Charlie Chaplin: All-Time Reissue King

Next month in my home-town of Glasgow, they are holding a centenary screening of Safety Last! (1923), the movie in which Harold Lloyd made his name. No doubt the centenary revival machine will swing into action for Buster Keaton the following year for The Navigator (1924). But nobody thought a couple of years back to revive The Kid (1921), the first great film by Charlie Chaplin.

It was always so ever since academics got their teeth into the silent era and decided which stars should be venerated and who should be left by the wayside. Luckily, for the public, academics weren’t in charge in the 1960s. For in that decade – as in the previous half century – Charlie Chaplin had reigned supreme in the silent move reissue business. This was in part because long after the industry had switched to talkies, Chaplin stuck to making his movies silent.

The Charlie Chaplin reissue phenomenon dated back to 1915 and was synonymous with his rise to instant fame. Cinemas that could not afford his new films promptly re-hired his old ones. Old or new the public didn’t seem to care. They flocked to the cinema just the same. When there was a production slump in the aftermath of World War One, Chaplin oldies were to the fore, as they were once again in 1921. In 1926 Pathe paid $500,000 for the rights to four pre-United Artists Chaplin oldies – as much as studios were paying to make a new film.

Part of Chaplin’s deal with United Artists, the studio he helped to form, was that he owned the copyright to his movies so he could control when they were revived and prevent another studio from bringing them back to capitalize on his newer movies. That didn’t always work out because he didn’t own the rights to most of his shorts, allowing a dozen to be reissued, with sound and music, in the 1930s.

With the advent of television, where other older stars, believing their careers were in abeyance if not at a full stop, succumbed to the financial lure of the small screen, Chaplin point blank refused. Oddly enough, it was the centenary angle that played into his hands in the 1950s. He was 70 in 1959, although that decade had not proved as welcoming to his new pictures, Limelight (1951) excepted, and he was so out of favor with the establishment that his name was not among the 1500 initially considered for the Hollywood “Walk of Fame.”

By this time he was viewed as an arthouse darling. His oldies were so successful in 1959 that Modern Times (1925) after its re-launch in New York transferred successively to larger arthouses, each time setting a weekly record with finally, in an unprecedented switch, it ended up on a Broadway first run house.

The 1960s saw a general revival of interest in comedians spurred by the Robert Youngson  compilations, a jukebox of silent movie snippets.

But in 1963, Chaplin struck again, this with an original reissue format that proved catnip to arthouses, and eventually, mainstream. Key to this was the idea of a “season” of his films. This was a sea change. Arthouses regularly brought back old movies, but only for a day or two at a time, and screened in this fashion a “season” of a star or director’s old hits could run for two or three months.  

Chaplin decided his movies should run individually for as long as there was public demand for each movie. In other words, they would play like a new movie in a major first run house, which could hold onto pictures for as long as the owner wanted, retained “by public demand,” until they were played out. The “season” would last as long as the public deemed fit.

The experiment was launched at the mainstream Plaza in New York with City Lights (1931). The record opening of $35,600 beat highs set by Never on Sunday (1960). All the rest opened at the high end of expectations, figures met in Variety’s weekly box office roundup with headlines of “socko” or terms of disbelief. By letting the “retained by public demand” notion run to its limit, the entire season ran for 41 weeks – longer than most roadshows – and collected receipts of $658,000, as much as a long-running roadshow without any of the financial investment. It was boom-time for arthouses.

Amazingly enough, the story was repeated in the 1970s after former Columbia sales chief Mo Rothman paid $6 million (plus a percentage of the gross) for world rights to Chaplin oldies for 15 years. US rights were hived off to independent producer Oliver Unger who set about marketing The Chaplin Festival. Unger was something of a marketing whiz. He tied up a deal with the Arts Guild circuit in 15 cities – in arthouse terms this was as close to wide release  as you could get. He organized a six-page feature in Vogue and a nationwide tie-in with Franklin Simon stores.

The re-launch was helped by news Chaplin would visit New York for the first time in two decades, receive a special Oscar in 1972 and finally be inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Unger lined up radio play of songs from the films and an album by Dave Brubeck consisting of theme music. As another publicity gimmick, he dreamed up a special rating – “E” for Everybody. He came up with the idea of discount tickets – in Chicago alone 34,000 moviegoers opted for the cheaper season ticket.

The consequence of Unger’s endeavors was that before the first movie was even screened he had tied up bookings with 36 cinemas for the Chaplin Festival. Modern Times (1936) was selected to spearhead the Festival, opening on December 18, 1971, at the 580-seat Lincoln Art Theater in New York to a record opening week of  $26,000, an achievement repeated across the country. Modern Times ran for 14 weeks in New York and Boston. The series was so successful that the last film in the season, The Great Dictator (1940), didn’t hit New York till June 1972 and scored an opener of $26,800 and ran for another 10 weeks.

The arthouse runs were so successful that Unger managed to sell the concept to Columbia for $2 million. That shifted emphasis from arthouse to first run and showcase (multiple-run in a city or region). Modern Times beat Gone with the Wind to the title of the oldest film given showcase release in New York. Modern Times ran two weeks in showcase. The Great Dictator did so well in showcase it was the first silent film to appear in the weekly box office Top Ten. Limelight also went down the showcase route. The movies were also shown on airlines.

Later in the 1970s Paramount acquired many of Chaplin’s earlier shorts and sent them into the 16mm university campus market. Towards the end of the decade, with Chaplin to the fore, Kino international created a Silent Clowns Festival to coincide with the Water Kerr book of the same name. It ran for five weeks at the Eighth St Playhouse in New York.

Without doubt Chaplin was the all-time reissue champ. For over six decades, the public turned out in droves to see his movies and his revival box office was more than all the other silent stars in reissue combined.

SOURCE: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You: A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), p10, 20, 22, 23, 25-29, 32, 35, 37, 39, 40, 70, 75, 193, 212, 222, 232, 255, 256, 281, 285. In the book – which runs to 250,000 words – there are pages and pages of references to Chapln reissues so forgive me if I don’t quote them all here.

The Magic Vault – Return of the Reissue

You are probably aware by now that Hollywood reckons the very movie to fill the Valentine’s Day gap this year is the love story that took Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to a watery grave – Titanic (1997). The date might be a surprise but with Avatar: The Way of Water conquering box offices worldwide a re-run of his previous gigantic success was always on the cards.

What might come as a shock is how much Hollywood has come to rely on oldies to fill gaps in the release schedule – so much so that a reissue of a biggie has been slated for every month in the forthcoming year. As you are probably aware from my discursive writings on the subject, the reissue has been a staple of the industry since the 1960s, and as often as not appearing when stocks of new films were at a low ebb.

Covid was an unexpected production disaster and with new films in short supply and audiences falling short of the norm the studios felt it better to hold on to big films until cinemas were back to something approaching normality. Thank goodness someone in Hollywood can count because anniversaries make up a hefty chunk of the excuses to trot out old pictures. Anniversary used to mean a celebration of a classic made 25 or 50 years ago, but that notion has been taken to extremes,  so any year seems fair game, 20th, 45th now pretty common.

But anniversary was not in the main the driving force last year. Some pretty big fish were summoned from the vaults to work their magic. The original Avatar (2009)  brought in another $76 million worldwide – positioning it just outside the global top 50 for 2022. Interstellar (2014) knocked up another $72 million, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) $45 million, Leonardo DiCaprio in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) worth an extra $14.8 million and the original Jurassic Park (1993) added $10 million to the coffers.

What must have seemed like nothing short of frantic experiment clearly struck a chord with audiences, so studios are taking to the reissue on a regular basis.

For a time it was Casablanca (1942) that had been the unexpected filler of the St Valentine’s Day gap. But it could hardly compete with Titanic, but rather than lose the opportunity for another annual outing, this has been re-scheduled for the beginning of March.

In April there will be a further chance – in a genuine 25th anniversary big bang- to see Jeff Bridges and John Goodman in the Coen Bros cult favorite The Big Lebowski (1998). Musical Grease (1978) – 45th anniversary? – with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John is the May pick. Hardly an unusual notion this, Grease has already had more than its fair share of reissues.

You might think it’s Travolta again in June, in Hairspray (2007), but actually it’s the John Waters original, made in 1988 – 35th anniversary!! – that became the basis of the Broadway musical. It boasts an all-time cracker of a cast – Sonny Bono (of Sonny & Cher fame), Divine (Pink Flamingos, 1972), pop star Debbie Harry (Videodrome, 1983) of Blondie, future talk show host Ricki Lake in her movie debut, and comic Jerry Stiller (father of Ben).

For the holidays what could be better than a 40th anniversary outing for National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo fire up their engines for July and look out for Eugene Levy, John Candy, Jane Krakowski and Christie Brinkley in small parts.

It’s a straight-out 50th anniversary slam-dunk for Enter the Dragon (1973), the kung fu actioner that cemented Bruce Lee’s reputation and sent the world into a brief glorious paroxysm of kung fu exploitation vehicles that even impinged on James Bond. Catch it in August.

You’d never guess it’s 35 years since Rain Man (1988), but don’t worry that will surely form the main plank of the marketing for its revival in September. Tom Cruise is of course still a big noise, less so Dustin Hoffman and director Barry Levinson, but they both won the Oscar, and fans of Hans Zimmer (Oscar nominated) will be more than happy to celebrate the score that brought him worldwide attention.

There’s been more than enough publicity attached to the filming of The Birds (1963), what with Tippi Hedren’s accusations of her treatment, but this 60th anniversary re-release might provide opportunity to reassess what I consider to be Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. That’s out in October.

Al Pacino’s turn as Cuban gangster Tony Montana in Brian DePalma’s Scarface (1983) – 40th anniversary – was not a huge hit at the time, audiences too easily put off by the violence and the over-the-top performance, but it’s now become a cult classic so expect big numbers to turn out in November.

Rounding out the year, unless someone can come up with something bigger/better before then, is A Christmas Story (1983) – 40th anniversary. You’ve probably forgotten all about this unless you can remember this is where the iconic “tongue frozen to flagpole” idea originated. Directed by Bob Clark, perhaps in reparation for Porky’s (1981), it sees Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977) as the mother appalled her son wants a BB gun for Xmas. Wonder how that idea will play out these days!

I am already trawling through any film made in a year ending in 4 or 9 to see what Hollywood can base an anniversary re-showing on for 2024.

Cate Blanchett and The Shawshank Redemption

I assuming you know that the famed Stephen King novella on which the Tim Robbins/Morgan Freeman picture was based was originally entitled Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the poster of that movie goddess used in that version by the wannabe escapee to cover the hole he was making in his prison cell wall.

I’m making a connection to Cate Blanchett because The Shawshank Redemption (1994) was a critical success, seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, but so conspicuously failed at the box office that it was scarcely shown abroad and only won an audience, and made more than its money back, on DVD and latterly became the poster boy for flops that somehow make a financial comeback.

Tar had all the critical support – with the exception of me, of course – that a movie could wish for and will at least pick up an Oscar nomination for Blanchett. But now that DVD is dead in the water, there’s virtually no chance of it making enough thereafter to cover the losses which are currently in the region of $30 million.

Movies used to have what was known as a “long tail,” meaning that initial box office was only one part of the equation. And a small part at that if the movie was a blockbuster. Reissue and sales to DVD, video rental, television, syndication, and early streaming services on a global scale sometimes amounted to as much as 90% of its overall earnings, especially bearing in mind that VHS/DVD in particular had various levels of revenue.

A big title might first be sold to video rental companies forking out $59.99 for the privilege and the bigger the title the more copies were purchased, so a blockbuster might easily have reaped $20-$30 million on that go-round. Then when it was released to the public, a big film would cost big money – $29.99 to $39.99 – and once that tier had done its job, the movie would be progressively sold in lower price brackets then repackaged again to supermarkets and bargain bins. More recently, the Director’s Cut, remastering and monetising anniversaries have added to that food chain.

Television went through several tiers as well. Studios never actually sold any movie to the small screen. They leased them. Usually for a period of time, say three years, and a limited number of screenings, often just two. And once that deal was done, they leased them again, and again and again. Until streaming killed off the majority of this market, movies made in the 1960s could have been leased a dozen times to television networks and even more in syndication. Cable would pay good money for a slice of that action.  

Television famously put The Alamo (1960) and Cleopatra (1963) into the black and then the combination of TV, VHS/DVD, cable etc, made them substantial profits. And studios could always wrap them up as a library and sell them off to movie-hungry stations like TCM. Imax and 3D provided reissue opportunities at the start of this century, but these days a return to a movie theater would be a seriously limited proposition and open only to major successes like The Godfather (1972).

But, in terms of redemption-sized income, virtually all those avenues have disappeared. And critics don’t have the power to turn on the money taps. I’m sure Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman…(1975) which came out of nowhere, though probably the result of a social media coup, to top the once-in-a-decade Sight & Sound Critics Poll, will bring in extra bucks, no matter that it will scarcely register on streaming and DVD sales will be limited to the arthouse fraternity.

Alfred Hitchcock is often touted as the Comeback King when Vertigo (1958) climbed to the top of the Sight & Sound Poll after initially being largely discounted in that particular race. But in the first place, Hitchcock had already been a box office giant. A very small number of his pictures lost money on initial cinema release and his “critical redemption” if you like was anything but. He achieved Sight & Sound dominance because five of his greatest pictures had been kept from public view for over two decades. When they appeared, in one of the great reissue stories, the public flocked to see them on the big screen, and on subsequent DVD release so it was from there that a new wave of critics found the films contained far more art than previously ascertained.

So, back to Tar – and other box office duds like Corsage ($2.7 million worldwide) and Empire of Light ($3.2 million). Where does it go from here?

One option is tax write-off. The companies that invested in it in the first place might have done so to avoid handing over profits to the taxman. Conversely, they can use losses to offset a future tax demand.

But that’s hardly going to stimulate the movie-making market.

Studios used to test-market films but now production companies like these shovel their pictures into an endless maw of film festivals where their movies receive the kind of reception that fills them with glee but turns out to be the opposite of what the public – even the arthouse public – actually wants.

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.

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.

Now Showing: Xmas 70 Years Ago

This goes under the heading “fascinating snippet” rather than “shameless plug” and although it does refer to one of my books and is outside my normal bailiwick of the 1960s I thought you might be interested in what was showing at a provincial town – rather than New York or London which got the movies months ahead of anywhere else – seventy years ago, December 1952, long before, outside of White Christmas, anyone was making movies that targeted Yuletide as a subject.

Paisley, about 12 miles outside of the much larger Scottish metropolis Glasgow, had eight cinemas in 1952 with 13,000 seats to serve a population of 93,000. Six of the picture houses were devoted to first run and two to second run. If I say so myself, one of the delights, apart from the 120 illustrations, from the book – Paisley at the Pictures, Part III: 1952 from which this information is drawn – is that the appendix lists every movie shown, month-by-month cinema-by-cinema.

Only two of the smallest cinemas, the West End, in the town center, and the New Alex, about a mile away, and which often shared product, were screening what we would reocgnise today as Xmas pictures. Despite being animated features from Disney, the epitome of the holiday movie, neither program ran for a full week, in part because that was rare at these particular houses but also because a movie aimed at kids depended on matinee business and often turned off the adults venturing out in the evening.

The first three days (Mon-Wed since films didn’t show on Sundays) were devoted to Cinderella (1950), supported by Tim Holt western The Mysterious Desperado (1949). On the Thu-Sat portion of the week it was Alice in Wonderland (1951) backed by another Tim Holt western in the same series, Riders of the Range (1950). While this represented a repeat showing for Cinderella, it was the first screening of Alice in Wonderland.

Modern exhibitors would be shocked at Disney pictures being allocated not just such a short run but also not being snapped up by the town’s biggest houses, but Disney was far from the distribution powerhouse it is today.

So, neither was regarded as the top film over the two-week festive period. That honor went to pictures showing at the town’s biggest cinemas, the Kelburne, Regal, Picture House and La Scala, all except the first running along the main thoroughfare. Films here ran for a whole week mostly with a supporting feature.

Biggest attraction of the season, courtesy of the fact it was simultaneously playing the La Scala and the Regal, was Gregory Peck nautical number The World in His Arms (1952) directed by Raoul Walsh. This was supported by the fourth in the popular series Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952) starring Marjorie Main.

The Kelburne was screening comedy western sequel Son of Paleface (1952), with Bob Hope and Jane Russell re-teaming, but considered strong enough to be presented as the solo offering, no supporting feature ensuring more screenings. Although having what you might expect to be an out-and-out winner, the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy Pat and Mike (1952), the Regal covered its back by supporting this with John Huston’s critically-acclaimed The Red Badge of Courage (1951). This was despite Tracy being on a box office roll following the success of Father of the Bride (1950) and its speedy sequel Father’s Little Dividend (1951).

The following week audiences were offered interesting choices. The La Scala played it safe with British romantic comedy Penny Princess (1952), rising star Dirk Bogarde billed below top-billed American Yolande Donlan. Crime adventure The Whip Hand (1951) directed by William Cameron Menzies provided the support. The Kelburne presented comedy Dreamboat (1952) with Clifton Webb and Ginger Rogers plus, surprisingly, a French-made film Let’s Go to Paris (1950).

The Picture House was fanning the flames of the sci fi boom with a double bill of Red Planet Mars (1952) and German “shockumentary” Strange World (1951), forerunner of Mondo Cane, while the Regal had John Wayne battling Communists in Big Jim McLain (1952) with B-picture film noir The Secret of Monte Carlo (1951).

It might also come as something of a shock to find the cinemas not overwhelmed by one, or two, big movies as would be the case today.

I’m sure you’ve all already bought Paisley at the Pictures Part III: 1952 so there’s no need to plug it, and I’m sure you’ve done enough Xmas shopping to last a year, but just in case here’s the link.

Thank You For Your Support

I certainly couldn’t have done it without you. This time last year I averaged 1,000 hits a month. Now it is over 4,000. To quadruple my figures in just one year is beyond my wildest imagination.

When I began this Blog I had no expectations. I certainly lacked the social media skills to artificially inflate my figures.

I started the Blog because in writing about individual films for The Gunslingers of 1969 and beginning the research for The Magnificent 60s: The Top 100 films of a Revolutionary Decade, I realised that without some other outlet there would be hundred of films from my favorite movie decade that I could never write about. A Blog devoted to the movies of the 1960s seemed a reasonable proposition.

I began with three Blogs a week but my enthusiasm for the era was such that I was pretty much watching a movie a night, not to mention the two or three contemporary films I saw on my Monday trip to the cinema. So it just seemed more sensible to publish a Blog a day rather than build up a mountainous backlog.

Initial reponse, two or three hits a day, was more in line with my expectations, but when, suddenly, I was receiving over 50 hits a day I reckoned I was on to something, that there was an audience out there as eager as I to find out how good (or bad) films of the Sixties films were. When I passed 100 views a day, I was over the moon. My daily average now stands at 131, but there have been days when the figure has topped 200.

I’ve scarcely scraped the surface of the 1960s and I plan to keep going, bolstered by your continued support, until there is nothing left to review.

So thanks very much and I wish you the compliments of the season.

Normal service will resume tomorrow.

PS I hope you don’t feel duped by the use of the It’s a Wonderful Life poster. In the first place, it’s outwith the chosen scope of the Blog. In the second place, I couldn’t add anything to what’s already been said about the movie. And in the third this Blog always has at least one illustration and I felt this best conveyed my mood at being able to write a Blog for an appreciative audience.

Widescreen Weekend 2022

We are so conditioned to watching old movies on tiny screens it comes as something of a primal shock to see them in all their original glory. Most festivals lean towards the arthouse end of the cinema business so it’s all the more delightful to find an event that without apology concentrates on the mainstream. Widescreen Weekend takes place at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, England, and mostly in its Pictureville Cinema, the only venue in the country equipped to show Cinerama pictures in the original three-strip version which requires three projectors.

Wagons race to escape attack in “How the West Was Won.”

And while most other film festivals attract general movie lovers, this one appears to appeal in large part to those who have had something to do with the movie-making business or its technical side. Speakers might include, for example, Cinerama restoration specialist Dave Strohmaier or Kevin Brownlow, editor turned director, and among the audience you might find people like Keith Stevens from Australia, a former operations executive with Village Roadshow there, but who started out as a projectionist and regaled me with tales of projecting The Sound of Music (1965) in its original roadshow run.

There’s a limited number of movies that were made, mostly in the 1960s, either in Cinerama or 70mm, so the event has expanded to take in the earlier Cinemascope and the other versions of widescreen technology on which Hollywood depended as the marketing hook to bring back audiences from the all-encompassing maw of television in the 1950s. Later films whose directors understood the cinematic impact of 70mm are also added to the mix.

You are transported back to a time when screens were just enormous – this one is 51ft wide – and were curtained, and those curtains would not open (to the sides) until in typical roadshow fashion, a lengthy musical Overture, highlighting aspects of the movie’s music, had run its course. There is something quite sumptuous about sitting in a movie theatre staring at huge red curtains and waiting for the house lights to dim and the music to begin.

Christopher Frayling and Kevin Brownlow getting ready to introduce “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Roughly half-way through the movie itself, the curtains would close for an intermission, and before the picture restarted there would be more music, what was termed the Entr’Acte. Some DVDS of roadshows contain both Overture and Entr’Acte but there is a lightyear of difference between hearing them in your lounge and being exposed to them in a picture house built to bring out their best sound.

This is a homage not just to old movies but the old way of seeing a movie.

In previous years the programs have included Ice Station Zebra (1968), West Side Story (1961), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the David Lean trilogy of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970),a pair from William Wyler that could not have been more diverse – Ben-Hur (1959) and Funny Girl (1968) – This Is Cinerama (1952), Carol Reed’s  The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), John Frankenheimer’s split-screen Formula One epic Grand Prix (1966) and of course the mother of all roadshows The Sound of Music (1965). Throw in a healthy helping of 1950s Cinemascope features and more contemporary pictures which embraced 70mm and you have the makings of an always satisfying weekend.

A thoughtful John Wayne next to Claudia Cardinale in “Circus World.”

So one of the highlights is to see old favorites. This year we were treated to the three-strip version of How the West Was Won (1962), your feet tapping immediately at the sound of the driving Alfred Newman score, and a restored The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), the first two movies made in the Cinerama process that had dramatic purpose and were not mere travelogs.

But there was also an opportunity to watch old movies that have never been screened in their original version since their initial release, such as Circus World / The Magnificent Showman (1964) shown in Super Technirama 70. Also on the program was Carol Reed’s Oscar-winning Oliver! (1968), Bob Fosse debut Sweet Charity (1969), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983), Natalie Wood’s last picture and one that experiments with screen size. Extending the program into non-70mm widescreen there was a screening of Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) and A Star Is Born (1954). Every screening was introduced by an expert and there were occasional surprise guests like Kevin Brownlow, the editor of The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The event takes place in October every year and I’m already looking forward to the next. Kathryn Penny, who has organized the event these past few years, is moving onto a post in academia, and she will be sorely missed.  

What a Product Shortage Really Meant

The product shortage is nothing new, ask the exhibitors who survived the turbulent 1960s, a decade bookended by studio financial turmoil. Already suffering from a downturn in production thanks to audiences preferring television, the business was hit by the double whammy in 1960 of the Actors Strike and the Writers Strike, which forced an unwanted hiatus on movies already in production, cut short some shooting schedules and removed others not yet in front of the cameras. For exhibitors it rendered the “shortage more acute than before.”

That resulted in the biggest cinemas in the biggest cities holding on to the biggest movies for longer. Smaller cinemas, starved of product, had no such easy fall-back. Since studios were often at war with cinemas anyway, any crisis involving production raised tempers, each blaming the other.

Spans the nation “again” this ad fails to mention.

Exhibitors claimed the shortage would be eased considerably if studios made more prints available of popular movies, rather than rationing their distribution, making cinemas wait longer in order to squeeze more money out of every layer of the food chain. Distributors (i.e. the studios) retaliated that cinemas themselves were to blame for the logjam that stifled the opening of new movies and therefore created a shortage further down the line. By retaining  pictures for months, they prevented new movies entering the distribution system. “Theaters aren’t available for top product at a time when film companies are looking for outlets.”

Reissues which might have offered a solution were not considered the guaranteed source of income they would be after the James Bond revival bonanza kicked in mid-decade after Dr No/From Russia with Love. Richard Lederer of Warner Bros blamed cinemas – “refusing to yield additional coin” – for old movies ending up on television in the first place.

Others argued that television screening was incidental. RCIP Corp took a lease on films already shown on television, such as Republic oldies Wake of the Red Witch (1948), Rio Grande (1950), and The Quiet Man (1952) and positioned them to play a role in filling in, tacked on as the support to a new film, presented as matinees or occasionally topping a bill at the start of the week. Using oldies in this fashion allowed cinemas to retain the traditional twice-weekly change, and some cinemas just went the whole hog and put together an entire month’s program of reissues.

Hot box office in its first few weeks of a revival at the Warner in London’s Leicester Square.

Whoever was to blame, it put both sides under greater pressure with exhibitors increasingly turning to foreign product to fill the gap, a move that could in the long term inhibit U.S. production.

In Britain, where the two biggest chains Odeon and ABC controlled the most lucrative cinemas, reissues were a last resort, the former circuit rarely taking that option.

Between 1958 and 1963, ABC screened only two revivals – Strangers on a Train (1951) and East of Eden (1955) – whereas during the same period Odeon got through 75. In the 1950s Odeon used revivals as the support to prop up a weaker main feature, but by the 1960s the older pictures were the main attraction. The number of revivals presented as the top draw went from five in 1961 to 13 in 1962 and 11 in 1963 (i.e. 20 per cwent of the annual output), with others pulled in as the supporting feature.

Among the movies accorded a second outing were On the Waterfront (1954), The Jolson Story (1946), The Vikings (1958), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Trapeze (1956), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Red River (1948) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Odeon also took advantage of the product gap to bring back relatively recent top performers, Swiss Family Robinson (1961), Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), Psycho (1960) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) within a year or so of their original release.

Although there was no sharp increase in movie production during the 1960s and to some extent successful double bill revivals and the retention of hit films like The Family Way (1966) and The Dirty Dozen (1967) for an extra week alleviated any shortfalls, by the end of the decade it was the circuits who came down heavy on the studios.

Films that looked as if they would do poorly on their circuit release were unceremoniously yanked off screens at the start of the week (movies at that time ran from Monday to Saturday) and replaced with something else.

Films that failed to cut the box office ice on the circuits included: Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) with Dean Martin and Kim Novak, Disney’s Monkeys Go Home (1967) starring Maurice Chevalier, thriller Games (1967) starring James Caan and Katharine Ross, Maureen O’Hara in romantic Italian-set drama The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965), thriller Brainstorm (1965) with Jeffrey Hunter, Rod Taylor in the adaptation of the Arthur Hailey bestseller Hotel (1967) and British television comedian Charlie Drake in Mister Ten Per Cent (1967).

SOURCES: “Strike Worsened Shortage Beef,” Variety, March 16, 1960, p15; “Flood of Dubs If Shortage Worsens,” Variety, March 23, 1960, p14; “Product Shortage Ends Twice-Weekly Changing,” Variety, May 11, 1960, p7; “Product Shortage Prompts Theatermen Renting of TV-Exposed Features,” Variety, May 18, 1960, p17; “Print Shortage Not Product,” Variety, September 7, 1960, p5; “How Come So Resistive To Reissues While Hollering Shortage?” Variety, February 20, 1963, p15; Gene Arneel, “Distribs: Theater Shortage,” Variety, March 6, 1963, p7; Allen Eyles, ABC The First Name in Entertainment (CTA, 1993) p121-125; Allen Eyles, Odeon Cinemas 2 (CTA, 2005) p204-214.

MGM’s Reissue Wheeze: Meet Demand One Day at a Time

By the start of the 1960s the classic retrospective was nothing new –  a dozen Greta Garbo pictures split into double-bills each playing for a couple of days could fill an arthouse for a fortnight. Charlie Chaplin was in a class of his own, single bills of his own movies running for weeks in arthouses.

But these revivals of older movies had a noted common denominator. They were arthouse fodder. The ordinary picture house owners, bereft of a steady stream of movies when the industry hit the buffers at the start of the decade and when roadshows started to clog the food chain, would not find many takers among their ordinary clientele for such pictures.

Fred Schwartz of MGM came up with the solution. He was in the unusual position of knowing exactly how difficult life was for the exhibitor. He had been one in Long Island. There was nothing particularly new about his plan to launch a more popular version of the old movie revival. What was revolutionary was how he planned to do it, an idea that only an exhibitor could dream up.

Because what every ordinary exhibitor, running a small operation far away from the august city center outfits that could hold on to new pictures for weeks, sometimes months, on end, dreaded was the midweek lull. Most small theaters ran on split-week programs. A new double bill at the start of the week, another one at the end. The very fact that the first one was running when demand was at its lowest invariably meant that by the Wednesday the movies were showing to virtually empty houses.

So in 1962 Schwartz decided to revive the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy series of operettas and play them only on a Wednesday. And they would be rationed. Exhibitors could not just arrange their own program, decide which of the six on offer to show on which date, or only take some and not others. Schwartz decided on the running order. And you had to take them all or none at all. And they were playing on percentages rather than the normal flat rate for an oldie. And these were all films that had already been shown on television.

This was a series of adverts, with the main picture switiching by the week with an arrow pointing to its position in the program.

Which was a stiff call for an exhibitor. But the innovative Schwartz promised new prints and new artwork promoting all six pictures all at once. Not just that, he had a dream of a wheeze. Audiences would pay in advance. Just as with roadshows. They would buy a season ticket to see all six movies. Since the movies would only be screened once with no guarantee they would ever return, that did not seem too onerous a commitment. And who was so busy on a Wednesday night that they couldn’t spare the time to relive the Hollywood Golden Age?

The linked series of films with new advertising campaigns and prints was promoted as “a smart playoff pattern fashioned to reintroduce older fans to best-remembered hits and attract new audiences that never saw them.” And also, unstated, was the notion it would bring back to the cinema those fans who had long given up going due to the excess of sex and violence.

Equally, unstated, the program’s overall title “The MGM Perpetual Product Plan” pandered to exhibitor fear of there being no guarantees – of when a new movie would arrive, if it would come at all, and if in the next few months the entire distribution set-up would grind to a halt. Studios were so busy taking care of the palaces in the big cinema centers that they had plain forgot about the role played by the small cinemas.

The Jukebox approach in action. A sidebar lists all the famous songs the cinemagoer will hear again.

The introductory half-dozen tabbed “The Golden Operettas” were: Rose Marie (1936), The Merry Widow (1934), The Great Waltz (1938), The Student Prince (1954), Girl of the Golden West (1938) and The Chocolate Solder (1941).  The program poster was issued well in advance allowing customers to mark the dates off in their diaries.

Schwartz hit the bulls-eye. Cinemas whose normal takings amounted to little more than $60 found themselves sitting on five times as much, often much more, receipts running in the region of $300-$500 a night. The Chocolate Soldier was the top earner, hitting highs of $2,200 a night, followed by The Student Prince on $1,900 a night. Schwartz expected 2,500 cinemas to sign up – he beat his target by over 1,000.

Schwarz followed up with an eight-week “World Heritage Film and Book Program” which included Little Women (1949) starring the now-huge-star Elizabeth Taylor, Captains Courageous (1937) with Hollywood perennial Spencer Tracy in Oscar-winning form, Errol Flynn in Kim (1950) and W,C. Fields in David Copperfield (1935). This particular mix, programmed during the school term, had the added advantage of being able to be sold to schools for matinees, winning the endorsement of national educators and helped on its marketing way by a tie-up with Scholastic publishers.

With a vast vault to be plundered, MGM created a third package entitled “World Famous Musical Hits.” This comprised Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Mario Lanza in Because You’re Mine (1952), Fred Astaire in The Bandwagon (1953) and Three Little Words (1948) plus Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) and Words and Music (1948). The latter three fell into what we would call today the “jukebox” category since they were biopics of the country’s greatest Broadway composers Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart and Kalmar & Ruby.

MGM branched out into other mixed seasons that might bring together Garbo and the Marx Brothers and another including more modern operettas and musicals. Once the one-day-a-week concept had run its course, the movies were repackaged as double bills in split weeks. MGM also permitted local managers to experiment with their own programs, one such, the double bill of Ivanhoe (1952) and Knights of the Round Table (1953), proving so popular the studio spun it out on its own national reissue. Eventually, exhibitors were permitted the option of running the seasons on Mondays, thus getting the week off to a flying start, instead of Wednesdays and some cinemas began offering the season tickets as Xmas gifts.

Schwartz knew ordinary cinemas would lack the instinctive knowledge of how sell this unusual program so he spent a lot of money and expended a huge amount of effort showing exactly how it should be sold. Where other studios took cinema circuit owners and key exhibitors away to shindigs to introduce them to new movies, Schwartz did the same for his old pictures. He devised a lobby campaign that would not only include all the films being shown, but their specific dates, the advertisement itself designed to highlight that week’s film while also promoting the ones still to appear.

The fact that operators could actually market a movie scheduled to be shown in four or six weeks time was in itself revolutionary because the distribution rules of the time forbade theaters from advertising movies beyond the one being shown the next week. That was to get round the possibility that a moviegoer would put off trekking into the city center to see a new big picture if he knew it would turn up in his neighborhood house a couple of months later.

The strategy of appealing to a core of older movie fans who would then bring in through word-of-mouth the younger generation was behind the marketing of later reissues featuring such iconic stars as Humphrey Bogart. And it’s also interesting to note that these days most revivals of older pictures are restricted to a one-day showing. In almost a homage to the Fred Schwartz plan, the James Bond 60th Anniversary revival, for example, is currently showing in Cineworld houses in the U.K. on a Monday for 25 consecutive weeks, beginning mid-April and due to end in October.  

If you’re interested in the whole subject of why old movies keep on popping up – Jaws 3D the latest example – you could do worse than take a look at the book I’ve written on the subject, which turned out to be the gold standard on reissues/revivals. It took me forever to write and no wonder as it clocks in at a mammoth 250,000 words (including notes which contain a mine of extra information). I’m not an academic, as you might have gathered, so had no way of plugging the book into the academic pipeline when it first appeared several years back. But now I’m pleased to say it has found its niche. 

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You, A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), p127-131;  “MGM’s Perpetual Product Plan,” Independent Exhibitor Bulletin, October 1, 1962, p11; “MGM Older Product to Regional Outlets,” Box Office, November 20, 1961, p7; “2,500 Bookings for MGM’s Operetta Predicted by Fred Schwartz,” Box Office, September 17, 1962, 5; “Operetta Series Ducats Sold as Xmas Gifts,” Box Office, January 14, 1963, 69; “MGM Offering $100 Prize for Perpetual Product,” Box Office, January 21, 1963, 5.“Heritage and Operetta Films Yield Well When Promotion Centered on School,” Box Office, February 11, 1963, 66; “MGM Reissues in Black,” Variety, February 27, 1963, 13; “MGM Policy on Reissues Is Open Ended,” Independent Film Bulletin, April 3, 1963, 10; “If Handpicked, Reissues Can Tint Mondays Golden,” Variety, September 18, 1963, 13; “Metro Rally for Reissues,” Variety, October 9, 1963, 15.

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