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.
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 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.