How To Invent A Cult Movie: “Vanishing Point” (1971)

The easiest method to get a film designated a cult is to claim it was a flop on release but, hey presto, thereafter acquired a new following. Classic examples might include It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

According to Wikipedia, Vanishing Point fits that niche. Based on the testimony of star Barry Newman “Fox had no faith in the film and released it in neighborhood theaters only to disappear in less than two weeks.” But after it did much better overseas, the studio was prompted to reissue it as a supporting feature to The French Connection (1971). Subsequently, it produced rentals of $4.25 million. The “cult following” developed after a television showing in 1976.

How much of that is true? The short answer – none.

Vanishing Point preceded The French Connection into cinemas by a good six months. Twentieth Century Fox, which had just escaped bankruptcy, had cut down on budgets. Vanishing Point was one of 11 movies sent into production with budgets under $2 million, extremely small potatoes for a studio that had though nothing of spending upwards of $20 million on big budget musicals the previous decade. While costs of The French Connection  soared way above that initial ceiling to $3.3 million, Vanishing Point remained on budget which was a paltry $1.58 million.

The star of Vanishing Point wasn’t a star at all. Certainly not one you could build a marquee around. Barry Newman’s previous film The Lawyer (1970) hadn’t cost much to make either and it didn’t earn much. And Vanishing Point lacked the inbuilt counter-culture appeal of Easy Rider (1969) while studios were extremely reticent about trying to attract a youth audience after the disastrous showings of a stream of movies targeting that sector. The film had nothing in common with racing picture Le Mans headlined by huge star Steve McQueen and scheduled for a summer 1971 release with a big bucks marketing campaign.

Vanishing Point was released in the U.S. in March 1971 and followed an initial staggered distribution pattern running three months. Fox didn’t just rush it into nabes at all, as per Newman. The studio made a good stab at first-run. In New York it played the 1463-seat DeMille, in Denver the 1270-seat Centre, in Cleveland the 1560-seat Embassy, in Philadelphia the 1200-seat Milgrim, in Boston the 1685-seat Sack, in Seattle the 1870-seat Coliseum and in Minneapolis the 1077-seat Mann.

All were solid first run houses. The only cities where you would consider there were doubts about initial performance prospects were Pittsburgh, where it opened at the 235-seat Fulton Mini, and perhaps San Francisco (the 600-seat Regency) and Los Angeles (the 810-seat Vogue).

But except for Boston (a “hotsy” $30,000) and Los Angeles (a “zingy” $16,000), opening weeks were disappointing: a “slow” $3,400 in Cleveland and $4,500 in San Francisco, a “sluggish” $8,000 in Minneapolis at the lower end of the box office scale, but first run receipts in general did not get much higher. So the chances are a studio would be looking to write it off, and, given the miserly budget, not too worried about the size of the potential loss.

But it wasn’t a flop. It was received far better in nabes and drive-ins than in first run. And by the end of the year it was well into profit, taking $3.2 million in rentals, enough for 35th spot on the annual chart.

That put it not so far behind The French Connection ($6.1 million in rentals for the year) at this point. That Gene Hackman picture was a hit was not in question. And it was the kind of hit that didn’t require a supporting feature, certainly not while it was gobbling up box office in first run and being retained for months on end.

But by the end of 1971 Vanishing Point was also well into being a certifiable global hit. British audiences had a bigger yen for speed than their American counterparts. Bullitt (1968) had been one of the top films of the year but so had The Italian Job (1969) which had flopped in the U.S. So much so that new studio Cinema Center didn’t think it was much of a gamble to open Le Mans in London as a 70mm separate-performance roadshow (tickets $1.20-$3.60) at the 1994-seat Odeon March Arch.

Le Mans – opening salvo $29,000 – hit London West End three weeks ahead of Vanishing Point. Big star film vs movie with star of no consequence. Fox opened Vanishing Point at the 1994-seat Odeon Leicester Square on the same day in the West End as another action picture, equally with little in the way of a marquee star but with the decided bonus of being based on a thriller, Puppet on a Chain, by Alistair Maclean whose Where Eagles Dare (1968) had cleaned up in the UK.

There’s not a chance in hell of Fox being able to persuade the Rank circuit to hand over the jewel in its West End crown to a picture that had flopped in the U.S. Logic dictates that the only reason the Odeon Leicester Square would entertain Vanishing Point was because it had been an unexpectedly big hit in the U.S. In expectation of turning it in a first run success in Britain, there was perhaps a harder sell than in the U.S., coupled with the ability to roll it out quickly into suburban cinemas on a coordinated national release.  

Where critics in New York had been sniffy about Vanishing Point (just one favorable review), in London it received raves from 12 out of 14 of the top critics and it had been targeted asa prospect by the Berlin Film Festival.

London audiences went mad for action. Vanishing Point scooped an opening week $25,930. Puppet on a Chain dangled an impressive $19,800 at the 1004-seat London Pavilion. Le Mans kept up the heat with a fourth week of $24,900. Vanishing Point ran for another four weeks to excellent returns, before moving over for one week to the 2600-seat New Victoria and then into the 155-seat Cinecenta 2, still in the West End (in fact in a side street just off Leicester Sq), where it ran for another 12 weeks. On national release it performed well above average.  

Although banned in Australia on the grounds of “violence, incitement to crime and encouraging drug use,” it was a top performer in Europe, most notably in France where it was ranked 11th for foreign pictures during the year. In Japan the critics called it one of the top ten foreign films.

So, just taking into account its first year at the box office there is no way this could be classified as a dud.

But to everyone’s surprise it just kept going. Yes, in 1972, Fox did pair it with The French Connection but it also went out as support with The Other (1972)  and was top-billed in a reissue double bill with Valley of the Dolls (1967). And by the end of that year rentals had climbed to $4.25 million (the figure erroneously given by Wikipedia as its peak).

And kept going. In 1973 you could find it supporting Fox numbers The Last American Hero and The French Connection (again0 but also Columbia’s The Valachi Papers and Warner Bros’ Steelyard Blues. In 1974 it formed a reissue double bill with, separately, other Fox hits Mash (1970) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

Come 1975 and Fox decided on one big car-chase finale and it hit the road all over again in a reissue double bill with Peter Fonda-Susan George pedal-to-the-metal thieves Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), a combo that ran so well it snapped up bookings well into the following year.

By the time it was pulled out of cinemas U.S. rentals had topped $5 million, more than three times production costs, and probably the same again from foreign revenues.

So, nothing like a flop.

It didn’t, therefore, need to rely on a television screening for any kind of audience redemption. In fact, you would be hard put to call it cult on the evidence of its television screenings. The first year it was seen it ranked among the top 20 movies of the year, but the second time it placed 130th, hardly the sign of a movie that had grown in word-of-mouth. But it was exactly the kind of movie to benefit from the VHS/DVD explosion, where you could rent a movie to watch with your buddies. But the reason for that, most likely, was not that you had just heard of this picture, but that you had already checked it out in the cinema.

That it still commands an audience today is probably down to the fact that Barry Newman never became a big star and that as existential issues took greater precedence it fitted a new dynamic.

Wikipedia, hang your head in shame.

SOURCES: “Name of New Fox Game: Sane,” Variety, January 27, 1971, p3; “Alfred Bauer Yens 3 American Features,” Variety, March 10, 1971, p22; “New York Critics’ Opinions,” Variety, March 31, 1971, p5; “London Critics’ Opinions,” Variety, August 18, 1971, p7; “Native Pix Win 55% of French Mkt,” Variety, November 3, 1971, p27; “Big Rental Films of 1971,” Variety, January 5, 1972, p9;  “Aussie Censor Bans Five Films,” Variety, January 2, 1972, p24; “Best Picks in Japan Include 6 US Films,” Variety, February 2, 1972, p5; “All-Time Box Office Champs,” Variety, January 3, 1974, p34; “All Time Rentals,” Variety, January 7, 1976, p48; “All-Time Film Rental Champs,” Variety, January 5, 1977, p50; “Theatrical Movie Rankings,” Variety, August 7, 1977; “Theatrical Movie Rankings 1977-78,” Variety, 1978; Paul Zazarine, “Kowalski’s Last Ride,” Muscle Car Review, March 1986.

Box office as reported on Variety’s “Picture Grosses” and “London West End” pages on the following dates – 1971: March 24, March 31, April 7, April 28, May 5, May 12, May 26, June 2, June 16, June 30. August 18, August 25, September 15, December 3;  1972 – March 8, September 27, October 4; 1973 – January 10, March 26, May 2, August 8; 1974 – April 10, May 1; . bookings were sampled via Variety for 1975 and 1976.

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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