The product shortage is nothing new, ask the exhibitors who survived the turbulent 1960s, a decade bookended by studio financial turmoil. Already suffering from a downturn in production thanks to audiences preferring television, the business was hit by the double whammy in 1960 of the Actors Strike and the Writers Strike, which forced an unwanted hiatus on movies already in production, cut short some shooting schedules and removed others not yet in front of the cameras. For exhibitors it rendered the “shortage more acute than before.”
That resulted in the biggest cinemas in the biggest cities holding on to the biggest movies for longer. Smaller cinemas, starved of product, had no such easy fall-back. Since studios were often at war with cinemas anyway, any crisis involving production raised tempers, each blaming the other.
Exhibitors claimed the shortage would be eased considerably if studios made more prints available of popular movies, rather than rationing their distribution, making cinemas wait longer in order to squeeze more money out of every layer of the food chain. Distributors (i.e. the studios) retaliated that cinemas themselves were to blame for the logjam that stifled the opening of new movies and therefore created a shortage further down the line. By retaining pictures for months, they prevented new movies entering the distribution system. “Theaters aren’t available for top product at a time when film companies are looking for outlets.”
Reissues which might have offered a solution were not considered the guaranteed source of income they would be after the James Bond revival bonanza kicked in mid-decade after Dr No/From Russia with Love. Richard Lederer of Warner Bros blamed cinemas – “refusing to yield additional coin” – for old movies ending up on television in the first place.
Others argued that television screening was incidental. RCIP Corp took a lease on films already shown on television, such as Republic oldies Wake of the Red Witch (1948), Rio Grande (1950), and The Quiet Man (1952) and positioned them to play a role in filling in, tacked on as the support to a new film, presented as matinees or occasionally topping a bill at the start of the week. Using oldies in this fashion allowed cinemas to retain the traditional twice-weekly change, and some cinemas just went the whole hog and put together an entire month’s program of reissues.
Whoever was to blame, it put both sides under greater pressure with exhibitors increasingly turning to foreign product to fill the gap, a move that could in the long term inhibit U.S. production.
In Britain, where the two biggest chains Odeon and ABC controlled the most lucrative cinemas, reissues were a last resort, the former circuit rarely taking that option.
Between 1958 and 1963, ABC screened only two revivals – Strangers on a Train (1951) and East of Eden (1955) – whereas during the same period Odeon got through 75. In the 1950s Odeon used revivals as the support to prop up a weaker main feature, but by the 1960s the older pictures were the main attraction. The number of revivals presented as the top draw went from five in 1961 to 13 in 1962 and 11 in 1963 (i.e. 20 per cwent of the annual output), with others pulled in as the supporting feature.
Among the movies accorded a second outing were On the Waterfront (1954), The Jolson Story (1946), The Vikings (1958), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Trapeze (1956), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Red River (1948) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Odeon also took advantage of the product gap to bring back relatively recent top performers, Swiss Family Robinson (1961), Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), Psycho (1960) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) within a year or so of their original release.
Although there was no sharp increase in movie production during the 1960s and to some extent successful double bill revivals and the retention of hit films like The Family Way (1966) and The Dirty Dozen (1967) for an extra week alleviated any shortfalls, by the end of the decade it was the circuits who came down heavy on the studios.
Films that looked as if they would do poorly on their circuit release were unceremoniously yanked off screens at the start of the week (movies at that time ran from Monday to Saturday) and replaced with something else.
Films that failed to cut the box office ice on the circuits included: Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) with Dean Martin and Kim Novak, Disney’s Monkeys Go Home (1967) starring Maurice Chevalier, thriller Games (1967) starring James Caan and Katharine Ross, Maureen O’Hara in romantic Italian-set drama The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965), thriller Brainstorm (1965) with Jeffrey Hunter, Rod Taylor in the adaptation of the Arthur Hailey bestseller Hotel (1967) and British television comedian Charlie Drake in Mister Ten Per Cent (1967).
SOURCES: “Strike Worsened Shortage Beef,” Variety, March 16, 1960, p15; “Flood of Dubs If Shortage Worsens,” Variety, March 23, 1960, p14; “Product Shortage Ends Twice-Weekly Changing,” Variety, May 11, 1960, p7; “Product Shortage Prompts Theatermen Renting of TV-Exposed Features,” Variety, May 18, 1960, p17; “Print Shortage Not Product,” Variety, September 7, 1960, p5; “How Come So Resistive To Reissues While Hollering Shortage?” Variety, February 20, 1963, p15; Gene Arneel, “Distribs: Theater Shortage,” Variety, March 6, 1963, p7; Allen Eyles, ABC The First Name in Entertainment (CTA, 1993) p121-125; Allen Eyles, Odeon Cinemas 2 (CTA, 2005) p204-214.