Bestseller Hollywood, Part Three – Novelizations

Novelizations were the hidden secret of 1960s Hollywood. While the decade is better known for widescreen 70mm roadshows, James Bond and the spy deluge, the musical and western revival and the start of the American New Wave, the novelization revolutionized the way films were marketed. By the end of the decade virtually every film released was accompanied by a book tie-in, either a bestseller sold to Hollywood, or a film script turned into a paperback / soft cover book.

At the start of this boom, around 1960, studios virtually gave away screenplays to publishers and allowed them to turn them into novels in return for the marketing angle they could provide.  “Producers looked at tie-in books primarily as an exploitation aid not a source of income,” explained Patricia Johnson of paperback specialist Gold Medal Books in 1962. “Motion picture companies with no  more – and often much less – than a rough script are being besieged by droves of publishers vying for the right to novelize original scenarios.”

The novelizations were usually short – about 60,000 words – and therefore attractively priced for the reading public but they could sell as many as half a million copies. But except in particular circumstances, studios allowed the rights to go to publishers for minute amounts of money. And for one simple reason – marketing. Half a century before social media, there was little advance promotion of movies. The week they were about to be released would see a flurry of advertising, but in general little promotion before that. Even journalists who had attended the press junkets I mentioned in a previous Blog would concentrate their articles into the week of release.

“What a publisher does for a film concern,” said Johnson, “is it creates a nationwide market, a popular anticipation of a film before it would ordinarily be more than a vague glimmer in the public consciousness.” The 125,000 outlets for books included not just bookstores but locations that targeted passing trade with extensive foot traffic. Newsstands in the street, hotel lobbies, railroad stations, department stores, airports and drugstores all boasted racks of paperback books with glossy covers, informing potential moviegoers of forthcoming films. Studios wanted to take advantage of the promotional device that bestsellers turned into movies could generate. For studios they represented an early marketing tool. Incorporating the movie advert or photos of the stars raised awareness of a forthcoming picture long before the first advert had appeared in a newspaper or billboard.

Robert Bloch cashed in on his “Psycho” fame to turn his original screenplay for The Couch into a novel.

One of the earliest novelizations was for Rat Pack heist picture Ocean’s 11 (1960) – pictured at the top of this page – and it showed the format to which publishers readily adhered. As you might expect, the cover featured a still from the movie incorporating the main stars, but there was also, by dictat of the Writers Guild of America (the screenwriters union), mention of the original scriptwriters in the same size of typeface as the authors who had carried out the novelisation.

Very rarely did the original screenwriter undertake this task. For a start, most considered it beneath their dignity. But, secondly, they got paid anyway. The screenwriter automatically received one-third of the fee a publisher paid the studio and the same share of royalties. By the mid-1960s the WGA was negotiating for a set fee of $6,000 (about $50,000 equivalent now) so a nice amount for no work but less appetising for a full-time screenwriter to do the whole job.

Bellah’s novel “The Valiant Virginian” was the inspiration for the TV series “The Virginian.”

But there were exceptions. Robert Bloch decided to turn his original screenplay The Couch (1961) into a novel. But then he had the experience of Psycho (1960) behind him. Prior to the 1960 Hitchcock film, his novel had only sold only 4,000 copies in hardback. The success of the film shifted 500,000 copies in paperback. Bloch must have reckoned his name emblazoned on the cover – and gaining sole credit, fee and royalties – would be more financially beneficial. Western author James Warner Bellah undertook the novelizations of his screenplays for Sergeant Rutledge (1960), A Thunder of Drums (1961) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

But neither would have been as assiduously wooed by publishers as the team of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick who were jointly credited for the novelization of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  An extremely unusual aspect of this deal was that the novelization appeared first as a hardback. Although based on a Clarke short story, and despite the fact that Clarke was considered one of the greatest names in science fiction, on the writing side movie and book were promoted as joint efforts. Delacorte-Dell forked out a $150,000 advance for the hardback with a 15% royalty rate. Clarke/Kubrick refused to allow the hardback publisher a share of the paperback spoils for which they negotiated a 12-15% royalty, way above the norm.

Note how many credits for the original musical were carried on the cover.

Occasionally the novelization would be undertaken by an author famous in their own right, such as when another sci fi giant Isaac Asimov took on the task of writing the book based on the script of Fantastic Voyage (1966). Famed western writer Louis L’Amour was handed the novelization of James Webb’s script for How the West Was Won (1963). Irving Shulman was a well-known novelist when called upon to turn West Side Story (1961) and The Notorious Landlady (1962) into novels. Screenwriter Adela Rogers St John (The Girl Who Had Everything, 1953) novelized King of Kings (1961). Sci fi writer Robert W. Krepps churned out novelizations for historical epics El Cid (1961) and Taras Bulba (1963), comedy Boys Night Out (1962) and westerns Stagecoach (1966) and Hour of the Gun (1967). Crime writer Jim Thompson novelized James Lee Barrett’s script of western The Undefeated (1969).

Some who took the novelization coin later made their name as bestselling authors in the own right. Marvin H. Albert – later known for the “Tony Rome” private eye novels that were filmed starring Frank Sinatra – was a relatively unknown journeyman writer when he became the go-to author for comedy novelizations, lending his name to the books of Come September (1961), Lover Come Back (1962), Move Over Darling (1963), The Pink Panther (1963), The Great Race (1965) and Strange Bedfellows (1965). Similarly, David Westheimer, a year before he published the bestselling Von Ryan’s Express, knocked out the book of Days of Wine and Roses (1962) from the J P Miller screenplay.

But mostly the novelizations were produced by journeymen such as Richard Wormer (Operation Crossbow, 1965), Alan Caillou (Khartoum, 1966), Ed Friend (Alvarez Kelly, 1966), John Burke (Privilege, 1967), Richard Meade (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967), Ray Gaulden (Five Card Stud, 1967), Jackson Donahue (Divorce American Style, 1967), Michael Avallone (Krakatoa-East of Java, 1968) and Joseph Landon (Stagecoach, 1966).

Publishers were not above picking over the spoils of decades-old scripts. Borden Deal was hired to novelize an un-made 1933 script written by Theodore Dreiser, author of An American Tragedy; Johnny Belinda (1948) was novelized in 1961. There were other departures. When writer-director S.Lee Pogostin received a $10,000 advance to novelize his own Hard Contract (1969) the book that appeared comprised the original script with stage directions and filmic addenda, in part due to the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance (1969) which was published as a screenplay rather than being novelized.

No genre was safe. Even musicals were plundered for their appeal to the book-reading public or for moviegoers wanting another way of reliving the film they had seen or getting a flavor of a picture they might consider seeing. As well as West Side Story and The Music Man (1962), there were novelizations of My Fair Lady (1964), Funny Girl (1968) and Paint Your Wagon (1969), an unexpected bestseller thanks to Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin on the cover.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. Hollywood was notoriously lax when it came to release dates, the opposite of the publishing industry for whom such dates were sacrosanct. So a publisher could have put a great deal into organizing the delivery of hundreds of thousands of copies of a novelized title into over a hundred thousand outlets only for the book to molder away on the shelves waiting for a movie which arrived months late – or never at all. Or the movie might undergo a last-minute title change leaving publishers trying to flog a picture nobody had heard of.

SOURCES: “3-Yr Advance Campaign for King of Kings,” Hollywood Reporter, July 5,1961, p2; “Book Notes,” Hollywood Reporter, October 27, 1961, p9; “Book Notes,” Hollywood Reporter, December 5, 1961, p11; Patricia Johnson, “Ego, Yes, Indecision Often, But Love That Hollywood,” Variety, January 10, 1962, p42; “How the West Was Won with L’Amour,” Hollywood Reporter, January 26, 1962, p10; “Book Notes,” Hollywood Reporter, December 5, 1961, p11 “Book Notes,” Hollywood Reporter, January 17, 1962, p7; ; “Willson Novelizing Script,” Hollywood Reporter, February 5, 1962, p3; “Book Notes,” Hollywood Reporter, April 3, 1962, p8; “Book Notes,” Hollywood Reporter, August 15, 1962, p7; “Roger Lewis, Phil Langner and Corp Ready Garrick Production Slate,” Variety, November 13, 1963, p19; “Crossbow Books Tie In with Picture Release,” Box Office, May 31, 1965, pA2; “Stagecoach Screenplay To Become Paperback,” Box Office, March 14, 1966, pA1; “Signet Print Paperback of Cinerama Khartoum,” Box Office, June 13, 1966, pA1; “Divorce American Style Film and Book Tie-Up,” Box Office, June 20, 1966, p12; “Inside Stuff – Pictures,” Variety, August 10, 1966, p24; “Anti-Brush-Off of Writers,” Variety, November 16, 1966, p11; “Gold Medal Books to Print Alvarez Kelly Paperback,” Box Office, September 12, 1966, pA1; “Four Paperbacks Are Set On New Universal Films,” Box Office, September 19, 1967, pA2; “Sci Fi Award Goes To 20th-Fox for Voyage,” Box Office, September 26, 1966, pSW2; “Paint Your Wagon Set for Novelization,” Box Office, October 6, 1969, pA2; “The Undefeated Is Now Available in Paperback,” Box Office, November 3, 1969, pA2; “Inside Stuff – Pictures,” Variety, January 1, 1969, p23; “Advertisement, Krakatoa East of Java,” Box Office, November 17, 1969, p13-18; “Wagon Tie-In into Second Printing,” Box Office, December 1, 1969, pA2; “Marooned Printed in Paperback,” Box Office, December 15, 1969, pA1.

What Raquel Welch Wore in “A House Is Not A Home” (1964)

A few years before Raquel Welch became the poster girl for bikinis, she could not have been in better hands, costume-wise, for her movie debut in this picture. Costumier extraordinaire and multiple Oscar-winner Edith Head, was in chare of the outfits, in particular the lingerie, which, given the subject matter, was often all that was required.

Here, Head was recycling famous movie costumes of old. Whether Ms. Welch’s figure was perhaps too bountiful for the kind of outfits worn by stars in the 1920s and 1930s where bosom size was less of a priority is unknown. You can probably spot her second from the right in the photo above.

The movie paraded famous fashions of the period in more ways than one. Head’s idea was to have the girls sporting lingerie that had been seen in movies from the 1920s to the 1950s when worn by famous female stars. Whether the clothes were the actual pieces worn in previous films, and adjusted to suit, or the designs were based on the previous movies is unclear. An article in Variety asserted that Head had not actually designed costumes for the film but that the producer had simply raided the Paramount costume department, where Head had worked since 1924, for outfits she had designed.

The “nightgown museum” was drawn from films made between 1925 and 1953. The earliest nightgown, worn by Gloria Swanson in The Duchess and the Waiter (1925), was assigned to Gigi Galligan. Meri Wells worn an item previously made famous by Clara Bow in It (1927), Leona Gage used a number from famed clothes-horse Kay Francis in Behind the Make Up (1930), Amede Charbot was adorned with the eye-popping flimsy piece that Carole Lombard paraded in Bolero (1933). Patricia Thomas was given Nancy Carroll’s trousseau from Abie’s Irish Rose (1928) and Lisa Seagram was the second wearer of Grace Kelly’s powder blue chiffon in To Catch a Thief (1955).

However, there were more costumes worn than merely those which had acquired a classic status, all the male outfits for a start plus clothes reflecting the period worn by Shelley Winters and the other stars so it is likely that Head adapted her own previous outfits and augmented those with new costumes for the other players. Head had, of course, been working for Paramount during the 1920s and 1930s so she had firsthand experience of the types of clothes that would be worn.

Edith Head won eight Oscars from a total of 35 nominations. She won each year in 1950, 1951 (twice), 1952, 1954 and 1955 and again in 1961 and 1978 (for The Sting). Even where a film was not a commercial or critical success, there was every chance Edith Head would snag a nomination. Such was the case during the 1960s, up to A House Is Not A Home. In that half-decade she was nominated eleven times. In those days designers were nominated in two categories, films made in color and those made in black-and-white, thus accounting for the double award in 1951.

She won for Bob Hope-Lucille Ball comedy The Facts of Life (1960) and was nominated for John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In the same year as A House Is Not A Home, she was also nominated for the star-studded What A Way To Go! and the previous year three of her films were up for Oscar honors – A New Kind of Love starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Wives and Lovers with Janet Leigh and Natalie Wood-Steve McQueen drama Love with the Proper Stranger.  

SOURCES: Pressbook for A House Is Not A Home, p3; “Shelley Winters on Polly Adler: Bad & Ends Sad,” Variety, April 8, 1964, p5.

Bestseller Hollywood, Part Two – Movie Tie Ins

The movie tie-in was such an obvious synergy you had to wonder why it was not employed in more significant fashion prior to the 1960s. The reason was that movie-making and publishing were generally viewed as completely separate entities, only crossing over when books were sold to Hollywood. And up to the mid-1950s, Hollywood had a ton of other, better, more effective marketing tools at its behest. It was reckoned that by 1955 the industry was taking advantage of promotional plugs worth about $350 million a year (equivalent to $3.5 billion today).

In 1948, for example, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House had amassed an estimated $5 million merchandising pot (worth around $56 million today), so much so the booklet listing all the participants ran to a massive 72-pages. Anything that could be sold on the back of a picture – furnishing, clothes, vehicles – provided a mountain of free advertising by the simple device of enrolling manufacturers, suppliers and retailers in a marketing campaign. But by 1960, as television advertising more straightforwardly pitched such goods towards the general public, that well of merchandising dried up.

Film publicists casting about for new exploitation outlets latched onto paperbacks. At the start of the decade, the paperback industry was booming, shifting over 280 million copies a year. Dell, in particular, had come to realise the “remarkable sales impact of books which have tie-ins with a motion picture” and noted that “in most instances (paperback) book sales prior to the picture will be equaled following the release of the picture.” Publishing executive William C. Engel, pointing to the movie tie-in for Psycho, reprinted three times in two months, reckoned that a “big spectacular picture will stimulate sales of a paperback.” At that time Bantam was equally buoyant, with 32 books in the tie-in business on the basis that films increased sales by 50 per cent.

Many moviegoers will fondly remember the 1960s as the glory days of the movie tie in. Sometimes the first time a film fan would get a glimpse of a movie’s advertising campaign was when they picked up the book tie-in. In those days hardcover books were often very plain, little on offer but title and author. But paperback specialists like Dell, Avon, Pocket Books, New American Library, Bantam, Fawcett and Ballantine in the U.S. and Pan, Fontana and New English Library in Britain seemed to revel in glorious colorful titles and were positioned to take advantage of movie advertising campaigns.

While waiting to make the movie, Columbia kept the novel in the bestseller lists by pumping funding into an advertising campaign for the book.

Some studios like Columbia had begun to spend money promoting the books it had bought in order to keep the titles in the bestseller lists until it was time for the movie to appear – a technique later adopted by Paramount to turn Love Story (1970) into a bestseller in the first place.

At the start of the decade, virtually every Twentieth Century Fox release was linked with a paperback. United Artists, in 1961, could count on paperbacks to support ten of its releases – Judgement at Nuremberg, The Young Doctors, Paris Blues, Sergeants 3, Something Wild, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Miracle Worker, The Happy Thieves, What a Wonderful Life and Jessica.

It was an odd relationship in many respects. Studios paid publishers for the rights to film their novels then when the properties they had purchased were turned into films they then helped publishers achieve a bigger bounty, assisting them sell more books by furnishing movie artwork and stills for the covers. Yet there was benefit. Every copy printed was one more piece of advertising for the film, often in places where a studio would not normally advertise and serving as advance buzz.

It soon became apparent that publishers could target potential moviegoers in ways that were too difficult or too expensive for studios. Publishing designers did not need to employ their skills to come up with original covers, they simply took the movie advertising artwork and stills for front and back cover. Occasionally, they would run a photo spread inside. They might even run movie credits alongside the title page. If the sight of a movie advert on the cover of a paperback encouraged the public to consider going to the movie, then the reverse was equally true, movie advertising resulted in increased book sales. Studios used a diverse range of paperback publishers, going where they were likely to get the best promotional deal.

By the mid-1960s every studio was knee-deep in movie tie-ins.

In 1965 Dell had 47 titles sold to studios either for imminent or future production. The Collector, Genghis Khan and Lord Jim were slated for Columbia, there was Harlow for Embassy and The Sound of  Music (based on the Von Trapp Family book) for Twentieth Century Fox. How to Murder Your Wife and The Knack were being filmed by United Artists, The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders by Paramount, Assault on a Queen and The Bride Wore Black set for Seven Arts, and The Cincinnati Kid and The Loved One lined up for MGM.

That same year MGM promoted ten movie tie-ins. Operation Crossbow, The Yellow Rolls Royce, The Sandpiper, She, Joy in the Morning, Once a Thief, Lady L and Doctor Zhivago were placed with publishers other than Dell who handled, as noted above, The Loved One and The Cincinnati Kid. In 1966 Paramount had nine deals with different paperback houses to promote Is Paris Burning?, Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Seconds, Hurry Sundown, Funeral in Berlin, The Swinger, Alfie, El Dorado and Warning Shot. Disney, which had long been the master of merchandising, contracted with Scholastic Publishing to target schools and libraries.

Studios occasionally ran their own bookstore promotions. This one, in 1968, simply announced that Universal had acquired “Airport,” “Topaz”, “Red Sky at Morning” – all later filmed – and “Vanished” which was not. Most interesting of all, these books were hardcover not paperback,
so this fell very much into the long-range marketing department.

By the end of the decade publishers were desperate to jump on the movie tie-in bandwagon. In 1968 Twentieth Century Fox had pacts with a dozen different publishers covering 19 pictures including Bandolero!, Star!, The Devil’s Bride, Planet of the Apes, The Boston Strangler and The Sweet Ride.  Dr Dolittle came out in 26 different editions through various publishers. The following year MGM pitched in with a half a dozen movie tie-ins including The Appointment and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, already having taken advantage of readership interest in Alistair Maclean hits Where Eagles Dare and Ice Station Zebra, the reissued Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur, and The Shoes of the Fisherman and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In 1969, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) tied in with National Library Week. Under the cross-promotional tagline “Read These Important Books – See These Important Films,” libraries across the country promoted a variety of current pictures sourced from novels including True Grit, Belle de Jour,  Goodbye, Columbus, John and Mary and Topaz. In return NATO distributed posters advertising the library involvement via 5,000 theaters.

The same year Bantam Books ran a trailer in 100 cinemas for its own “film festival tie-in” of eight books – Goodbye, Mr. Chips, John and Mary, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Hail, Hero!, Marooned, Topaz, A Dream of Kings and Women in Love.

Although it is often considered that the movie tie-in business began in the 1970s when books spawned mega-hits like Love Story, The Godfather and Jaws, these pictures were in reality only benefitting from the heavy lifting put in during the previous decade.

SOURCES: “Paperback-Film Tandems Zowie,” Variety, February 3, 1960, p5; “Columbia’s Book Bally Budget,” Variety, September 21, 1960, p24; William C. Engel, “Big Stake in Publishing’s 280,000,000 Annual Sale,” Variety, January 4, 1961, p25; “To Issue Paperback Books on 10 United Artists Films,” Box Office, August 28, 1961, p9; “Big Hike in Film Tie-Ins Noted by Bantam Books,” Box Office, November 27, 1961, pA3; “Commercial Tie-Ups Back After Slump,” Variety, December 27, 1961, p7;  “Dell Paperback Tie-Ins,” Variety, January 13, 1965, p22; “Ten Books in Paperback Promote MGM Releases,” Box Office, May 31, 1965, pE-4; “Paperback Books Arranged for 9 Paramount Films,” Box Office, August 15, 1966, pE5; “Scholastic To Publish Disney Properties,” Box Office, May 2, 1966, pA1;  “12 Publishers Print Books on 20th-Fox Productions,” Box Office, February 26, 1968, pA1; “Paperback Book Tie-Ups for 12 MGM Pictures,” Box Office, March 31, 1969, pA1; “Tenth Year for Tie-Up with Library Week,” Box Office, May 5, 1969, p6; “Bantam Books Plans Film Fest Tie-In,” Box Office, November 10, 1969, p10.

Bestseller Hollywood, Part One – How Hollywood Cannibalized Hit Fiction

A 1960s novelist lucky enough to hit the bestselling jackpot could generally count upon another financial bounty when Hollywood came calling. Bestsellers came with the double bonus of a ready-made story and a ready-made audience. From the outset the industry had recognised the benefit of making pictures out of properties that had already gained a wide readership, hence the continual adaptation of Shakespeare and Dickens from the silent era onwards.

The combined hardback and paperback sales in the U.S. could amount to a couple of million copies, with double that number or more overseas, and of course some books hit the stratosphere – Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls, for example. Publishers had learned to slap one of two taglines – either “Now a major motion picture” or “Soon to be a major motion picture” – on new paperbacks which appeared to give a book greater status among the reading public while at the same time acting as advance buzz for a movie, paving the way for an onslaught of movie tie-ins.

Alfred Hitchcock became the main selling point for “Marnie” once his name
was attached to the film of the book.

In the 1960s, there were not only many more bookstores than there are now, but paperbacks were also widely available in department stores, newsagents, corner shops and kiosks. In fact, it was estimated there were as many as 125,000 outlets for books. Much as they had done with fan magazines Hollywood latched on to anything that would act as free marketing, book covers in shop windows provided a free promotional boost, in effect the publishers doing the studios’ job for them. As the cost of marketing continued to rise, movies made from bestsellers, with their significant public awareness, were seen as a very effective investment.

For a studio, books were often a cheaper investment than an original screenplays. Although some books were sold for substantial sums a good number were purchased for relatively small fees prior to publication with the author receiving further sums dependent on book sales and/or audience figures – Valley of the Dolls was sold in this fashion much to author Jacqueline Susann’s later chagrin.

From the Annual Top Ten Bestsellers, every year except 1965 the number one bestseller was turned into a movie. About four books a year on average from the top ten were made into pictures. The best year for books into films was 1962 when nearly three-quarters of the books achieving an annual top ten ranking ended up on the big screen. These were Ship of Fools (film released in 1965), Youngblood Hawke (1964), Fail Safe (1964), Seven Days in May (1964), The Prize (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) and The Reivers (1969).

Bestsellers clearly created their own momentum and studios snatching up the movie rights tended to strike while the iron was hot, all except one of these 1962 bestsellers being filmed within three years of publication.

Sales of the third best-selling novel of 1961 were boosted the following year by the addition of Gregory Peck’s photo on the front cover. The gap between initial hardover publication, first paperback publication and the movie tie-in edition suited publishers who felt they would get a third bite of the cherry with the movie edition. The movie edition would usually be published several weeks prior to a film’s
release serving as a teaser for the picture.

Six films were adapted in 1965 and five in 1963. Most went into speedy production. Of the 1963 contingent – The Shoes of the Fisherman (released in 1968), The Group (1966), Caravans (1978), The Sand Pebbles (1966) and The Battle of the Villa Florita (1965) – three fell into the three-year bracket while one took five years to hit the screen and Caravans, although taking more than a decade to reach the screen, was actually on MGM’s production list for most of the 1960s.

Half those from the 1965 Top Ten list were as promptly made into pictures – Up the Down Staircase (1967), The Green Berets (1968) and Arthur Hailey’s Hotel (1966). Taking a slower route were John Le Carre’s The Looking Glass War (1970), Ian Fleming’s The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and Morris West’s The Ambassador (1984). 

Of course, there was no guarantee that moviegoers would respond to a film of a bestselling book or in the quantities required to turn a profit. Even being the year’s number one bestseller could not shield a property from the vagaries of the movie business. Advise and Consent (filmed in 1962), The Agony and the Ecstasy and The Shoes of the Fisherman – all the top-selling books of their particular year – failed to make much of an impact at the box office. On the other hand, Valley of the Dolls (1968) and Airport (1970) most certainly did.

It is also worth noting that with the sole exception of Cleopatra (1963), none of the number one films at the box during the 1960s was an original screenplay. They all originated in another medium, either publishing or Broadway.

The movie tie-in was a different aspect of the publishing business and will be covered in a future Blog. And so might be novelizations.

Hollywood Myths No 1 – The Mirisch Brothers

The Mirisch Brothers, the first of what would be called the “mini-majors,” ushered in a Hollywood production revolution in the 1950s by employing a number of cute devices. They paid over-the-odds for top directors and actors – $750,000 apiece for John Wayne and William Holden for The Horse Soldiers (1959) plus $250,000 for John Ford, for example. They gave them greater control over scripts and the finished pictures. Possibly as an attractive a hook, they handed out a bigger share of the profits.

This approach went down very well with the talent – lucrative long-term pacts were struck with Yul Brynner, Billy Wilder and John Sturges among others – less so with rival studios who complained their generosity was driving up costs at a time when Hollywood was on the brink of collapse with  major studios teetering on the edge of bankruptcy as, thanks to television, audiences plummeted.

Walter Mirisch was the name best known to moviegoers since he worked as producer on the company’s output. Harold was best known to the studios since he was the guy who set up the deals and found the funding. Marvin was the backroom boy who ensured the whole process kept ticking over.

Mirisch had secured a deal with United Artists to supply a series of pictures, the first contract calling for 20 movies. Generally, the company was lauded by the trade press as innovative thinkers producing a stream of noteworthy movies such as Some Like it Hot (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), Irma La Douce (1963) and later pictures like The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), Hawaii (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). As independent producers they had more than their fair share of Oscar successes.

But like every player in Hollywood, they employed sleight of hand, convincing the media that they were highly successful operators when the reality was exactly the opposite.

The Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, part of the University of Wisconsin, holds a vast archive relating to United Artists. Within that archive, I was able to source the materials that cast an alternative light on the Mirisch Brothers’ initial foray into the Hollywood big-time.

The figures revealed that the first 20 pictures – including Some Like it Hot, The Great Escape and Irma La Douce – in the Mirisch-United Artists deal racked up a cumulative $8 million loss.

In fact, one of the factors driving down the company’s potential profitability was the amount of money it gave away in profit-share. In addition, the bigger profits in the movie business were often to be found in distribution and exhibition. For a start, about 50% of box office revenue found its way into the exhibitor’s pockets. From what was left over, another big chunk went to the distributor, in this case United Artists, and once profit-participants had been paid off, there was sometimes remarkably little finding its way back into the Mirisch Brothers’ coffers.

For example, Some Like it Hot, which according to these figures generated a total of $12.9 million in domestic and foreign rentals* (i.e. what’s left after exhibitors have taken their share), racked up less than half a million dollars in profit for the Mirisch Brothers. The Magnificent Seven earned three times as much overseas as in the U.S. so though viewed as a flop at home it ended up with $321,000 in the bank. The Great Escape brought in a profit of $326,000 on total rentals of $11 million while Irma La Douce topped that with $440,000. The latter picture illustrated a typical problem for Mirisch in that at the outset they were bound to share profits with three other partners. The Apartment (1960) delivered Mirisch’s biggest profit of $1.09 million.

But those were the only films – out of the 20 launched in Mirisch’s first few years of operation – to turn a profit. The other 15 all hit the buffers. That was not a healthy win-lose ratio at all. That three-quarters of the Mirisch picks turned into losers was hardly cause for celebration.

Some of the losses were stratospheric for the time. The Children’s Hour (1961), with Audrey Hepburn picking up a colossal upfront fee, was in the red to the tune of $2.7 million. The loss on The Horse Soldiers amounted to $1.8 million with Billy Wilder’s ill-fated One, Two, Three (1961) suffering a $1.5 million loss and Toys in the Attic (1963) turning into a $1.2 million liability.  Stolen Hours (1963) with Susan Hayward added nearly $1 million to the company’s overall debt. Even Elvis Presley, at that point a guaranteed box office draw, offered no respite – the loss on Kid Galahad (1962) above $430,000 and that of Follow That Dream (1962) $195,000.

So you might be wondering with such a poor ratio of hits to flops why the Mirisch Brothers managed to stay in the game. Well, before the final figures were in on the contract to deliver the first 20 pictures, United Artists were already committed to a further 20 movies, some of which were already in production. But there were two other elements acting in Mirisch’s favor. The first was that exhibitors were desperate for new movies, the industry only beginning by 1963 to turn a financial corner, and it was expected that Mirisch would have learned from its mistakes and stop underwriting expensive pictures (which turned out to be untrue).

But second, and more importantly, the Mirisch losses did not impact so badly on United Artists. That studio made the bulk of its revenue from distribution. Even if a picture was a flop, UA’s 30% distribution fee was based on the gross, so a movie that maybe ended up as an overall financial flop could still generate enough revenue to keep UA happy.

Also, UA, now seeing record profits from the likes of its investment in Tom Jones (1963) and on the brink of a James Bond bonanza, could afford to carry its production partner. So Mirisch kept on pretending it was a huge success and the trade press kept on believing it.

* These figures do not including television sale or future reissues. But initial television sales in the early 1960s averaged about half a million dollars for successful movies. What television would pay was based on the original domestic gross (i.e. perceived popularity). Only a couple of pictures, most notably The Magnificent Seven, significantly added to their initial release income through reissue. So it is extremely unlikely that the Mirisch Brothers would have gone into profit on those first 20 pictures through reissues and television sales in the 1960s, and doubtful if they would have even halved the losses. 

SOURCE:  “Mirisch Pictures First 20 Picture Deal,” Appendix II, United Artists Archive, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research; “Mirisch and UA Sign New 3-Year Contract,” Box Office, June 12, 1961, 8; “Multi-Million Deal,” Box Office, May 22, 1961, p20; “Irma La Douce Is Split four Ways from Start,” Box Office, June 11, 1962, W-2; “Billy Wilder To Produce Three Films for Mirisch,” February 5, 1963, p12.

The Blogger Speaks

This weekend I am one of the very few male speakers at the “Doing Women’s Film and Television History” international conference being hosted by Maynooth University, Dublin, on July 10-11. Naturally it is a virtual conference but it is packed with speakers from all over the world who have been researching issues relating to women working in film and television. I am not an academic so it is signal honor for me to be invited to speak at a university-run conference.

My topic is “When Women Ruled Hollywood” which looks at female salaries in the movie business from 1910 to 1970. Although most people think women were hard-done-by in Hollywood and generally considered as second-class citizens, I found this was not at all the case. In the 1910s, Mary Pickford earned double the earnings of Charlie Chaplin. In the 1920s, the top earning star of either gender was Corinne Griffith.s

At the start of the 1930s, Greta Garbo was the dominant figure when it came to salaries. In 1935 Mae West was the second-highest earner in the whole of America, beaten only by William Randolph Hearst, immortalised as Citizen Kane.

In the annual salary league for the remainder of the 1930s and 1940s, Claudette Colbert (twice), Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and Deanna Durbin all topped the rankings and in the years when males came out on top the female stars were not far behind.

While female salaries dipped in the 1950s, by the 1960s women were again beating the males at the salary game, Elizabeth Taylor way ahead of everybody, Audrey Hepburn on $1 million a picture, Julie Andrews out-earning Paul Newman in Torn Curtain and newcomer Barbra Streisand reaching unheard-of commercial heights.

I had written a couple of business histories of Hollywood, the research for which took me back to 1910 and in the course of writing those books I discovered information about salaries that would have been out of place in those works, so I dug around some more and came up with the information for this talk.

If you want an idea of my speech, you can check out this short sample on Youtube.

Advance Buzz – The Phenomenon Created in the 1960s

In 1964, Twentieth Century Fox created a new way of selling pictures by inventing the advance buzz.

Of course, movies had always had some kind of pre-launch push but mostly on a small-scale via gossip columnists, who, while they had some influence, did not actually receive much space in a newspaper. Fox set out to change all that and put movies on the front pages and gain big feature spreads inside, an event that only usually occurred through  unwanted scandal (Cleopatra, for example), death  or a photo of a big female star.

Fox revamped the press junket – at that time primarily used as a vehicle to announce a movie premiere – and turned it into a method of creating advance publicity and expanding awareness on new pictures long before they reached the screen. And did so with enormous style, transporting over 100 American journalists to Europe to watch the production of three major big-budget roadshows.

Cecil B. DeMille of all people had invented the movie press junket – for the world premiere of his swashbuckler The Buccaneer in 1938. At a time when world premieres were confined to New York and Los Angeles, Hollywood had begun experimenting on a small scale with different locales for a first showing – whaling picture I Conquer the Sea (1936) was unveiled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, The Petrified Forest (1936) in St Louis and Sutter’s Gold (1936) in Sacramento. But these were all local affairs, the selected city putting on a big show for local dignitaries but the media were drawn only from the immediate surrounding area with stories syndicated to bigger newspapers.

When he selected New Orleans for his world premiere, DeMille, as skilled in marketing as he was in direction, hired a deluxe train to bring journalists from the top newspapers and magazines down from New York and Chicago. The train had a special compartment kitted out with typewriters, telephones, radio, Dictaphones and even stenographers to “relay hot news as it happens.”

All expenses – accommodation, meals, alcohol and various other sundries – for an entire week were picked up by Paramount. Three radio stations made daily broadcasts and the journalists filed news stories and features about the stars and the city, and, most important of all, reviews of the film they were privileged to be the first to see. The city went to extraordinary trouble, proclaiming a local holiday, organizing parades, enlisting the help of local organizations to ensure there was some event worth reporting every day. Local retailers, hoteliers and restaurateurs made a fortune as hundreds of thousands of people piled in to see the stars and witness the festivities.

The press junket was born.

In the following years, world premieres were held all over America either in locations where the movie was filmed or places linked with a star or character. These varied from major metropolises like Detroit (Disputed Passage, 1939), Houston (Man of Conquest, 1939), Memphis (Dr Erlich’s Magic Bullet, 1940) and Philadelphia (Intermezzo, 1939) to smaller locales like Littleton, New Hampshire (The Great Lie, 1941) and South Bend, Indiana (Knute Rockne, All American, 1940).

But by the 1960s, the world premiere idea had been done to death. There was scarcely a town, city or venue that had not been the subject of premiere marketing.

So in 1964 with an unprecedented three roadshow pictures in production Twentieth Century Fox upped the press junket ante by flying a fleet of 110 journalists on a specially chartered Boeing 707 to Europe to watch filming on actual locations in Britain, Austria and Italy.

Over 40 cities were represented by reporters and included representatives of the New York Post, Los Angeles Times, UPI, Detroit Free Press, Kansas City Star, Boston Globe and the Seattle Times as well as The Mike Wallace Show (television) and NBC Radio and magazines as diverse as McCalls, Cue and Newsweek.

At the reconstructed Booker Airport in Britain, journalists watched stunts for Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) and interviewed stars like Sarah Miles, Terry-Thomas and Robert Morley. Each journalist had a photograph taken as a personal souvenir alongside a replica of a 1910 Antoinette airplane specially built for the film, but undoubtedly many such photographs found their way into the newspapers and magazines.

When the media cavalcade shifted to Austria they were treated to a massive banquet at Schloss Klessheim in Salzburg where The Sound of Music (1965) was being filmed. Julie Andrews was interviewed with her feet on a table and the reporters watched choreographer Marc Breaux rehearsing the “I Have Confidence” number (the music had been recorded in Hollywood and then played back synchronized to the action). Andrews and co-star Christopher Plummer were interviewed at Frohnburg Castle.

Italy – where The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) was being shot – was the final destination. The visitors were conveyed up the perilous Carrera Mountains to the 4,700 ft Monte Altimissino to watch a scene being filmed in a quarry usually closed to visitors of a 200-ton block of marble being cut. Director Carol Reed, producer Darryl F. Zanuck and star Charlton Heston were on hand to welcome them. Rex Harrison (playing the Pope) was interviewed outside a restaurant in Rome that bore the Pontiff’s name 

Even before the journalists returned from the seven-day trip, they were sending stories back – over $8,000 (worth about $70,000 today) was spent on cable fees and nearly one million words had been written. Many of the journalists had never been to Europe before and took full advantage of the opportunity. Newspaper and magazines would not permit journalists to spend such a length of time away from the office without expecting a substantial bounty in the shape of news stories – the trip itself received extensive coverage.

Feature editors were deluged with stories and interviews that ran in the main sections of the newspaper and in weekend supplements, shifting the coverage of movies away from the  entertainment sections. In addition, to justify their time away, stories ran in the food, travel and fashion sections.

It was an unprecedented publicity bonanza for films that were still a full year away from release, creating a tsunami of public interest. For the first time a studio had created movie awareness on its own terms. While movies filmed in Europe had often received coverage based on reports by journalists living in that continent, this was rather cursory, had always appeared piecemeal in American newspapers, largely depended on an editor’s decision about reader interest in a particular star, and, more importantly, such stories usually coincided with the film’s launch rather than well in advance.

This huge media onslaught whetted public appetites well in advance. In addition, there were enough articles left over to be used up when the movies actually did open.

The trade press also widely reported on the event and Box Office magazine ran a 12-page feature one month later. In its evaluation of the junket, the studio concluded that it was the “most advanced type of industrial marketing.”

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere: A History of the Hollywood Wide Release 1913-2017, p32-36 (McFarland Publishing, 2019); “That Was the Week That Was…Fantastic,” Box Office, Jul 6, 1964, p10-21.

Readers’ Choice – Behind the Scenes and Other Stuff Top 10

Regular readers will know that I don’t just write movie reviews but pick up on “Other Stuff” relating to the 1960s. This will take the form of articles about interesting aspects of the decade, book reviews and analyses of how particular movies were sold to the exhibitor via the studio’s Pressbooks / Campaign Manuals.

In addition, I have become especially interested in how works of fiction were adapted for the screen and these go out under the general heading of “Book into Film.” And, lastly, I have written a number of Behind The Scenes posts on the making of specific pictures.

So given I have been highlighting those movies that were the most highly regarded either by myself or my readers during the year, I thought it only fair to include some mention of the “Other Stuff.”

So these are my Top Ten posts of “Other Stuff”- as measured by reader response – during my inaugural year as a movie blogger. It’s worth pointing out that had the “Other Stuff” been included in the same chart as the Top 30 Readers’ pictures, five would have made the Top 20.

  1. “Box Office Poison 1960s Style” highlighted the stars whose attraction was beginning to fade.
  2. The Gladiators vs Spartacus was a two-volume book that I reviewed about the ill-fated production launched by Yul Brynner against the Kirk Douglas production of Spartacus (1960).
  3. Behind the Scenes of “Genghis Khan” (1965) related the battle to bring this Omar Sharif vehicle to the screen
  4. Behind the Scenes of The Night They Raided Minskys (1968) produced a surprising amount of interest given the film, directed by William Fredkin and starring Britt Ekland, was a notorious flop.
  5. The Pressbook for “The Dark of the Sun” / “The Mercenaries” (1968) identified the efforts of the MGM marketing wizards to sell the Rod Taylor-Jim Brown action picture to the wider public.
  6. Behind the Scenes of “The Guns of Navarone” (1961) was based on my own successful book The Making of The Guns of Navarone which had been reissued with additional text and illustrations to celebrate the film’s 60th anniversary.
  7. Behind the Scenes of “The Girl on a Motorcycle” tracked how director Jack Cardiff beat the censor and cajoled a decent performance from Marianne Faithful even though it was yanked form U.S. release.
  8. Book into Film – “The Venetian Affair” explained how screenwriter E. Jack Neumann took the bare bones of the Helen MacInnes thriller and turned it into an excellent vehicle for Robert Vaughn trying to escape his The Man from Uncle television persona.
  9. Selling “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) examined the media campaign run by MGM for the London launch of the David Lean blockbuster.
  10. Book into Film – “A Cold Wind in August” demonstrated how screenwriter John Hayes toned down the sexy novel by Burton Wohl to escape the wrath of the censor while turning it into a touching vehicle for Lola Albright.

Countdown to the Top Films of the Year

This is by way of a trailer. By the end of the month – i.e. tomorrow – this Blog will have been running for an entire year. One of the interesting aspects of the Blog for me has been reader response to particular pictures. Some pictures I though would be stone-cold faves such as Easy Rider (1969), “Rat Pack” vehicle Sergeants 3 (1962), Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967) and the unfairly neglected historical epic The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) have turned out to be less popular – in terms of views – than I might have imagined.

And, on the contrary, some films have generated an enormous number of views, far more in many cases than I had believed they would, far more than I had any reason to suppose any of my postings would.

So tomorrow (June 30) I am going to list the films I enjoyed most throughout the year – movies that qualified for my own five-star rating.

I am going to follow that up on Thursday (July 1) by publishing the list of the Top 25 most popular movie posts as judged by my readers.

But I thought it might be interesting as a little competition for people to guess what the most popular film has been. There’s no prize so there’s nothing to be gained by seeing what other people have suggested. It would certainly be interesting. So if you fancy doing this, then just put your suggestion in the Comments section.

I have posted over 200 reviews, the bulk of them on films themselves, though regular readers will know I also write about the makings of films, about how books are adapted into films and a few other movie-related subjects that catch my eye. But this tally will just refer to films rather than anything else.

Given this is my first year, I had no real expectations of what to expect, least of all that I would attract a regular following and that, overall, the Blog has exceeded my wildest expectations. I have attracted readers in over 70 countries, so it’s fascinating to observe how this particular decade has proved so interesting to such a wide audience.

Make sure you check out my post on July 1 to find out which were the most popular films of the first year of the blog.

Bronson Unwanted

That Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) was a smash hit in France did nothing for Charles Bronson’s Hollywood career. Hollywood had form in disregarding U.S.-born stars that Europe had taken to its box office bosom. Example number one of course was Clint Eastwood, ignored by the big American studios until four years after his movies had cut a commercial swathe through foreign territories. Charles Bronson took about the same length of time for his box office grosses abroad to make an impact back home.

While we tend to look upon The Dirty Dozen (1967) as a career-making vehicle for many of the supporting stars, that wasn’t actually the case. Jim Brown was quickest out of the blocks, a full-blown top-billed star a year later in The Split (1968). Otherwise, John Cassavetes had the biggest crack at stardom after landing the male lead in box office smash Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But the rest of the gang – Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Charles Bronson, Richard Jaeckal et al – remained at least for the time being strictly supporting players.

For Charles Bronson, the year of The Dirty Dozen produced nothing more than television guest spots in Dundee and the Culhane, The Fugitive and The Virginian. Beyond that he had a berth in two flop westerns Villa Rides (1968) and Guns for San Sebstian (1968) and no guarantee his career was moving in an upward direction. But the latter picture was primarily a French-Mexican co-production, the Gallic end set up by top French producer Jacques Bar under the aegis of Cipra which had previously been responsible for Alain Delon vehicles Any Number Can Win (1963), Joy House (1964) and Once a Thief (1965).

There was another, as vital, French connection. Henri Verneuil directed both Any Number Can Win and Guns for San Sebastian so could attest to Bronson’s screen presence. And another legendary French producer, the Polish-born Serge Silberman, best known for Luis Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), had taken note of Bronson, whose screen persona was similar to that of French stars Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin. Silberman’s Greenwich Films production shingle was in the process of setting up Farewell Friend / Adieu L’Ami.

Like The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), Farewell Friend was part of a new trend to make French productions in English as well as French, in this case the English version viewed as “the working one.” But that ploy failed to convince U.S. distributors to take a chance and the film sat on the shelf for five years. And little that Bronson did in the meantime increased his chances of a serious stab at the Hollywood big time.

Although Paramount had piled cash into the Italian-made Once upon a Time in the West (1968) it was counting on Henry Fonda – undergoing a career renaissance after Madigan (1968), The Boston Strangler (1968) and Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) – to provide the box office momentum. Bronson was billed fourth after Claudia Cardinale, Fonda and Jason Robards, so still in Hollywood’s eyes a supporting player.

And while the Sergio Leone picture flopped Stateside, the success of Farewell, Friend in France turned Bronson into a star and was instrumental in the western breaking box office records in Paris (where it ran for a year) and throughout the country.

Fortunately for Bronson, European producers recognized his potential. His next picture should have been an Italian-French-German co-production of Michael Strogoff, for which he was announced as the top billed star (Advert, Variety, May 8, 1968, p136-137).  When that fell through, Italian company Euro International, bidding to become the top foreign studio outside Hollywood, gave him top-billing in Richard Donner drama Twinky (aka Lola, aka London Affair, 1970) and Serge Silberman tapped him for Rene Clement thriller Rider on the Rain (1970), another French hit.

British director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) was responsible for recruiting him for You Can’t Win ‘Em All (aka The Dubious Patriots, 1970), but with Tony Curtis taking top billing. Again, though funded by an American studio, this time Columbia, it was another big flop, mostly because the studio did not know how to market the picture, Curtis in a box office slump and Bronson considered to have little appeal.

But still the Europeans kept the faith. Another French-Italian co-production Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970) gave him top billing over exiles Telly Savalas and Jill Ireland, Bronson’s wife. That was also the case with Cold Sweat (1970), helmed by British director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962).  He had another French-made hit with Someone Behind the Door (1971) and Terence Young hired him again, along with Farewell, Friend co-star Alain Delon, Japanese star Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai, 1954) and Dr No alumni Ursula Andress for international co-production Red Sun. While this western sent box office tills whirring all over the world, it only made a fair impression in the U.S., ranking 53rd in the annual box office chase.

Riding on the back of The Godfather phenomenon, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis chose Bronson for Mafia thriller The Valachi Papers (1972), again directed by Terence Young, which produced something of a box office breakthrough in the U.S., ending the year just outside the Top 20. But it took another British director, Michael Winner, to help solidify the Bronson screen persona and boost his global appeal. Four – and all of the hits – out of the star’s next six pictures were directed by Winner.  These were the western Chato’s Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973) and Death Wish (1975). The Mechanic was such a big hit Stateside it did better in its second year of release than the first and Columbia redeemed itself by giving prison escape thriller Breakout (1975) the widest release – up to that point – of all time.

That America had little interest in developing Bronson as a breakout star could be judged by the distribution treatment of his pictures. As mentioned above, Farewell, Friend had to wait until 1973 for its U.S. debut and then renamed Honor among Thieves. Twinky was denied a cinema release in the U.S. and went straight to television in 1972. Violent City had to wait until 1973 for a distribution deal, Cold Sweat until 1974 and even Red Sun took nine months before it hit American shores.  Until The Valachi Papers did the business, Bronson was not considered the kind of star who could open a picture in the U.S.

By then, of course, Bronson had reversed the normal box office rules. Usually, for films starring American actors, foreign revenues were the icing on the cake. For Bronson it was the other way round. Along with Clint Eastwood he was the first of the global superstars, whose name resonated around the world, and whose pictures made huge amounts of money regardless of American acceptance or interest. But had it been left to Hollywood, Bronson would never have made the grade.