There Is Nothing Like a Flop

The only thing Hollywood liked better than whooping with delight over a hit was crowing with delight over a flop. In the 1960s you couldn’t move for hindsight. And far from it being the end of the decade that Hollywood was kicked in the financial teeth, mostly from over-investment in musicals, there was also a sea of red ink at the start.

Comparing budget with rentals returned to the studios (i.e. their share of the takings once cinemas had taken their cut of the box office gross) produced a league table that nobody wanted to scale.

Atop the pillar of shame, sitting on a monumental $18.1 million loss (reached by comparing budget to U.S. rentals – see Note below) was  the last of the Samuel Bronston epics, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), directed by Anthony Mann and starring Alec Guinness, Sophia Loren and Stephen Boyd.

You won’t be surprised to find Cleopatra (1963), driven to publicity heights by the ruckus over the adulterous affair of stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, in second place. If it hadn’t cost so much – $44 million – it might have easily turned a profit since box office rentals were a massive $26 million. But you can’t deny the arithmetic that meant this showed an $18 million shortfall, and therefore on paper a staggering flop.

Not far behind was Doctor Dolittle (1967), one of the biggest musical fiascos in an era of musical disasters. Although Oscar-winning Rex Harrison was the star, audiences couldn’t be persuaded it was anything more than a glorified Disney-style picture for children, and it lost $15.8 million.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) should have been the greatest box office story ever told had director George managed to inject a bit more humanity into the sanctimonious retelling. Without a box office miracle this came in short by $13.1 million.

And no prizes for guessing that Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), with Marlon Brando stranded on an island by Trevor Howard, found income did not go far enough to offset cost. It underperformed to the tune of $12.6 million..

Star! (1968) must have seemed like a safe bet given Julie Andrews’ last three musicals had turned hefty profits. But it was so off the pace that it fell $10.8 million shy of break-even.

Bond producer Harry Saltzman was astonished, not to say humiliated, to discover there was such little appetite Stateside for an all-star version of how The Battle of Britain (1969) was won. Hadn’t every Hollywood movie insisted that war pictures only succeeded with a prominent Yank in the cast?  One of the biggest hits of the year in Britain, it would still have to go some to overcome a $10 million discrepancy.

The problem with Hollywood was it was greenlighting projects that had to do phenomenal business just to reach a profit. And although Barbra Streisand’s debut Funny Girl (1968) had struck box office and critical gold, even she could not save Hello, Dolly! when it racked up such high costs. The downside was $8.8 million.

The unlikely casting of three non-singers – Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg – in the principal roles of Paint Your Wagon (1969) seemed an act of incalculable hubris, but surprisingly, the musical did better than expected, not enough to turn the corner into profit, but losses limited to $5.5 million in the U.S. part of the course.

In tenth place was a second Samuel Bronston miscalculation, 55 Days at Peking (1963). Why would American audiences be interested in an obscure war in China even if Charlton Heston took top-billing? Such disinterest ensured it fell $5 million short of the target.

Overruns on John Wayne’s pet project The Alamo (1960) meant he ended up in debt. His fans were disinclined to line up for a roadshow, which put the dampers on the launch. Hollywood was stunned that a John Wayne movie lost money – $4.1 million – it was such a career rarity.

Another Bond alumni Albert Broccoli took the financial tumble this time when Dick Van Dyke failed to work his Mary Poppins magic in another musical aimed more at children than adults, Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (1968).

Three other pictures ended up in the red as the result of over-expenditure. The Bible (1966) missed break-even by $3 million, Spartacus (1961) by $1.7 million, and another musical, Camelot (1967) starring non-singer Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave by $1 million.

But if Hollywood thought it had weathered the worst of the financial storm it was in for a shock the following year when top-heavy star vehicles hit the skits. Waterloo with Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer lost $23.6 million, The Molly Maguires with Sean Connery and Richard Harris $9.9 million and The Only Game in Town toplining Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty $8.5 million

NOTE: It’s entirely possible that once you calculated a movie’s long tail all these films turned profit. The foreign performance of films on initial release often out-grossed their domestic revenues, especially if roadshown in Europe. Revenue from half a century’s worth of countless television sales in countless countries followed by satellite, VHS, DVD, satellite, syndication, Blu-Ray and streaming had the potential to turn any loss into profit.  

But there was a proviso. Generally, what a television station paid for a movie depended on its initial gross, box office seen to be indicative of public demand – and of advertising interest . The leasing of Cleopatra first time round to U.S. television, for example, added an extra $3 million to the coffers but that small screen executives were willing to pay such a record sum was driven by the vast numbers that had seen it at the cinema. And, to a large extent, future response to these movies still appeared to depend of how well they had done or how well they were known – a long-term version of word-of-mouth – at the time of their initial release..

On initial global release Cleopatra probably closed the gap between profit and loss but I doubt that would be the case for The Fall of the Roman Empire or The Greatest Story Ever Told or Doctor Dolittle or Mutiny on the Bounty. While The Battle of Britain was a huge success in Britain and in countries belonging to the British Commonwealth, I doubt it went into the black. But something like Spartacus or Camelot or The Alamo or Paint Your Wagon, which ran for a year in roadshow in London, most certainly turned a profit on overall worldwide receipts.

SOURCE: “Big-Buck Scorecard 1956-1987,” Variety, January 20, 1088, p64, 66.

How the Box Office Was Won – 1963

Although the weekly computerized box office system covering the Top 50 pictures and drawing on information supplied by nearly 1,000 cinemas in the United States did not appear, courtesy of Variety magazine, until 1969, there still existed a weekly tabulation, based on receipts from a smaller base from which the magazine produced a weekly Top Ten. And although box office watching was not yet a recognized leisure activity, what movies made and their rankings on the weekly box office chart were compulsive reading for the thousands of cinema owners hoping to snap up the next big one and the Hollywood studios gambling they had released the next big one.

So I thought it might be fun to track box office throughout the year, based on that weekly chart.

By 1963 Hollywood had turned into a casino. To beat the growing threat of television, the movie industry was committed to bigger pictures with, unfortunately, bigger budgets, heralding in the roadshow era, the 1960s equivalent of 3D or Imax with premium prices and reserved seats and two shows a day. Despite John Wayne’s 1960 epic The Alamo proving  such gambles could spectacularly backfire, studios had a slate of movies that, if failures, could clean them out. Already fears were mounting that Brando’s Mutiny On The Bounty, opened in October 1962, would never recover its $19m cost.

Cinerama staked a fortune on its first story-led movie How The West Was Won and Columbia Pictures had bet the house on a 3-hour 20-minute opus Lawrence of Arabia that starred a complete unknown. The latter had opened at Xmas 1962 and if it was to make its money back had to play well night through most of 1963 on the roadshow circuit. If that wasn’t enough, blizzards mashed up the country and a three-month newspaper strike in New York meant – in the days before television marketing – there was nowhere to promote big new movies, delaying the U.S. opening of How the West Was Won.  .

But Lawrence was monumental, playing to capacity crowds for a dozen weeks at the Criterion in New York, clearing $43,000 – equivalent to over $400,000 now – every week. In in the fifth week, by dint of adding an extra show, it broke its own record.

Roadshows opened in a handful of cinemas – knocking up revenues today’s exhibitors would envy – and playing seemingly forever (in the UK, for example South Pacific was being readied for general release four years after its premiere).

So big movies were slow-burners and Lawrence didn’t top the charts till week six of the 1963 box office calendar . Its reign lasted only two weeks, replaced by Gregory Peck’s To Kill A Mockingbird which in one cinema alone, New York’s legendary 6,000-seater Radio City Music Hall, had taken $160,000 (about $1.5 million now). That was knocked aside by the season’s first surprise hit, Disney’s Son of Flubber which went on to become the year’s seventh top grosser – ahead of Mockingbird. It wasn’t the only surprise. Biblical tango Sodom and Gomorrah went to number one in its first week, a rarity, although it quickly faded. The third surprise chart topper, in March, gave comic mainstay Jack Lemmon his first serious role in Days of Wine and Roses. Hitchcock’s The Birds took over the perch in mid-April before How The West Was Won which reigned for weeks.

Over the January-April period, other hits, that is enjoying some weeks in the Top 12 chart,  in their opening stanzas were Charlton Heston’s Hawaiian movie Diamond Head, Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis squaring up in Taras Bulba, Laurence Olivier drama Term of Trial, Anthony Quinn in Barabbas, Dean Martin comedy Who’s Got The Action, small-budget  David and Lisa and the pairing of Robert Mitchum and Shirley Maclaine (sparking their affair) in the adaptation of Broadway hit Two For the Seesaw. Bear in mind, however, that initial success was no guarantee – what played to packed houses in New York or Los Angeles might empty theatres in Arkansas.

But the year’s biggest gamble appeared to be already paying off. Cleopatra had sold out its first 19 nights six months ahead of its June premiere and taken $8m in cash advances from cinemas in 20 cities. And there was also the little matter of the forthcoming release of the British box office sensation Dr No.  

The summer period – May through to the end of August – was marked by three enormous gambles  as How The West Was Won, Cleopatra and 55 Days At Peking took center stage. The western boasted  John Wayne, James Stewart and Debbie Reynolds. Cleopatra was the most expensive film ever, at four hours nearly the longest and, thanks to Burton-Taylor’s shenanigans the most scandal-ridden.

Summer as we know it – with Memorial Day and Independence Day massively important – did not exist in the 1960s.  Until the roadshow, opening dates were not juggled, movies simply released as soon as made. The importance of advance bookings for roadshows altered the pattern. Unlike now when saturation screening means nobody is turned away on opening weekend, the definition of a hit was being made to wait . Epics like El Cid,  Lawrence of Arabia, and How The West Was Won were publicized months ahead and Cleopatra set the marketing bar at insane levels.

That’s Irma, by the way, of “Douce” fame.

How the West Was Won was No 1 in the Variety chart for eight weeks, notching up fabulous returns, but nothing to match Cleopatra which peaked for nine weeks and grossed $3.1 million in 33 days – faster than any roadshow  before. 55 Days at Peking, Samuel Bronston’s follow-up to El Cid, surprisingly not roadshown, grabbed No 1 in its opening week but tumbled fast.  Dr No, pulverizing  the UK box office the previous year, suffered by going on release too fast. Unable, like roadshows, to groom an audience, it didn’t hit number one and lasted only four weeks in the Top Ten. In his last hit for a decade, Brando did better – The Ugly American managing eight weeks, again not a chart-topper..

Others featuring in various slots in the Top Ten were a mean Paul Newman in Hud,  Frank Sinatra in Come Blow Your Horn, the Jack Lemmon-Shirley Maclaine non-musical adaptation of the Broadway musical Irma La Douce, The Great Escape (charting for 13 weeks), and Doris Day in The Thrill of It All. Surprise appearances included Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts, Peter Sellers’ The Wrong Arm of the Law,  Hayley Mills in Summer Magic, Sandra Dee in Tammy and the Doctor and teen dreams Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in Beach Party. Biggest disappointment was John Wayne’s Donovan’s Reef  which only lasted one week at in the chart and then on its lowest rung – No 10.

But taboos were broken that summer, changing cinema forever. Sneaking into the Top Ten were the original ‘shockumentary’ Mondo Cane, adult fare like Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic, the first of the British kitchen-sink dramas The L-Shaped Room (“Sex Is Not A Forbidden Word!” the catchy catchline) starring Leslie Caron as an unmarried mother, Joanne Woodward in The Stripper and most, astonishingly of all, Fellini’s .

How studios must have loved the release system in those days. Instead of movies being whipped off screens after three or four weeks or to fit into a preconceived streaming showing, big hits, especially roadshows, could hold onto their screens for months and months.

For the September-to-December period of  1963, the biggest stars were Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Cleopatra spent another seven weeks at No 1 in the Top Ten, The VIPs three weeks. But Jack Lemmon ran them close as star of the year. Just after Irma La Douce ended a 21-week Top Ten run, Under The Yum Yum Tree snapped top spot in  December. Cleopatra was hardly innocuous, and Irma was a prostitute, but Yum Yum went much further with Lemmon playing a lascivious landlord renting rooms to nubile girls.

Bubbling under the American psyche was a desire for the illicit.  What else explained the appearance in the Top Ten of films about mental illness – Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and The Caretakers starring Robert Stack. Even Paul Newman’s latest hit A New Kind of Love pivoted on Joanne Woodward being mistaken for a call-girl. The Top Ten seethed with ‘Adult’ or ‘Continental’ themes  – ‘shockumentary’ Women of the World,  children as feral monsters in Lord of the Flies, the title of the Italian Cannes-winner The Conjugal Bed said it all while In The French Style with Jean Seberg only hinted at it. Fellini’s   paved the way for arthouse break-out  Visconti’s The Leopard starring Burt Lancaster which, incredibly, peaked at No 5.  Sophia Loren led a star-studded European cast in The Condemned of Altona based on the Jean-Paul Sartre book. Robert Wise’s seminal horror film The Haunting spent a week in Top Ten. More significantly, Sidney Poitier broke through the glass ceiling to become the first African American actor to have a significant hit with Lilies of the Field.   

Back in the mainstream, Debbie Reynolds’ Mary Mary, based on the Broadway hit, spent two weeks at No 1. Hollywood stalwarts charting successfully included Kirk Douglas in For Love Or Money, James Stewart (with Sandra Dee) in Take Her She’s Mine, Robert Mitchum (plus sexpot Elsa Martinelli) in African adventure Rampage, John Wayne in spanking good form with Maureen O’Hara in McLintock and  Elvis in Fun in Acapulco. . Surprise successes were The Incredible Journey and television’s Dr Kildare Richard Chamberlain in courtroom drama Twilight of Honor plus two Disney reissues – Fantasia and Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

The year’s blockbusters showed astonishing legs – How The West Was Won playing 52 weeks in the Top Ten, Lawrence of Arabia 41.

The Top Ten grossing films of the year were (in order) – Cleopatra, The Longest Day, Irma La Douce, Lawrence of Arabia, How The West Was Won, Mutiny On The Bounty, Son of Flubber, To Kill A Mockingbird, Bye Bye Birdie and Come Blow Your Horn.  

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