coups for the New York launch had been a giant outdoor sign in Times Square, at 265ft long and 62ft high the largest ever designed. The film’s artwork employed in this fashion attracted the attention of thousands of passers-by and served as an example of how the marketing material could work, even if on a smaller scale.

Exhibitors were instructed to target department or chain stores. The launch had found ready cooperation not just from Macy’s but discount store White Front, specially chosen to promote the “price reduction” idea, of a big movie at low prices. It was standard practice for roadshows going into general release to be advertised as “now at regular prices” but the idea of harnessing the mindset of a discount chain, associated with low prices, set a precedent.

There were the obvious routes – tie-ups with record stores and bookshops for the soundtrack and the Signet paperback – but the studio had also made available a reprint of an article on the Krakatoa eruption from Reader’s Digest magazine in 1946, and provided a Teacher’s Guide for schools. Educational avenues were heavily explored, and what teacher would not have an eager audience of young kids to be taught a lesson about volcanoes.

Where the semi-hard-ticket launch had secured the presence of Miss Java, it was suggested that local exhibitors should try and find someone of Indonesian origin, perhaps an exchange student at a local college, to participate in the local screenings. Pearls and balloons, intricate parts of the movie’s narrative, had been used in a big way for the launch, but still lent themselves to simpler exploitation, fake pearls could be given away and colorful balloons if a weather balloon could not be located nearby. The extra effort that went into the general release paid off.

The New York showcase popped a “smash” $430,000 from 31 houses. The company reissued Krakatoa East of Java and Custer of the West in a giant “East Meets West” double bill in 1971 in advance of the television prmeiere of the former two years later.

Overall, while Custer of the West was considered a flop in the U.S., Krakatoa East of Java qualified as a hit of modest proportions, and both movies did well globally. But by 1969, setting aside the $18 million it cost to turn Cinerama into a genuine studio with its own distribution arm, the company had turned a financial corner, and in 1970 income had soared to $46 million – up from $12 million – and there was at last a profit ($3.2 million) instead of a loss ($660,000).

Exactly how much Custer of the West and Krakatoa East of Java contributed to the overall turnaround is impossible to determine because for some arcane reason the studio refused to reveal rental figures even though it had been happy to supply them for other movies which had contributed to the uplift such as Candy, Charly and The Killing of Sister George.

Most film historians point to the flop of several big-budget pictures as the reason for the demise of the roadshow, but just as likely was the move by Cinerama to shift away from the roadshow format in favor of its hybrid, which retained some of the “special event” aspects of the roadshow release while pushing ahead on the more commercial approach of lower prices matched by more daily performances, effectively attempting to bring in revenue at a faster speed, which would be the determined aim of studios in the following decade. The Godfather (1972) might be considered the classic imitator.

SOURCES: Kim R. Holston, Movie Roadshows, A History and Filmography of Reserved-Seat Limited Showings 1911-1973 (McFarland, 2013) p266-267; “Custer Pulls a Record $33,245 in London Bow,” Variety, November 22, 1967, p13; “Cinerama Sanguine on Custer After London; Gets U.S. Roadshowing,” Variety, November 22, 1967, p13; “New York Sound Track,” Variety, February 14, 1968, p18; “N.Y. Roadshow Problem for This & Next Season with Theater Map Torn Apart,” Variety, March 29, 1968, p5;  Advert, Box Office, April 29, 1968, p1;  “Krakatoa – 3-Site Premiere in Tokyo,” Box Office, January 20, 1969, pE1; “Krakatoa in Paris,” Variety, January 29, 1969, p4; Advert, Variety, May 21, 1969, p35; Advert, Variety, June 11, 1969, p31; “Krakatoa Shuns Roadshow,” Variety, July 9, 1969, p15; “Krakatoa London Bow,” Variety, July 2, 1969, p34; “Picture Grosses,” Variety, July 2-16, 1969; “General Release Set for CRC’s Krakatoa,” Box Office, November 3, 1969, p9; “Merchandising The Picture, ” Box Office, November 17, 1969, p13-18; “New York Showcases,” Variety, December 3, 1969, p9; “West End,” Kine Weekly, January 3, 1970, p9;“Cinerama’s Big Year,” Variety, March 25, 1970, p4.

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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