Humphrey Bogart: 1960s Revival Champ

When Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) was reissued in 1963 the star attraction was undoubtedly Audrey Hepburn, hot after Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Charade (1963), rather than William Holden, tumbling down the box office charts, or Humphrey Bogart, six years deceased. When the film was reissued two years later on the back of an even hotter Hepburn after My Fair Lady (1964), Bogart was assuredly the star. What happened in between was one of the oddest twists in motion picture history and one that would turn the actor into the biggest revival star of the 1960s.

But if you were to select the Bogart picture most likely to reignite public interest in the star, it would not be John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953), a flop on initial release and by 1965 for legal reasons never shown on television. But in one of those quirks of programming the old Bogart found a new lease of life. Opening in spring 1964 at the 250-seat Avenue Cinema in New York it racked up $7,000 – equivalent to $65,000 today, totting up $30,000 ($279,000 equivalent) in a six-week run – phenomenal amounts for such a small venue. It shifted over to the 55th St Playhouse where it remained for another four weeks. The Art Cinema chain picked it up for wider release, sending it out in its thirty-six houses with, once again, outstanding results ($7,000 in one week in Boston, $5,000 in Washington). In Philadelphia it ran simultaneously in two houses.

In 1965 Dominant Films, part of United Artists, reissued a package of nineteen Bogart oldies, available on a rental rather than fixed price basis, and bookings were conditional on cinemas undertaking a two-week engagement, one film for the whole fortnight or the entire supply over the period, or any kind of program arrangement in between. There was no shortage of takers, especially after it became known that the 8th St Playhouse in New York, generally a second-run arthouse, and the 495-seat Carnegie in Chicago had each seen receipts hit the $10,000 ($93,000 equivalent) mark. The former double-billed fourteen pictures from the selection available, switching programs every two days.

Demand for the program was so high, prints were rationed. In the next fourteen cinemas on the release schedule, venues were allocated a maximum of six movies over the two-week period, sometimes limited to just two. When it became obvious that this gold mine was being given away too cheaply, a new strategy emerged: weekly double bills. In what amounted to a Humphrey Bogart greatest hits package the Carnegie in Chicago cleared nearly $15,000 ($139,000 equivalent) over three consecutive weeks with the following programs: The Petrified Forest (1936)/Key Largo (1948), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)/Casablanca (1942), and The Maltese Falcon (1941)/High Sierra (1951).

These grosses were even more astonishing in light of the fact that nearly all his seventy-five pictures were available on television, free of charge, on constant rerun, demand highest in the late-late slot. In 1966, United Artists Associates, a division of UA TV, referred to its portfolio of forty-five Warner Brothers features as “the most significant phenomenon of this era of entertainment history” It was estimated that screenings of his movies totalled two hundred per year.

Although there had been sporadic screenings of golden oldies in the U.S., exhibitors did not appear to share the same penchant for classics. Certainly, the U.S. lagged behind Europe in that respect. Wuthering Heights (1939), a huge rerun favourite in Europe, in 1963 in Paris attracted 30,000 admissions in three days in a trio of cinemas. In February 1963 half the cinemas in the French capital were given over to classics.

The most successful classics operator in the U.S. was MGM which in the early 1960s set up the Perpetual Program Plan. Investing in new prints of MGM oldies and a distinct marketing plan, the studio offered a package on an innovative basis. Rather than tying cinemas down to one-week or two-week contracts, as would be standard for arthouses, and therefore limiting potential bookings over fears that audience demand would peter out after a few days, MGM had hit on the idea of showing the films once a week on the same day of the week – Wednesday the most popular – for a season of six-eight weeks. Patrons could book a “season ticket” to see all the films. This approach made it far more appealing to the ordinary cinema, rather than the arthouse specialist, since a special showing could lift the midweek quiet period.

The first offerings from the Perpetual Program Plan were “Golden Operettas” – Rose Marie (1936), The Merry Widow (1934), The Great Waltz (1938), Sweethearts (1938), The Chocolate Soldier (1941) and The Student Prince (1954). The package played in over 3,500 cinemas. Expecting little more than $60 for their Wednesday income, cinemas found themselves taking in $300-$900 a night. The Chocolate Soldier could bring in as much as $2,200 a night, The Student Prince $1,500. MGM followed up with a program of films based on famous books such as Little Women (1949) and a third package revolved around musicals like Singing’ in the Rain (1952) and The Bandwagon (1953).  

The Humphrey Bogart concept was a considerable step up from this once-a-week program. The Bogart craze reached its commercial height in 1967. But there was one Bogart picture that audiences had been denied a showing for a decade. The African Queen (1952) had been made by British company Romulus and distributors had been put off taking up an option to show it due to a technical issue with the color prints. The impetus for its revival was the tenth anniversary of Bogart’s death, an event that stimulated an avalanche of newspaper articles and books. Producer Sam Spiegel sold reissue rights for The African Queen to Trans-Lux, a small arthouse chain in expansion mode planning to move into distribution. When the Los Angeles Times held a poll to identify the oldie most moviegoers wanted to see, The African Queen topped the poll. The buzz surrounding Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) created massive interest in the picture’s co-star Katharine Hepburn.

It was no surprise that The African Queen launched – in November 1967 – at a New York arthouse, the 600-seat Trans-Lux East, but the box office blew the industry away. An opening week of close on $20,000 ($186,000 equivalent) put the oldie into the cinema’s all-time top ten. What was astonishing was that it received as many bookings outside the expected release route of arthouses and the college circuit and was taken up by local theaters all over the country, shown in four houses in San Mateo, for example. It formed double and triple bills with other Bogart films, as well as The Quiet Man (1952) and topped bills that included films like Waterhole 3 (1967). After the first flush of first run and nabes, it turned up as support to contemporary pictures like Dark of the Sun (1968) and underwent another revival in 1969 before being sold to television in 1970.

SOURCE: Brian Hannan, Coming Back To A Theater Near You; A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016) p127-133, 198-206.

Banned, Ignored, Shelved

If anybody in Britain told you they saw Wild Angels (1966) when it came out that year you could safely accuse them of being liberal with the truth for that was one of the many films banned by the censors there. Global censorship remained a major issue for studios during the 1960s, every country imposing its own system, and very rarely did they conform with each other. At the beginning of the decade, the biggest issue was sex, by the end it was joined by violence and drugs.

Films were rarely banned in the United States since scripts for movies liable to violate the agreed guidelines tended to be submitted in advance and a compromise reached prior to production. However, local U.S. censorship bodies acting independently prevented some films being shown, This Rebel Breed (1960) in Memphis, Room at the Top (1959) in Atlanta. Movies banned in different countries included: Operation Eichmann (1961) in Israel and Germany, Queen Bee (1963) in Italy, The Collector (1965) in New Zealand, Wild Angels (1966) in Denmark, Lady in a Cage (1964) in Sweden and Geneva, Ulysses (1967) in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and Easy Rider (1969),  despite winning a prize at Cannes, in France. Doctor Zhivago (1965) was banned in Thailand for being pro-communistic and in India for the opposite reason. Ireland banned 56 movies in 1960, Finland 12 in 1962, Sweden 10 in 1963 and West Germany 19 that same year. In South Korea in 1962 you still could not see any Japanese movies.

Being banned of course became a promotional tool. It was a regular joke in America that a low-budget picture had no chance of box office success unless it was banned in Boston. In France, Les Teenagers (1968), Young Wolves (1968), The Nun (1966) and Paris Secret (1965) all benefitted from being released after tussles with the censor and the controversy over Ulysses saw it break box office records in Dundee in Scotland.

The British censor prevented screening of films deemed too violent including The Couch (1962) about a serial killer, Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), Violent Midnight (1963), The Thrill Killers (1963), Shock Treatment (1963) – despite a cast that included Lauren Bacall and Stuart Whitman – Fuller’s The Naked Kiss and Weekend of Fear (1966). Among horror films denied a showing were Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) and, initially, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) which was later reprieved and shown as Revenge of the Vampire.

Juvenile delinquency, often straddling the biker world, was another subject to fall foul of the British Board of Film Censors. Among them The Choppers (1961), Jacktown (1962), The Cool World (1964), Kitten with a Whip (1964) starring Hollywood sensation Ann-Margret,  the aforementioned Wild Angels (1966), Rat Fink (1966), Hot Rods to Hell (1966) with Dana Andrews and Mickey Rooney, Riot on the Sunset Strip (1967), Born Losers (1967), Devil’s Angels (1967) and virtually anything that mentioned Hell’s Angels.

Drug taking was also forbidden to be seen, thus accounting for the absence on British screens of The Trip (1967), Hallucination Generation (1967), Mary Jane (1967), LSD Flesh of the Devil (1967) with Guy Madison and Revelation – The Flowering of the Hippies (1967). Easy Rider (1969) was passed for “being actively concerned with human beings and the effect of drug taking.” Films considered too morally dubious or too sexually open to let loose on British audiences included Sinderella and the Golden Bra (1964), 3 Nuts In Search of a Bolt (1964) starring Mamie Van Doren, 90 Degrees in the Shade (1965) with Anne Heywood, Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho (1965), Good Morning…And Goodbye (1967) and Lee Frost’s The Animal (1968). Explicit language was the objection to Warrendale (1967) and Ulysses (1967), homosexuality the problem for Deathwatch (1965) starring Leonard Nimoy and Shirley Clarke’s documentary Portrait of Jason (1967).  

In Britain, to get round the censor’s strictures, the “cinema club” was invented in 1960 by Gala Film Theatres, an offshoot of a distributor specializing in racy fare, and within a month had 7,500 members, the operation launching with a showing of The Wild One (1953).  Local authorities could also take exception to the national censor’s findings and grant a reprieve for various films, Wild Angels and The Trip eventually achieving exposure in this fashion. Most cinema clubs would eventually segue into becoming outlets for soft porn but some stuck with the original concept of showing arty movies considered too risqué by the censor. The New Cinema Club in London, for example, in August 1969 programmed Wild Angels and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963)

But the censor was not the only reason why films were not shown and ended up either ignored by the distributors or stuck on the shelf and we’ll come to those in another article.

David McGillivray, “The Crowded Shelf,” Films & Filming, September 1969, 14-15; “High Cost of Censor Fights vs. Principles,” Variety, March 2, 1960, 1;“If Banned in Britain, All Is Not Lost,” Variety, April 20, 1960, p48; “Theatre, Not Censors, Banned Breed,” Variety, June 1, 1960, p24; “Room at the Top Ban,” Variety, July 27, 1960, 4; “Operation Eichmann Banned in Germany, ” Variety, May 3, 1961, 1; “211 Pix Scissored, 56 Banned in Ireland,” Variety, May 3, 1961, p15; “Operation Eichmann Banned by Israeli,” Variety, November 1, 1961, p2; “12 Pix Banned by Finland Censors,” Variety, March 28, 1962, 17; “Singapore Censor Gets Tough with U.S. Pix; Satan, Suzie Banned,” Variety, August 8, 1962, 21; “Japanese Pix Still Banned by S. Korea,” Variety, December 12, 1962, p16; “Bee Banned by Italian Censor,” Variety, January 23, 1963, p18; “W. Germany Claims Only 19 Pix Banned, “ Variety, December 4, 1963, p11; “Swedish Censors Banned 10 in ’63,” Variety, February 5, 1964, p2;  “The Group Banned,” Variety, April 8, 1964, p84; “Lady in Cage Banned by Sweden Censors,” Variety, July 15, 1964, 2; “New Zealand Censors Turn Down Collector,” Variety, November 3, 1965, 11; “Cage Banned By Geneva Censors,” Variety, January 19, 1966, 16; “Can’t Second Guess Global Censors,” Variety, November 30, 1966, 20;  “Banned in Australia,” Variety, May 24, 1967, 26; “Scot Exhib, Whose Town Disapproves Censorship, Cleans Up with Ulysses,” Variety, May 1, 1968, 27; “Film Censors in France Spark B.O.,” Variety, May 8, 1968, 131; “Dracula Sole Film Banned in Israel Last Year,” Variety, May 28, 1969, 39;  “Britain gives ‘X’ Tag to Fonda’s Rider Pic,” Variety, June 18, 1969, 30; “Eire Banned 35  Films in ’68,” Variety, August 20, 1969, 32.

The Box Office Equalizer: Part Four

For three weeks at the end of November 1969 through to mid-December, the top films on the Variety weekly box office Top 50 chart were sexploitation films. The Swedish Fanny Hill (1968) was the first to hit the top and I Am Curious, Yellow, also from Sweden, took the top place for the next fortnight.  

This was something of a slap of cold reality in the face of Hollywood which had assumed that by and large its product was sufficient to meet the needs of exhibitors nationwide. The slump in production due to the financial issues facing the top studios led the industry to expect that the traditional low-budget pictures that would make up the shortfall would come from the usual sources – westerns, crime, horror. Few would have bet on sexploitation taking up the slack.

The new Variety system of collating box office was in part to blame for the influx of sexploitation films being so transparent. Until the magazine instituted its weekly Top 50 grossing pictures in April 1969 and widened the net for gathering in those figures, box office was reported from just 200-300 first run houses in the major cities. This now expanded substantially to five times as many cinemas and included smaller houses in a greater number of cities as well as cinemas that belonged to a Showcase (wide release) circuit.

That resulted in a greater breadth of films being reported. Except on first run arthouses, where some art films with greater sexual content could be shown, it was rare for a sexploitation picture to feature in a big city first run. Russ Meyer was the acceptable face of sexploitation, especially since his films contained humor. Even so, eyebrows were raised when the exploits of Common Law Cabin (1967) made headlines in Variety (“Sexploitation pair: $22,000 at Fox”) at Detroit’s biggest cinema, the 5,100-seater Fox, a major first run venue. That film found slots in first run in Chicago at the Center and the Fine Arts in Portland. Another Meyer opus Finders Keepers found a berth at the Randolph in Philadelphia (“Russ Meyer’s Nude Pic Into Philly’s Classy First Run”). But that was the extent of its invasion of first run for that year. And that was pretty much how the industry expected things to stay, a rare sexploitation making a few headlines, but not much more.  

So when Fanny Hill grossed $625,000 – equivalent to $4.7 million today – from 49 houses to hit the top spot it sent the industry reeling in shock. I Am Curious Yellow hit the top spot in successive weeks with $594,000 from 52 houses followed by $454,000 from 90. In some respects it should not have come as any great surprise. I Am Curious, Yellow had already had already featured several times in the weekly top ten, fifth with $213,000 from 16 houses, sixth with $137,000 from 14 and again with $$237,000 from 18.

Sexploitation distribution was handled in much the same way as any other picture. Probably it came closer to replicating an arthouse release, where prints, due to their cost, were in short supply and cinemas undertook to hold onto a movie for several weeks, if not months. But when a movie was clearly pulling in the crowds, the distributors switched to a more mainstream system, combining Showcase with first run.  The big danger when films went wide was that grosses plummeted. But that was clearly not the case here. Yes, the earlier per-screen averages were higher but the later ones certainly did not fall off a cliff.

Outside of these two pictures, other sexploitationers had been making an impact on the weekly chart. The Libertine (1968) had placed 11th with $184,000 from 56, Naked Angels (1969) came 17th one week with $148,000 from 11 and lower down the chart The Minx (1969) had showed potential with $52,000 from three while Camille 2000 (1969) had earned $32,000 from two. Sexploitationers absorbed lessons learned from more mainstream distributors in how to use the Top 50 as a promotional tool. A movie that was not only taking in big bucks, but placed high in the chart and had a great per-screen average was inevitably going to attract attention.

Perhaps the oddest part of the sexploitation breakout was that so few had seen it coming. If so, they had not been reading the trade papers. This side of the business had grown so fast in a couple of years that those involved had formed their own association. It turned out a war had broken out between the suppliers of cheaply-made sexploitationers and those willing to increase their budgets in order to entice audiences with better production values.

But this was at the hard-core end of the business, the number of outlets tripling from 300 theaters three years before to 800 in 1969, and operating obviously outside the restrictions of the Production Code or the new censorship system. Initially, movies costing $8,000-$15,000 could have been put together in a weekend. Now up to 100 movies budgeted at at a maximum of $45,000 were being made every year with a potential profit of $125,000-$300,000 each. About half a dozen companies had annual million-dollar turnovers.

But this business had also filtered down to the more easily exhibited soft-core, which fitted into the “X” category under the new censorship rules. The 100 cheap soft-core efforts financed by individual theaters or small chains which filled a supporting spot on a double bill produced meagre returns so it made more sense to edit down a hard-core feature to suit a soft-core audience. The demand for hard-core, most prominently seen in Detroit, where hard-core pictures often outgrossed first run, was filtering down into soft-core, hence the growth in bookings for the likes of Fanny Hill and I Am Curious, Yellow.

The other reason for moving into the soft-core market was that the hard-core end was saturated resulting in lower rentals and consequently lower profits which inhibited production. Theaters struggling to cover overheads from the thin stream of movies emanating from the major studios or finding there was little juice left in blockbusters by the time they drifted down the exhibition food chain increasingly turned to soft porn.

SOURCES: “Sexploitation Filmmakers, Showmen Form Adult Motion Picture Ass’n,” Box Office, January 20, 1969, p8; “Over-Seated for Sex,” Variety, July 2, 1969, p1; “Sexpix of $25,000-$45,000 Negative Cost See Bright, Not Clouded, Future,” Variety, July 16, 1969, p17. Results for the “Top 50 Chart” in Variety were taken from the following issues in 1969: Jun 4, Jul 2, Jul 9, Jul 23, Sep 24, Oct 1, Oct 15, Nov 5, Nov 26, Dec 3, Dec 10, Dec 17, Dec 24.  

The Hot Prospects Business – 1960s Style

As difficult as it was to guess which films would hit the box office target and which would turn into irredeemable flops, Hollywood studios and exhibitors stewed as much over the potential of the next generation of stars. This was an era when talent schools still existed, youngsters taken on at modest wages and provided with both standard acting lessons and other important elements of movie education such as riding a horse or sword-fighting as well as breaking in the actors and actresses with small roles. They would be given progressively larger roles until they emerged, hopefully, as genuine candidates for box office glory.

Of course, the studios had their own ideas which of their youngsters was likely to make the grade, the most obvious marker being the types of parts they were handed, but exhibitors helped the process along by taking part in an annual survey organized by trade paper Box Office.

So I’ve chosen a year – 1965, midway through the decade – at random to see how many of the new generation of stars made the grade. According to the Box Office survey the top six males (in order) were Peter Fonda, Robert Walker Jr, Patrick Wayne, Keir Dullea, Doug McClure and Tommy Sands. The top six females were:  Patty Duke, Stefanie Power, Nancy Sinatra, Rita Tushingham, Rosemary Forsyth and Barbara Eden.

You can see from the list that a recognizable name goes a long way, a full one-third of the candidates blessed with a father with a famous name, Peter the son of Henry Fonda, Patrick the son of John Wayne, Nancy the daughter of Frank Sinatra. Robert Walker had never been in that elite class but it appeared his name was still strong enough for his son to capture public attention.

What exactly a rising star embodied appeared to be in the eye of the beholder. Some of the stars already had a decent portfolio, others not so much. (The survey was published in early 1966 so I assuming it took into account acting performances up to the end of 1965.)

On acting talent alone the front runners should have been Rita Tushingham, Patty Duke and Keir Dullea. Britisher Tushingham had won Best Actress at Cannes for A Taste of Honey (1961) and was tipped for a Bafta for The Knack (1965) – she did in fact win. In both films she was top-billed and again for The Trap (1966). Patty Duke had won an Oscar for The Miracle Worker (1962) and been top-billed in Billie (1965) but her popularity surge was largely thanks to her eponymous television show which ran from 1963 to 1966.

Since starring in David and Lisa (1962). Dullea’s career appeared jeopardized by offbeat choices, The Thin Red Line (1964) and The Naked Hours (1964), in both top-billed, before sliding down the credit rankings for Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). Peter Fonda appeared to be heading for success as a romantic star after appearing in fluff like Tammy and the Doctor (1963) and his first top-billed role in The Young Lovers (1964). Robert Walker Jr, top-billed in Ensign Pulver (1964), had followed this up with Italian oddity The Touching and Not Touching (1965) thus demonstrating versatility.

Stefanie Powers was clearly a rising star, smaller roles in The New Interns (1964) and Love Has Many Faces (1965) had led to second-billing in Die! Die! My Darling (1965) and her forthcoming role in Stagecoach was expected to solidify her mainstream career. Barbara Eden was dependent on television for her high placing, after I Dream of Jeannie kicked off in 1965. Most heavily dependent on nepotism were Patrick Wayne and Nancy Sinatra. Wayne was by far the least proven, riding very much on his father’s coat-tails, but fourth-billed in Shenandoah (1965) and a leading role in television series The Rounders which had kicked off in 1966. Sinatra was the longest shot, just bit parts so far.

Television’s The Virginian had been the launch pad for Doug McClure but he had since ventured out into Shenandoah (1965) and Beau Geste (1966), second-billed each time. Apart from his reputation as a singer, it’s hard to see why Tommy Sands ended up so favored, with just a couple of bit parts to his name. But you could see why Rosemary Forsyth, after the female lead in The War Lord (1965) was attracting industry attention.

So what happened to the prospects? Were the talent-spotters proved right? As you might expect, yes and no is the answer.

Keir Dullea and Peter Fonda proved the standouts. Dullea followed the offbeat The Fox (1967) with the big-budget big hit 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Fonda quickly transitioned to The Wild Angels (1966) and starred in the decade’s most unexpected hit, Easy Rider (1969), and long-term was easily the most successful graduate of the Class of ’66.

Patty Duke was second-billed in big hit Valley of the Dolls (1967) and won outright top billing for Me, Natalie (1968). After The Wild Angels (1966) Nancy Sinatra became a pop star in her own right before sharing the billing with Elvis Presley in Speedway (1968) but that was the highlight of her movie career. Patrick Wayne took longest to find his feet but snagged several top-billed roles, mostly leading with his chin in fantasy pictures such as Beyond Atlantis (1973), The People That Time Forgot (1977) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). Rita Tushingham starred in a string of films including The Trap (1966) Smashing Time (1968), The Guru (1969) and The Bed Sitting Room (1969) that failed to click with U.S. mainstream audiences.

Doug McClure was second-billed in Beau Geste (1966) and top-billed for swashbuckler The King’s Pirate (1967) and comedy Nobody’s Perfect (1968) before drifting back into television to emerge years later as a credible top-billed star of Hellhounds of Alaska (1973), The Land Time Forgot (1974) and At The Earth’s Core (1976). Stefanie Powers only managed top-billing for Crescendo (1970) and had to wait over a decade to realize her potential, and then in television show Hart to Hart (1979-1984).

Roy Walker Jr.’s career never took off, his biggest success as Young Billy Young (1969) was a flop. Rosemary Forsyth got as high as leading lady on Texas Across the River (1966) and Where It’s At (1967) but then drifted down the credits into the ranks of supporting players. Barbara Eden only managed a few television movies. Tommy Sands’ movie career died the death except for third billing in biker picture The Violent Ones (1967).

Screenwriter William Goldman coined the phrase “nobody knows anything” in relation to movies but it might equally apply to industry expectation of hot prospects, some of whom crashed and burned, and some never were even hot.

SOURCE: “12 most popular players of ’65,” Box Office, February 28, 1966, p76-77.

The Box Office Equalizer: Part Three

Trade magazine Variety’s innovative weekly Top 50 based on grosses that had begun in April 1969 changed the way exhibitors regarded box office. Instead of waiting till the appearance of the magazine’s year-end round-up which was limited to around the top 100 movies, cinema owners now got a week-by-week snapshot of how new movies were playing. All box office figures had previously concentrated on the big movies of the day – the roadshows and pictures with big stars – that opened at the first run city center houses that were easier for Variety to track. The switch to a computerized system made it more feasible to examine the takings from hundreds of cinemas not necessarily showing the big movies sucking up all the publicity oxygen.  

An examination of the films hitting the coveted number one position in the weekly chart illuminated the changes in the business. For a start, to reach number one a movie had to be showing on over 30 cinemas, but this could rise to 100-plus, and began to show the benefits of the wider first run release. This was also really the beginning of the per-screen average.  High figures could be achieved by recruiting a large number of screens but exhibitors could easily disseminate the information and decide whether the number of screens massaged the figures or showed how successful a film really was. And this was the start of another promotional ploy, the business of a movie holding onto to the top spot for a second, third or even fourth week, proof a movie had “legs.”

The Year’s weekly Top Ten performers make interesting reading. The biggest figures posted in any one week during 1969 were for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service which hauled in a massive $1.22 million (equivalent to $9.6 million today) from 99 screens – a $12,323 screen average. This was followed by Goodbye, Columbus with $935,000 from 65 screens, a higher screen average of $14,384. Next came The Love Bug with $724,000 from 76 houses ($9,526 average). Another week of Goodbye, Columbus shouldered $681,000 from 60 ($11,350).

The Love Bug had a further two weeks at the top, pinching $658,000 from 117 ($5,623) and $633,000 from 44 ($14,386).  Seventh-best week was taken by The Killing of Sister George with $621,000 from 70 ($8,871). Snatching eighth spot was Fanny Hill with $625,000 from 49 ($12,755). Ninth was Krakatoa, East of Java with $621,000 from 68 ($9,132). Last place in the top ten went to I Am Curious, Yellow with $594,000 from 52 ($11,423).

From the exhibitor perspective there were two notable points. The first was the per-screen average. Secondly, cinema bookers could not fail to notice not only that two of the top ten in weekly gross and three of the top five films in terms of screen averages went to sexploitation pictures.

It was soon abundantly clear that producers could sell their pictures to sometimes doubting exhibitors by the simple process, not so much of bombarding them with adverts and Pressbooks extolling a film’s potential, but of getting a movie into sufficient theatres for the box office figures to tell their own story.

Although the other big films expected to top the weekly chart did achieve that aim – among them True Grit (twice), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (also twice), Ice Station Zebra, Easy Rider (three times), Midnight Cowboy, Oliver! and Paint Your Wagon – there were as many unfancied movies perching atop the weekly pile.

Apart from the sexploitation films and The Killing of Sister George, others holding down the number one spot for a week were British star Carol White in Mark Robson thriller Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting ($544,000 from 71), What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice ($540,000 from 48), Gordon Parks’ bittersweet drama The Learning Tree ($401,000 from 49), Stella Stevens and Shelley Winters in horror film The Mad Room ($283,000 from 38) and reissues Bonnie and Clyde/Bullitt ($546,000 from 81) and The Longest Day ($501,000 from 76).

Distributors of low-budget pictures used to have to take ads out in the trades to prove to potential customers that their movies were pulling in decent business. Now they had better proof, from the most important source of all, Variety, whose box office figures were scanned by every cinema manager in the country. Once a week without a distributor putting a hand in their advertising pocket there was all the promotional evidence they needed.  

This was the second sea change in the way cinema owners perceived the business, the first being the opening up of the collection of box office figures through Variety’s annual report on upwards of 1,000 titles. To have figures at your finger tips for the price of a subscription to a newspaper was a game changer.

But there was yet another game changer to come. 

SOURCES: The Top 50 Grossers chart appearing weekly in Variety from April to December 1969.

Remake Fever – The 1960s

Hollywood has been hitting the retread button for over a century. Today’s reboots and re-imaginings are nothing new. Although in the past the excuse was technological development, the splurge of remakes in the 1960s including Beau Geste (1966), Stagecoach (1966) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969) were superior to the originals in one particular aspect – they were in color. 

When silent films went from two-reels to four-reels and from six-reels to eight-reels, roughly the length of a modern picture, and when silent gave way to sound the remake business went into overdrive. The 80-minute Tess of the Storm Country (1914) starring Mary Pickford was transformed into a 137-minute version eight years later headlined by the same star.  Zane Grey westerns starring William Farnum Raiders of the Purple Sage (1918), The Lone Ranger (1919) and The Last of the Duanes (1919) were remade as Tom Mix vehicles between 1923 and 1925 and toplining George O’Brien between 1930 and 1931. Over 120 remakes were made between 1928 and 1930, with around 80 per cent going out with the same title. There was another remake burst at the end of the 1930s including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

Color was the prime instigator for the remake business in the 1960s. But you could also add the technological development of 70mm, the key element of roadshow pictures. Many big-budget films of the 1920s and 1930s had hit the box office target and with studios looking for as many sure-fire winners as possible it seemed sensible to give a new look to older projects. Ben-Hur (1959) could be seen as lighting the remake touch paper especially when it scored equally highly at the box office and the Oscars. MGM followed through with roadshows of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), one-third as long again as the 1935 original, Cimarron (1960) with an extra 20 minutes compared to the 1931 Oscar-winner. But the reimagining of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) ran about the same length as the Rudolph Valentino version of 1921 as did King of Kings (1961) compared to the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille version.

The famed Raquel Welch vehicle was based on a film of 1940.

Prior to considering the expensive business of investing in a remake, studios had been able to rely on sticking out the old movie as a reissue, limited financial exposure often resulting in considerable box office. But it was impossible to sell silent pictures, excepting comedians like Charlie Chaplin, to a modern audience and many of the big hits of the 1930s had either been already sold to television or were considered dated by contemporary standards and although black-and-white films were still being made halfway through the decade (In Harm’s Way, 1965, for example) they were a difficult re-sell.

Far easier to revamp a well-known, perhaps beloved, product with the addition of color cinematography, better sound, and possibly with major stars in the vein of Marlon Brando (Mutiny on the Bounty) and Peter O’Toole (Goodbye, Mr. Chips). It also seemed the case that lesser stars could still prop a remake with little adverse effect on the receipts especially if the lower-priced actors substantially reduced the budget and consequently the income required to turn a profit.    

Some movies appeared to be on an endless recycle. The Count of Monte Cristo (1964) had been filmed in 1956, 1954 and 1934, the latter starring Robert Donat. The Perils of Pauline (1967) had been remade twice since Pearl White had made the character her own in 1914. Back Street (1961) with Susan Hayward had been filmed twice before in 1941 and 1932. The Spanish-made The Last of the Mohicans (1963) starring Jeffrey Hunter was the fifth attempt at filming the famous novel after movies made in 1920, 1932, 1936 and 1957.

“The Bonnie Parker Story” laid the groundwork for this box office smash-and-grab.

Some remakes changed their titles. Cary Grant comedy Walk, Don’t Run (1966) was based on The More the Merrier (1943), Stolen Hours (1963) with Susan Hayward on Dark Victory (19390 with Bette Davis, Doris Day vehicle Move Over Darling (1963) on My Favorite Wife (1940), and Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1963) on The Old Dark House (1932). William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour (1961) starring Audrey Hepburn drew on These Three (1936), Uptight (1968) was a modern take on John Ford’s Oscar-nominated The Informer (1935), and comedy The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968) with Don Knotts had its origins in The Paleface (1948) starring Bob Hope. Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese classic Rashomon (1950) retuned as The Outrage (196) starring Paul Newman. The Bonnie Parker Story (1958) was drastically retuned as Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles (1961) was based on his own Lady for a Day (1932). Gregory Peck thriller Mirage (1965) took only three years to re-emerge as Jigsaw (1968).   

Other studios decided the original title was too big an attraction to be discarded. Of Human Bondage (1964) with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey had been made 30 years earlier with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Night Must Fall (1965) starring Albert Finney had originated 27 years prior. Raquel Welch-starrer One Million Years B.C. (1966) had been slightly truncated from One Million B.C. (1940), Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson headlined The Killers (1964) based on characters originally essayed by Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner 18 years previously, Mayerling (1969) with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve had starred Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux in the 1936 version.

Horror was the most obvious genre to receive a revamp. Robert Bloch rewrote The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari (1962) forty-two years after the original. Hands of Orlac (1961) with Mel Ferrer had previously been known as Mad Love (1936). Herbert Lom reprised The Phantom of the Opera (1962) following on from Lon Chaney in 1925 and Nelson Eddy in 1943. French-made The Golem (1967) was based on versions screened in 1921 and 1937.

Some films were remade with music, Goodbye Mr. Chips – the Robert Donat, Greer Garson original belonging to 1939 – the most obvious example but The Sound of Music (1965) was essentially a musical version of the Germanic The Trapp Family (1956), and Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) set in Rome turned up as the musical The Pleasure Seekers (1964) set in Madrid, both films directed by Jean Negulesco. On the other hand, State Fair (1962), which had been turned into a drama in 1945 despite being based on a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, was restored to its roots. 

Not every remake idea proved a slam dunk. Projects that failed to get off the ground included: The Birth of Nation (1915), Ecstasy (1933), Metropolis (1927) to be directed again by Fritz Lang, Wuthering Heights (1939) to star Richard Harris, Dark Angel (1925 and 1937) with Rock Hudson, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), The Crusades (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) with Roger Moore – although it was remade in 1968 – Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Jane Eyre (1943) to star James Mason, The Macomber Affair (1946)  and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Anthony Quinn was touted for a remake of Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962) and Saul David planned a westernized version of that director’s The Hidden Fortress (1958).

French director Claude Chabrol had ambitions to make a version of Hamlet (1948) from Ophelia’s point of view though a Russian version appeared in 1964. MGM blocked a remake of Tarzan of the Apes (1931). Francis Ford Coppola proposed Heaven Can Wait, a reworking of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, to star Bill Cosby. Stephen Boyd was mooted for a remake of The Quiet Man (1952).

Producer Ray Stark (Funny Girl, 1967) announced new versions of Casablanca (1942) and a Peter Collinson-directed The Maltese Falcon (1941). Musical versions were announced of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Our Town (1937), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Roman Holiday (1953), the latter to star Robert Redford.

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You, A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), p21, 27, 31; “Drift Towards Remakes Grows on Coast,” Box Office, March 11, 1939, p37; “That Birth of a Nation Title,” Variety, April 13, 1960, p6; “Sales Come-On But Never Mislabel Content – Hathaway,” Variety, October 26, 1960, p13; “Bischoff-Diamond To Make Charge,” Box Office, July 10, 1961, p11; “Bash Vindicated – After 4 Yrs,” Variety, July 12, 1961, p5; “MGM Is Upheld In Suit over Tarzan,” Box Office, July 10, 1961, p13; “New Cycle of Classics for French Prods,” Variety, July 12, 1961, p16; “Dark Angel Remake to Writer Lee Mahin,” Box Office, December 18, 1961, pW-8; “Robert Blees Plans Remake of Macomber Affair,” Box Office, March 12, 1962, p16; “Anderson-U.A. Talk Wuthering Remake,” Variety, August 28, 1963, p22; “Spain’s Latest Western,” Variety, October 23, 1963, p18; “MGM Signs for 3 Co-Productions in Spain,” Variety, January 15, 1964, p22; “Hollywood Report,” Box Office, February 10, 1964, p16;  “Japanese Sanjuro Remake for Quinn,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p4; “Weintraub Sends Down L.A. Roots,” Variety, January 12, 1966, p5;“Universal Re-Do of DeMille 1935 Crusades,” Variety, April 13, 1966, p3; “Plan Rebel Without Cause For Remake As Musical,” Box Office, April 18, 1966, p9; “Lee Thompson Busily Reprints His Musical Version of Henry VIII,” Variety, April 27, 1966, p17; “U’s Future Parks 17 Vehicles,” Variety, May 25, 1966, p33; “Re-Do of Quiet Man,” Variety, March 5, 1967, p5; “De Laurentiis in New Par Dickers,” Variety, January 10, 1968, p5; “David to Re-Do Kurosawa Plot As U.S. Western,” Variety, June 12, 1968, p4; “Re-Do of Falcon,” Variety, July 10, 1968, p14; “Star In W7 Pic,” Variety, January 15, 1969, p3.

The Box Office Equalizer: Part Two

Variety’s revolutionary new box office tracking system, introduced in 1969, allowed it to include far more films in an annual assessment of performance. The “Annual Rentals” chart that appeared every January still covered how much of the box office pie was returned to studios and therefore gave a good indication of potential profit. But that was limited to only those pictures that met that chart’s criteria i.e. they had to return $1 million rentals. That usually meant only 80-odd films.

But now, in addition, from the computerized information gathered every week from hundreds of cinemas, Variety was able to give a pretty accurate estimate of the box office gross for ten times as many movies. In 1969, the survey covered 1,028 pictures. This wealth of information was of enormous value to exhibitors. Not only did it cover the obvious titles – the roadshows and those with top stars – but also the run-of-the-mill movies on which most cinemas now depended. In the current severe product shortage, reissues played a vital role. As did sexploitation.

Among films reviewed so far in the Blog annual grosses were shown for: They Night They Raided Minksy’s $1.9 million, Mafia picture The Brotherhood $1.9 million, Anthony Newley number Can Hieronymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness $1.3 million, Hard Contract $1 million, Mayerling $980,000, Justine $536,000, Les Biches $391,000, Assassination Bureau $146,000, Fraulein Doktor $114,000 and The Sisters $50,000. (Multiply these figures by 50% for an accurate estimate of their rentals).

Other figures worth noting were: The Fixer $1 million, Secret Ceremony $1 million, The Italian Job $614,000, Marlon Brando in The Night of the Following Day $424,000, Shalako $78,000 and The Extraordinary Seaman $61,000. Bottom of the box office pile was motor racing documentary Hot Rod Action with just $1,000.

Given it was widely considered a flop, these are interesting figures for Hieronymous Merkin, rentals now estimated as being in the region of $2 million against a budget of $1.6 million – although other sources put the budget as low as $500,000 thus making it extremely profitable. Secret Ceremony had grossed $617,000 the previous year so its rentals would have approached $2.5 million, far more than was previously assumed. Fans of cult British thriller The Italian Job will perhaps be astonished how poorly it did in the U.S.

The top-grossing reissue was Bonnie and Clyde/Bullitt ($1 million) followed by a pair of Clint Eastwood double bills – A Fistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More ($912,000) and Hang ‘Em High/The Good, The Bad and The Ugly ($740,000). Also in the mix were Goldfinger/Dr No ($323,000), A Man and a Woman ($226,000), Belle de Jour/A Man and a Woman ($199,000), a revival of Lola Montes from 1955 with $148,000 and less successfully, from 1961, A Cold Wind in August with just $21,000.

As previously noted, the impact of sexploitation was becoming more obvious. The biggest hit was The Libertine which crossed the $1 million mark followed by Camille 2000 ($868,000), Inga ($819,000) – bringing in three times as much as the previous year – Swedish Heaven and Hell ($458,000) and The Female ($279,000). Others charting included Vibrations, Without a Stitch, Erotic Dreams and The Sex Perils of Pauline. In addition, sexploitation movies were ripe for reissue, I, A Woman/Carmen Baby clocking up $363,000.

More importantly, what the chart did show and what the new weekly Top 50 was beginning to recognize was how often cheaply-made exploitation pictures held their own or even outgrossed big studio pictures for which exhibitors were often held to ransom. If ever there was a sign of the direction in which the business was now heading, this annual survey was it.

SOURCE: “Variety B.O. Charts’ 1969 Results,” Variety, April 29, 1970, p26.   

We Need To Talk About Sir Sean – Racism in “Woman of Straw” (1964)

Of course racism was endemic in Britain and the remainder of the British colonies in the 1960s where people of whatever color were treated as inferiors, underlings and at times with a brutality that bordered on slavery. So I’m not intending to say anything new here. But I was incredibly shocked by one scene of racism in Woman of Straw (1964) that I reviewed yesterday, a thriller in the Hitchcock mould starring Sean Connery and Gina Lollobrigida with Ralph Richardson as the wealthy man the subject of a murder plot.

Richardson’s character, Charles, is completely heinous, treating everyone badly, and they being in his thrall cannot bite back, unlike his dogs.

This is a still from the picture showing the offensive incident and would have been
used to promote the movie. As good an indication as any of the prevalent
racism is that clearly nobody believed this to be in bad taste.

For reasons best known to himself, Charles wants his dogs to be able to jump over each other. And when they fail to obey his commands, he instructs his two black servants, played by Johnny Sekka and Danny Daniels, to show them how it is done. One has to kneel on the grass like a dog and the other to jump over him. In due course, the dogs get the hang of it, leaping over the humiliated man on the ground.

There are enough other instances in the film to ensure the audience gets the right idea about Charles without this.

But I was shocked to the core. I have seen many instances of black people treated much worse in films, but in 1964 I guess such treatment would not have been permitted by the censor and this was the closest they could get to the abject degradation required. I can’t have been the only person shocked by it. But nobody was in 1964 otherwise it would not have got past the British censor – eliminating the scene would not have affected the plot – not a murmur from a critic, and certainly no sign of audiences leaving in droves.

But why should it be left to post-production? Did Sean Connery really think there was nothing untoward in the script? If it had been a Scotsman being used in this fashion might he have complained? Did Gina Lollobrigida think nothing of the scene? Similarly, had it been an Italian servant might she have objected? Connery and Lollobrigida either individually or collectively had far more box office cachet than the director – in fact this was Dearden’s move into the big time – so could easily have asked for the scene to be eliminated.

And what of Sir Ralph Richardson, at the time considered one of the great theatrical triumvirate (Olivier and Gielgud the others) who played the character? A forthright person in many other ways, but not here. Perhaps the most surprising person to be blind to the offensiveness of the scene was director Basil Dearden, especially since a previous film Victim (1961) was sympathetic to gay men. I would like to know if the scene was in the source novel by Catherine Arlay.

Whatever, one of the reasons that racism remained so endemic in the 1960s and far beyond was because people failed to see it when it was right in front of their eyes. I’ve no idea who owns the rights to this otherwise good thriller but it might be a good idea for them to take a look and excise this scene or at least give warning that it exists.

The British Board of Film Censors gave this a “12” rating when it came out on DVD. I contacted the BBFC to see if anybody had ever re-watched the film to come to the ratings conclusion. Naturally, I am still waiting to hear back.

You can check out what I’m referring to on YouTube which has a reasonable print. This incident occurs at the 16-17 minute mark. 

The Box Office Equalizer

Variety’s experiment in extending its box office coverage beyond main city roadshow and first run showed its first results when analysis of a full year of statistics for 1968 produced data for over 700 pictures rather than the hundred or so that qualified for its annual rentals  chart.

The drawback with the existing annual chart was limitation – films had to earn more than $1 million in rentals (the amount returned to studios from the overall gross) to qualify. The tabulation process simply ignored how hundreds of other films performed and therefore as far as Variety was concerned failed to offer the information exhibitors required to run their businesses in more complicated times when increased product shortage was exacerbated by long runs of either roadshow pictures or movies held over for months on end in first run in the big cities.

The business still primarily operated on a stepped released basis. Movies that opened in roadshow or first run remained in their initial theaters until demand was exhausted and only then moved into second-run or multiple run (Showcase) or the drive-ins, leaving those cinemas further down the food chain crying out for fresh product. What companies were meeting that demand and how their films performed at the box office was generally a mystery.

The expanded chart for 1968 covered grosses rather than rentals (the former the overall take, the latter the part of that that went back to the studios). A sample of up to 800 cinemas nationwide first of all cast light on a whole section of mainstream underachievers. To come to an accurate assessment of how these grosses reflected overall a film’s overall annual performance, Variety suggested tripling the numbers. To reach a rental figure, the measurement of profit, you would need to halve that. (More straightforwardly, add 50% to the figures below to work out the annual amount returned to studios in rentals in 1968 and multiply by eight – for inflation – to put these figures into perspective from today’s point of view.)

Among the films mentioned were Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer which was now shown to have grossed $1.314 million, Burton-Taylor fiasco Boom ($557,000), Albert Finney as Charlie Bubbles ($526,000) and films reviewed in the Blog such as The Shoes of the Fisherman ($611,000), P.J./New Face in Hell($415,000), The Lost Continent ($338,000), Sol Madrid ($268,000), Hammerhead ($233,000), Sebastian ($162,000) and The Girl on a Motorcycle ($104,000).

Others worth mentioning were Duffy ($709,000), Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum in Secret Ceremony ($671,00), Michael Caine in Deadfall ($614,000), Lee Marvin in Sgt Ryker ($417,000), How I Won the War ($321,000), Night of the Living Dead (318,000). When we casually refer to movies as flops, we often have no idea just how big a failure they were – these figures redress that balance.

Reissues pulling in decent business included Thunderball ($867,000), The Carpetbaggers/Nevada Smith ($244,000) and on the back of Sidney Poitier’s elevation to box office peaks the seven-year-old A Raisin in the Sun ($159,000)

Much further down the line came Danger: Diabolik on $24,000 and Subterfuge with just $8,500. At rock bottom, ranked 729th, was Tony Richardson’s The Sailor from Gibralter with $1,000 in the kitty.

The survey also served to highlight the impact of the growing number of foreign imports. While sophisticated fare like Therese and Isabelle ($2.19 million), Francois Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black ($511,000), Claude Lelouch’s Live for Life ($495,000) and Scandinavian medieval drama The Red Mantle ($396,000) had broken out into the mainstream from their arthouse launchpads, the various strands of the spaghetti western genre would have headed straight for the drive-in or Showcase led by A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die ($865,000) and Any Gun Can Play ($230,000).

In part what Variety sought to show by covering such a wider stream of releases was to assess the growing dominance of the sexploitation picture. Around one-third of the movies featured fell into this category. The Female ($492,00), The Filthy Five ($322,000), Inga ($267,000) and Aroused ($168,000) boasted impressive numbers, especially given the limitations of the survey. The fact that many others – Alley Tramp, Touch of Her Flesh, I, A Woman, Hot Spur, Professor Lust and Brand of Shame – even made an appearance on the extended chart showed inherent demand for this kind of product. That most of these achieved only low grosses in the Variety chart was an indication more of the types of cinemas surveyed. It would be a rare first run house that would book a sexploitationer and even the Showcases steered clear. But that they were mentioned at all was indication of a sea change.

Sources: Syd Silverman, “Computerized Tally of 729 films,” Variety, May 7, 1969, pages 34, 36, 198, 213.

When Box Office Stats Were Born – 1969

On January 1, 1968, U.S. trade newspaper Variety began working on a project that would change forever the way Hollywood operated and the way the public perceived motion pictures. It single-handedly invented box office statistics, the weekly tabulation that is life and death for industry professionals and a terrific game for outsiders, trying to guess how any film will perform in its opening week/weekend.

Although there had been published information on box office, in the 1960s it was not something that generally speaking was of interest to the moviegoer. All the trade papers carried box office details in one way or another. Variety reported the weekly takings in about 300 first-run cinemas in around 20 cities. The rival Box Office magazine considered it more important that figures should relate to a cinema’s average weekly takings and so while not publishing figures produced data on a percentage basis so that managers were not simply blinded by income when they should be concentrating on profit. But while Variety posted a weekly Top 12 chart, it was largely irrelevant because openings were not coordinated as they are now. Variety also produced year-end results but these were based on rentals (i.e. what the studio takes after the cinema share has been parcelled out) rather than gross box office.  

Variety proposed a revolution. Instead of this haphazard manner of gathering statistics, it would turn the whole issue into a cohesive, substantive whole. Investing in an IBM 360 computer, Variety sampled around 650-800 cinemas each week for an entire year in 22-24 of the largest markets plus smaller cities in the country. Given that there were about 14,000 theatres in total in the U.S. this might seem a ridiculously low sample, but in fact about 80% of a movie’s revenues came from a disproportionately small number of cinemas. Cinemas in big cities might have upwards of 1,000 seats with patrons paying top dollar while cinemas in small towns might only have a couple of hundred seats, only play movies for a couple of days, and charge their customers a fraction of big city prices.

Comparisons were made with the Nielsen system used to estimate U.S. television viewing figures which based its reports on a sample of less than 10,000 for an overall audience of 200 million. After running the pilot for a year and comparing it to overall box office, the magazine reckoned that its figures could be multiplied by three to give an accurate measure of how any picture was performing on a nationwide basis.   

The pilot year of 1968 covered  729 titles – far more than might appear in any of the weekly reports – with a total of 35,510 playing weeks and was able to collect figures relating to the number of weeks a movie featured in the chart – i.e. whether a film had “legs” – as well as overall gross. Variety’s previous annual summation involved less than 100 movies because the annual box office chart only covered films which had taken in $1 million or more in rentals. This meant a gross in the region of $2 million.

But low-budget films found it harder to take a big percentage of the box office gross. Where a big picture from a major studio could command at least a 50% share, the smaller pictures often had to do with 30-40% (as I previously reported, Dr No only got bookings in the U.S. by agreeing to take a 30% share of the gross). So for a smaller picture to reach the $1 million rental threshold often meant it had to take in more at the box office than a bigger-budgeted film, perhaps as much as $3 million. Inevitably, such films were not well represented on the annual  chart. In other words, profit outweighed popularity.

But by looking only at gross, and setting down no minimum qualification, the pilot study was able to include far more titles and to bring to wider attention how well, comparatively speaking, some of the less highly-regarded titles performed. By and large box office reporters concentrated on the top films, the roadshows and other big-budget pictures, but “of greater interest,” according to Variety, “is the listing of so many exploitation and sexploitation films about which little is said apart from notorious examples. Reissues, too, are well represented and some are surprisingly high on the list.” 

Variety set out to produce a Weekly Top 50 Chart, based on grosses, to act as “a good barometer of films in current exhibition and their relative positions in regard to each other. The fact that most of the films play through most of the markets results in statistical standardization or any errors in reports and doesn’t change the essential relationship of a film to its competitors.” Receipts for each entry in the Top 50 would show the number of cities and theaters – broken down into Roadshow, First Run and Showcase (ie multiple run) – in which the movie was playing.

The weekly Top 50 made its bow on the April 23, 1969, edition, reporting figures for the week ending April 16. Topping the chart was Disney’s The Love Bug (1968) with $551,000 – equivalent to $4.1 million today – from 15 theaters, mostly First Run with two Showcase bookings. Runner-up Where Eagles Dare (1968) hoisted $396,000 from 22 First Run and 6 Showcases. Third came They Came to Rob Las Vegas (1968) on $311,000 from 44 cinemas, 42 of which were Showcase. Fourth and fifth were long-running musical Roadshows, Oliver! on $308,000 from 16 theaters and Funny Girl on $307,000 from 21. The presence of heist picture They Came to Rob Las Vegas with no major stars taking such a prominent position justified the chart’s existence. Exhibitors risking a booking would see at once that it was best played in a Showcase release and could generate a decent average.

Further down the chart the $116,000 from just three outlets for I Am Curious Yellow (1967), in 22nd spot, indicated its box office potential. That was hardly the case for crime drama The Devil’s Eight (1969) with just $67,000 in its opening week from 15 Showcase engagements. Showing initial promise were Hall Bartlett’s college drama Changes (1969) – $25,000 from three – and British shocker Baby Love with $19,000 from two.

The following week (for week ending April 23) the Top Five were comedy western Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) which cornered $572,000 from 58 theaters – 43 Showcase and 15 First Run – in twelve cities, The Love Bug, Where Eagles Dare, Funny Girl and Oliver!   

SOURCES: Syd Silverman, “Computerized B.O. Chart Due,” Variety, April 16, 1969, page 3; “Computerized Tally of 729 films,” Variety, May 7, 1969, pages 34, 36, 198, 213; “Top 50 Weekly Grosses,” Variety, April 23, 1969, 11; “Top 50 Weekly Grosses,” Variety, April 30, 1969, 13.

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