Behind the Scenes: When Box Office Booms, United Artists 1968

Without a James Bond to guarantee a winner, major studio United Artists invested so wisely in production in 1968 that it virtually doubled its investment. From 30 films costing a total of $60 million, the studio hit the target with rentals of $115 million.

This was in large part due to a relative newcomer, a certain Clint Eastwood. UA’s share of the costs of the final film in the Sergio Leone trilogy The Good, The Bad and the Ugly had amounted to just $972,000 and that bought it the distribution rights to most of Europe, the US and the rest of the world. The picture was a hit Stateside with $5.2 million in rentals (the studio share of box office gross once the cinema had taken its cut) and it took in another $5 million at the global ticket wickets. The grand total of $10.2 million was ten times the cost, and this was before Easy Rider the following year made cost-to-profit ratio a significant measure of success.

But UA had also forked out $1.67 million to make Eastwood’s first American western, Hang ‘Em High directed by Ted Post with Inger Stevens as the female lead.  That racked up just over $6 million in the domestic market with another $3 million overseas, totalling $9.04 million.

But whereas those in the know, based on returns for the first two spaghetti westerns, could have predicted a solid audience response to the Clint Eastwood duo, that was hardly the case for a low-budget comedy with two stars whose movie careers had largely derailed.

Although a major star on television thanks to I Love Lucy, and a considerable power in television production – her company Desilu produced Mission Impossible, Star Trek and The Untouchables –  Lucille Ball was a spent force in the movies. She hadn’t made a picture in five years – Critic’s Choice (1963) flopped – and only two in the last decade. While still in demand, Henry Fonda was more likely to play second lead – to Richard Widmark in Madigan (1968) or James Stewart in Firecreek (1968) – or a supporting role in a big budget film and on those rare occasions when he was top-billed, Welcome to Hard Times (1967), the movie flopped.

Yours, Mine and Ours was based on a non-fiction best-seller, a melding of gigantic proportions of two families, totalling a dozen children. The comic opportunities were obvious to writer-director Melville Shavelson, back on home ground after Israeli war epic Cast a Giant Shadow (1966). A feel-good comedy without any sex was what Disney did, not a studio known for breaking boundaries. If nobody expected much, even if Ball could drag in her television fans, Hollywood had forgotten about the forgotten audiences, the older generation left out in the cold by the spate of movies mainlining on sex and violence. It proved the ideal antidote to the previous year’s The Graduate.

Made for just $1.7 million (plus $455,000 deferred, payable only if the movie went into the black) it was outrageously successful, knocking up $13 million in global rentals. Foreign audiences were less taken but by then nobody cared for it had scored over $11 million in rentals in the U.S, placing ninth in the annual box office league.

Although it cost considerably more – $4.3 million – UA pulled out another plum with Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway romantic thriller The Thomas Crown Affair which ransacked the global box office to the tune of $11.2 million in rentals.

Whereas, excepting the latter, all these had been low-budget gambles, UA took an almighty risk with musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the closest it came to James Bond given they shared the same author in Ian Fleming. Dick Van Dyke was in Mary Poppins form, but co-star Shirley Anne Howe was no Julie Andrews. The budget was a whopping $11.9 million, more than double the cost of its next most expensive production, The Charge of the Light Brigade. It just about sneaked home, earning rentals of $14.8 million. While, technically, the studio’s biggest hit at the box office, in terms of profit it lagged way behind.

Another risky venture was war film The Devil’s Brigade starring an out-of-favor William Holden who hadn’t had a hit since the start of the decade. Budgeted at $4.7 million there were some anxious moments at UA HQ when the domestic tally was just $3.85 million but audiences overseas were more welcoming and, in the end, the global tally of $8.6 million made it a certified hit. 

The $3 million spent, respectively, on comedy The Party starring Peter Sellers and western The Scalphunters with Burt Lancaster also hit the profit lode, the former with a global pot of $4.5 million, the latter $4.75 million.

There was also shrewd investment in overseas films. Beatles animated feature Yellow Submarine torpedoed $3.6 million on a budget of $1.1 million. British coming of age sex drama Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush cost just $602,000 but pulled in $2.5 million. A couple of French arties hit home runs. Claude Lelouche’s Vivre Pour Vivre with Yves Montand and Candice Bergen racked up $4.4 million but cost only $561,000 and Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black brought in rentals of just over $2 million on a budget of $747,000.

Out of 30 films, 17 ended up in profit, which was a pretty good result for an industry that was about to hit the financial buffers from overspending. With budgets averaging just $2 million the studio reduced the risk factor. While UA had built a successful business in the 1950s and 1960s by paying top dollar to stars, ceding control and financing vanity projects, now it was less inclined to gamble on unproven marquee value. Only Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Burt Lancaster, Peter Sellers and William Holden had the kind of box office track record that would have studios lining up to match their fees. 

SOURCE: “United Artists Corporation and Subsidiaries Motion Picture Negative Costs for Pictures Released in the Year Ended December 28, 1968,” United Artists Files, University of Wisconsin.

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.

7 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: When Box Office Booms, United Artists 1968”

    1. There were virtually no reports in the likes of Variety about the global box office back in the day. If it wasn’t a hit in the U.S. it was usually deemed a flop. I think somewhere I’ve got stats on the overseas box office for movies in the 1940s.


  1. I wasn’t aware of the Lucille Ball picture you write about and it’s an interesting example of the ‘family film’ model that Disney perfected. Your research material is extensive and well worth exploring. I’m a little confused by your reference to UA as to how it had become successful in the 50s and 60s by “paying top dollar to stars, ceding control and financing vanity projects, [but] now it was less inclined to gamble on unproven marquee value”. My understanding is that UA became successful post the 1948 Paramount decree because it had never been a producing studio with its own cinemas to fill and therefore had developed strategies to work with independents including those stars/directors who formed their own companies. Most of these were not ‘vanity productions’. During the 1950s and 60s the company gradually changed as Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin finally pulled out and it became a more orthodox film business, going public in 1957. As you demonstrate, it was a very different company in 1968.


    1. Apologies for the delay in my response. Actually UA did have cinemas in the US. Not as many as the bigger studios. It did so in order to have screens to trade. and cinemas in which to guarantee a world premiere. The bulk of studio ownership was regional in the US so they tended to swap with each other for prime sites for their biggest movies. Pickford and Chaplin were well out of the picture by the time of the early 1950s takeover by the Arthur Krim mob. But UA was a very curious beast because basically it made its money by being a distributor. A distributor took 30% of the rental before anyone else saw a penny. A film that took in $15m in rentals say that cost $12m would leave UA sitting pretty because they would first of all recover the cost then pick up $3m in distributor fees. They were more interested in gross than profit. But in the 1950s the only reason they attracted top talent was, like Cannon later on and others trying to break into the big leagues, they were willing to pay much more than the going rate. You can see from the movies the studio made in 1968 compared to 1959, for example, that they were not so reliant on big stars or directors.


  2. Thanks for this. My query was only really to ask about the ‘vanity projects’ you mention. Could you give some examples? I’m also grateful for the comments on post-1948 distribution/exhibition but this probably isn’t the place to explore them in detail.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was thinking mostly of that period in the 1950s when actors seemed to think they were better at picking their own projects than studios and so went around setting up their own production companies. John Wayne had Batjac and you could argue that The Alamo was the ultimate vanity project. Gregory Peck had Brentwood but those films lost money. UA gave up on Kirk Douglas because too many of the pictures the studio invested in didn’t come to fruition. The best example was Yul Brynner. He convinced UA he was a one-man movie mogul and they financed him to make 11 pictures but of these only The Magnificent Seven went into production and not as originally planned with him as director but with him off the production end entirely and only involved as a paid hand.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting. I didn’t know or had forgotten about these names as independent producers. I was more aware of the Lancaster-Hecht Productions etc. I thought for one horrible moment that I might have seen The Alamo, but I’m fairly sure I saw Fess Parker as Davy Crocket: King of the Wild Frontier (1955) as my 7th birthday treat – there is an episode around the The Alamo battle.


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