Banned, Reviled, Ignored: “Never Take Candy from a Stranger” (1960)

Paedophilia was the last taboo according to the Production Code, the self-censorship system organised by Hollywood in 1960. You could talk about rape in explicit detail (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959) and serial killers (Psycho, 1960) were acceptable, but you must not “violate the edict against depicting sex perversion…the only subject strictly forbidden by the code.”

Without the Production Code Seal (of approval), cinema bookings would be hard to come by. Cinemas that relied on the goodwill of their patrons would not dare risk upsetting them by renting a film that had met with such disapproval.

Headline news in “Variety.

Never Take Candy from a Stranger – a.k.a.Never Take Sweets from a Stranger – had been passed as an X-certificate in Britain, where, despite being set in Canada, it had been made. While that meant it could only be seen by adults over 18, there was no objections to it being shown.  It had been shot over six weeks beginning October 1959.

It had even been positively reviewed in the U.S. where Variety called it and “an exceptionally restrained film…directed with considerable skill” and Box Office magazine, another trade weekly, rated it “touching” though warned exhibitors that the “the subject matter is not to be sold as lure.” 

It did not help the case that James Carreras of British studio Hammer  had set out to make a movie that was “explosively exploitable” with the aim of cracking open America on the back of “heavy-exploitation marketing such as sex crimes against children” and that the movie intended to be “as frank with its theme as was Anatomy of a Murder in dealing with rape.”

The case went to appeal. The argument in its defence, as put by Roger Garis, author of the play on which the film was based, was that the movie wasn’t so much about paedophilia but about the public’s resistance to hearing about it, and the battle by two parents to rid the community of such a menace. He pointed out that on the play’s initial opening in New York in 1954 “no review indicated in the slightest degree that the subject matter was distasteful.”

But perhaps the U.S. censors took more note of the review printed in the British Monthly Film Bulletin that complained the “film’s seriousness is dissipated by an unnecessarily horrible climax.”

Hammer appealed the decision, but the Production Code would not budge. 

Despite the cautionary note struck by Box Office magazine, it was almost certain that it would be sold as exploitative, and attract the wrong sort of clientele, and for moviegoers of the wrong disposition it might well be only too big an attraction. In Britain, for example, it had been sold as a sex-shocker double bill, on the ABC circuit teamed up with Brigitte Bardot number Come Dance with Me (1959).

U.S. distributor Columbia could not be seen to be selling a movie that went against the ruling of the Production Code, but it couldn’t just dump it either since it was contractually obliged to release it. So instead it was passed on to its sub-division Lopert, an independent operation with no ostensible links to the parent company, that would find a way to get it into cinemas. Lopert would either sell it through the states rights method, divvying up the picture to a different set of local distributors who would each undertake the release in an individual state, or sell it on to another distributor, perhaps with experience of handling dodgy material. Lopert did both. Distribution was handled in some territories by Omat, which had successfully ushered La Dolce Vita (1960) through the system, and later Pathe-American, and in others by an independent.

The trade magazines had urged exhibitors to enrol the assistance of parental groups in marketing the movie, but these would hold no sway in terms of publicity. A local newspaper which had denied the movie any advertising space – a nationwide ban that followed such extreme Code disapproval –  was hardly going to give it editorial coverage.

But of course there were exhibitors who would take it. Arthouses were one possibility. They had been dealing with the disreputable ever since foreign production companies realized they could bypass the Production Code. If they were not signatories, they did not have to submit their movies for assessment. That was why there was such a flood of movies from France, Sweden and Italy heralding a sensational star like Bardot or Sophia Loren and promising greater leniency towards nudity than would be acceptable to the Code.

And there were many, especially among the more articulate classes, who felt the Code was outdated anyway, and that foreign films were breaking new cinematic ground, and that the directors of such films, Ingmar Bergman, Fellini et al, should be praised rather than condemned. But it was inevitable that movies from abroad with genuine artistic purpose got mixed up with those made with purely salacious intent.

The arthouse had been compromised so much that anything that could lure in the public was fair game. Even so, most arthouses drew the line at a film about child molestation. While Never Take Candy from a Stranger did receive a number of bookings in city center U.S. houses between 1961 and 1962 they were rarely in an arthouse. Most were in cinemas accustomed to offering patrons lurid product. In Chicago, outside of the major cinemas, it went out as a double bill with Sam Peckinpah western Deadly Companions.

Tracking the release through the pages of Variety and Box Office, I discovered it had only occasionally proved a success, a holdover for a second week generally one way of demonstrating that measure.

(Note that cinema capacities were much larger than today in the multiplex era and it was far from uncommon for  moviegoers to be part of a 1,000-plus audience)

In May 1961 in Boston it ran for two weeks at the 689-seater Mayflower, hitting $4,500 in the first week with a relatively small drop to $4,000 the next. In November, most likely as a filler for a movie that failed to hit its targets and was pulled early, it reached the 2,995-seat Palms in Detroit, clocking up a fair $10,000, but only permitted three days the next week, for another $3,000.

But by then a different reelase strastegy was in place. The same month in an “unusual first-run hook-up” it played a couple of drive-ins in Kansas City, those theaters were dragged into the first-run loop in the absence of other available or willing houses. One week at the 900-car Crest and the 700-car Waldo brought in a “mild” $6,000.  Perhaps in a bid to secure a bigger audience it was teamed with Beware of Children (1960). But anyone expecting another dip into perversion would be disappointed for it was a British marital comedy starring Leslie Phillips.

But release was a long drawn-out process, and perhaps to limit expenditure few prints were made. And by 1962, yet another different approach was taken, targeting the arthouses. In February it reached Baltimore, $3,000 at the 860-seat Avalon, In April it lasted one week at the 238-seat Capri Art in Denver taking $900 gross at the box office.

And then, never having not scaled the heights that a movie trading on controversy might expect, it disappeared. Obviously never a contender for television, and no sign of it being shoved out during the VHS boom, when virtually any movie made was revived in the hope of snaring a few extra bucks.

It took a helluva long time for the movie to surface, but when it did, it was to plaudits.

SOURCES:  “Hammer’s Slant,” Variety, October 21, 1959, p4; “Realism Outbreak in Britain,” Variety, October 31, 1959, p3; Review, Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1, 1960, p48; James Carreras, “British Horror Pix As Insurance For That Wide-Open Global B.O.,” Variety, January 6, 1960, p166; Review, Variety, March 16, 1960, p6; “Child-Molesting Theme in Abeyance,” Variety, April 27, 1960, p3; “Candy Story Author Sez Not About Perversion But Public’s Own Laxity,” Variety, May 11, 1960, p4; “Candy Loses Appeal for Code Seal,” Variety, May 18, 1960, p17;  Advertisement, Variety, January 11, 1961, p14; Review, Box Office, August 21, 1961, pA1; “Says Wilmington Press Is Pre-Judging Ads,” Box Office, October 30, 1961, p15; “Set Up Pathe Campaign,” Box Office, December 18, 1961, pNE6. Box office figures from Variety issues: May 31, 1961, p9; November 22, 1961, p8-10; February 14, 1962, p8; April 18, 1962, p9.

Behind the Scenes: The Spies Who Came in from Television: “The Spy with My Face” (1965)/”To Trap a Spy” (1965)

MGM wasn’t the first studio to hit upon the idea of re-editing episodes of a television series into a movie for cinema release. Small-screen The Lone Ranger had spawned The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1952) and Disney had stitched together episodes from its Davy Crockett franchise to create Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955) and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1955). The Challenge for Rin Tin Tin (1957) derived from The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Frontier Rangers (1959) born out of Northwest Passage, the Texas John Slaughter series the basis for five movies shown between 1960 and 1962, Crimebusters (1962) originated from Cain’s Hundred and Lassie’s Great Adventure (1963) from five episodes of the eponymous series.

But all these movies had one major disadvantage. Like their source material, they appeared in black-and-white. The Disney pair mined some box office gold, but primarily as matinee material. The rest were fillers, scheduled for the bottom half of a double bill and aimed at suburban and small-town cinemas and drive-ins desperate for anything to fill out a program. And all were nothing cruder than editing two or more episodes together to make a feature film.

MGM took a different approach. Instead of merging two different episodes, albeit starring the same stars, the studio decided to take one episode and expand it, filling out the story with subplots and extra characters and spicing up proceedings with levels of sex and violence that would not be tolerated on mainstream television. As important, it would be shot in color to make it stand out from the television series being shown in black-and-white.

First picture in the trial scheme was To Trap a Spy (changed form the initial To Catch a Spy), an expanded version of the television pilot known as The Vulcan Affair, and as well as series leads Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) and David McCallum (The Great Escape, 1963) toplined future Bond femme fatale Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball, 1965). A second movie was culled from The Double Affair which had been screened on November 17, 1964, with an European star with a considerable pedigree in Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965).

Since MGM had no idea whether the spy series, launched in the U.S. on NBC on 22 September 1964,  would catch on abroad, where in any case stations paid comparatively little to screen top American shows, its initial idea was to release films only for the foreign market.  

In fact, the studio didn’t wait to see if the BBC could make a hit out of the debuting The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series and shunted out To Trap a Spy before the series even screened in Britain. And lacking momentum from television, it went out as the support on the ABC circuit in Britain to The Americanization of Emily (1965) starring Julie Andrews and James Garner.

At that time, the ABC chain was not beholden to the double bill idea. In fact, more than half the annual weekly releases went out as solo affairs. A double bill was more likely to suggest that there were doubts over the pulling power of the main film. There was no way of judging the box office appeal of any film put out in the lower half of a double bill.

The odd thing was that if MGM had held off pressing the button on the circuit release, To Trap a Spy would have demonstrated box office success. At the same time as the double bill was simultaneously released at nationwide first run theaters, To Trap a Spy opened in London’s West End in May 1965 at the 529-seat Ritz and delivered the best business MGM had enjoyed there for two years. It returned to the 556-seat Studio One, also in the West end, in October that year as the top attraction in a double bill that included Glenn Ford-Henry Ford western The Rounders (1965) and in its fifth week took in an excellent $5,600 and a few weeks later shifted back to the Ritz.

Between released the first and second Uncle pictures, MGM had launched a major marketing campaign on the back of the launch of the series on BBC. One marketing gimmick, inviting the audience to write in for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. certificates, brought in over half a million applications. MGM splashed out $85,000 marketing The Spy with My Face (1965). Again, the movie went out in an ABC circuit release – in July 1965 – as part of a double bill, with Son of a Gunfighter (1965), but this time the Uncle film topped the bill. Launched in the West End at the much larger 1,330-seat Empire it took $22,000 in its opening week.  Nationally, “it was far and away above average for a top-grossing picture in the UK.”

To Trap A Spy and The Spy with My Face each grossed $2 million in the UK market. By January  1996, a third Uncle film had launched in the British market, One Spy Too Many,  based on the two-episode Alexander the Great Affair which had screened in America in September 1965. This time MGM held off from ABC circuit release until mid-February until One Spy Too Many had cleaned up in January in the West End, $25,000 at the Empire, helped along by a Xmas merchandizing bonanza that saw the country flooded with memorabilia, paperbacks, three singles and an album. It broke studio records in 91 of the 125 situations it first played.   

The success of the first pair pointed up the potential U.S. box office from these featurized episodes and MGM put together the double bill The Spy with My Face/To Trap a Spy on the  assumption that the films at the very least would pick up business outside first run venues where bigger-budgeted pictures dominated and provide respite for showcase (wide release) theaters, drive-ins and small cinemas suffering from product shortage. The bigger a hit a movie became, whether roadshow or not, the longer it took to move down the food chain.

MGM was also inspired by the merchandizing boom generated by the television. A toy gun was well on its way to notching up sales of two million, and there were in addition, games, puzzles, trading cards, costumes and masks and chewing gum.  

The MGM was entering a very crowded espionage market. Not only had Thunderball taken the top off the box office with an explosive debut in Xmas 1965, but any new entrant into the field in 1966 would come up against such spy behemoths as Columbia’s Our Man Flint (1966) and The Silencers (1966) from Twentieth Century Fox as well as more offbeat spy numbers like Paramount’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and other pictures aiming for a slice of the cake like Where the Spies Are (1966) with David Niven and That Man in Istanbul (1965).

Variety magazine was sniffy about the double bill’s prospects – “for the least discriminating audiences” was its take on To Trap a Spy although Box Office deemed it “far better story-wise” than The Spy with My Face.

Advert in “Variety” (May 27, 1964, p41) announcing the new series.

The Spy with My Face/To Trap a Spy gained surprising traction in first run, even though MGM was demanding a 50 per cent share of the box office. In some cities it ran smack bang into the openings of one or other of the biggies while Thunderball played for months on end. Even so, the results were surprisingly good. Leading the single cinema first run bows was $24,000 – equivalent to $214,000 now – in Chicago (and a second week of $18,000). Boston audiences delivered $16,000 (plus $11,000 second week), Detroit $18,000 (and $12,000). It ran for three weeks in Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Providence and two weeks in St Louis, Buffalo, St Louis, San Francisco and Cleveland.

There were one-week bookings at other major cities like Seattle, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Cincinnati. Except in Portland (“drab” first week and “dull” the second) and Seattle (“okay”) the box office verdict varied from “potent,” “virile” and “sock”  to “nice,” “fine,” and “pleasant.” Box Office magazine reckoned that in Hartford the duo produced revenues over three times the average and in Memphis twice the average.

Following first run, it would go into wider breaks in these various cities. Some cities ignored first run and opted for a straight “showcase” (wide release) bow, New York leading the way with $104,000 – $928,000 equivalent today – from 25 cinemas, Kansas City bringing in $35,000 from 10 in week one and $25,000 from 10 in week two, and Baltimore good for $40,000 from 18. In new England cinemas and drive-ins united for a multiple run release hat “rang up some of the briskest business of the winter months despite the adverse weather conditions.” The only downside was the Pacific chain of drive-ins refusing to show the double bill on the grounds that previous experience of showing movies adapted from television series had “brought patron beefs” and that its own tests had not worked.

Even when The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series ended after three-and-a-half seasons, MGM continued bringing out movies, eventually totalling eight in all. The others were: One of Our Spies Is Missing (1966), The Spy in the Green Hat (1966), The Karate Killers (1967), The Helicopter Spies (1968) and How to Steal the World (1968).

Towards the end of the decade the Easy Rider (1969) phenomenon prompted a brief vogue for box office analysts to point to low-budget pictures generating the biggest profit. Nobody tended to include the first three Uncle films in this equation regardless of the fact that, costing an original $200,000 per episode plus extra for reshoots and editing, they were, on a profit-to-cost basis, extraordinarily successful, easily bringing home revenues in the region to 10-15 times their budgets.

SOURCES: Allen Eyles, ABC: The First Name in Entertainment (CTA, 1993), p123; “Another Uncle Sequel As O’Seas Theatrical,” Variety, September 23, 1964, p79; “Uncle Gets 3rd Whirl As O’seas Feature,” Variety, January 27, 1965, p26; “International Soundtrack,” Variety, May 26, 1965, p26;  “Toys from Uncle,” Variety, June 30, 1965, p42; “Uncle Stunt in London Is Metro Hit,” Variety, December 8, 1965, p23; “Metro Sees Uncle TV Stanzas As B.O. Kin to James Bond in Theaters,” Variety, February 2, 1966, p1; Review, Variety, February 16, 1966, p18;  Review, Box Office, February 21, 1966, pB11; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, March 14, 1966, p22; “One Spy Looms MGM Leader in Britain,” Variety, March 20, 1966, p29; “Drive-Ins in New England Preparing To Solve Springtime Problems,” Box Office, March 21, 1966, pNE4; “Pacific Prefers Not To Follow Video,” Variety, April 20, 1966, p24; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, June 20, 1966, p14; “How Uncle in Great Britain Clicked Via Tie-Ups with Tele,” Variety, June 22, 1966, p17; “Uncle TV Conversions Boffo at B.O. Theatrically O’Seas,” Variety, March 20, 1968, p4; Box Office figures taken from the weekly edition of Variety in the “Picture Grosses” section on the following dates: in 1965 on November 10 and December 8, in 1966 from February 2 until June 1; and August 18, 1966.  

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 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.

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.   

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.

What Was On – London’s West End – Week Ending October 11th 1969

A total of 23 cinemas – comprising 22,000 seats – made up the roster for London’s West End, the most important cinemagoing location in the United Kingdom. All films had their British (occasional European or World) premiere here. Eleven cinemas could accommodate over 1,000 patrons, the biggest being the Odeon Leicester Square with 1,994 seats. At the other end of the scale and just round the corner from that Odeon was the Cinecenta, a multiplex of four tiny screens, highly unusual in Britain where the doubling and tripling of cinemas was in its infancy.

Although the roadshow was beginning to die the death in the United States, it remained very big business in London. the longest-running film was The Lion in Winter (1968) still taking £4,803 at the 600-seat Odeon Haymarket in its 40th week, equivalent to $11,046 (taking inflation into account that would amount to a colossal $83,248 at today’s prices). So you can see the advantage of letting films run and run in one location rather than shifting them out as soon as possible onto the circuits. Although roadshow tickets were more expensive than continuous performance, there were substantially fewer showings, a roadshow might be screened 15 times a week compared to 35-40 in continuous.

Top film of the week was aerial spectacular roadshow The Battle of Britain (1969) with an all star cast which took in £17,104 ($39,339) in its third week at the 1,654-seat Dominion. Setting a house record in its debut, Midnight Cowboy (1969), going down the continuous performance route at the 1,004-seat London Pavilion, knocked up £11,577 ($26,627).  Third, with £8,255 ($18,986) was Oscar-winning musical Oliver! (1968) in its 38th week at the 1,407-seat Leicester Square Theatre.

Sam Peckinpah’s controversially violent The Wild Bunch (1969), blown up to 70mm, came fourth at the 1,568-seat Warner Theatre with £8,091 in its seventh week. The sophomore outing at the Odeon Leicester Square of John Wayne and Rock Hudson in The Undefeated (1969) rammed home £6,094. Holding down sixth spot was the 70mm Cinerama disaster epic Krakatoa-East of Java (1968) with £5,091 in its tenth week at the 1,121-seat Astoria.

The Lion in Winter placed seventh. Eighth was a surprise package, Easy Rider (1969), racking up an extraordinary £4,493 in the tiny 272-seat classic Piccadilly. Omar Sharif as revolutionary Che! (1969) was next, first week at the 1,159-seat Carlton bringing in £4,475. Rounding out the top ten was The Fixer with £4,460 in its second week at the 1,366-seat Empire. The last three movies were all in continuous performance.

Reissues were surprisingly popular. Gone with the Wind (1939), also showing in 70mm, was in its 12th week – after a long run at the Empire – at the 1,360-seat Odeon Marble Arch while The Jolson Story (1946) starring Larry Parks played separate performances at the 1,394 Metropole in an eight-week run.

Also making their debuts were Cannes Award Winner Z (1969) at the 546-seat Curzon, The Royal Hunt of the Sun at the 713-seat Odeon St. Martin’s Lane, documentary Footprints on the Moon – Apollo 11 at the 570-seat Rialto, and in move-over The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the 550-seat Studio One.

Other long-runners were: Barbra Streisand giving an Oscar-winning performance in musical Funny Girl (1968) in its 38th week at the 760-seat Columbia; Where Eagles Dare (1968), also in 70mm, in its 30th week at the 412-seat Ritz, after a long run at the Empire; Ice Station Zebra (1968), filmed in 70mm Cinerama, in its 28th week at the 1,127-seat Casino Cinerama; Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968) also in its 28th week at the 648-seat Prince Charles; and Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) in its 26th week at the 972-seat paramount.

Other films still showing include The Graduate (1967) in week fourteen at the 154-seat Cinecenta 4 and Goodbye, Columbus (1969)  in week five at the 820-seat Plaza.  

In those days the length of run a film racked up in the West End impacted on when it would go into general release. So if a film ran for six months in the West End, it could delay its circuit release for that length of time.

Movies were judged as much by length of run as box office. Except in the case of specialize product, a film achieving “legs” was seen as indicative of its future performance. There was  subtle marketing going on here – West End films were advertised every day in the London evening newspapers so if a film ran for six months that was six months of daily exposure of that picture for the rest of the city’s inhabitants who, unable to afford West End prices, were desperate for it to appear at their local cinema.

SOURCE: “Box Office Business,” Kine Weekly, October 11, 1969, p8.

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