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 Bond They Couldn’t Sell – “Dr No” (1962)

United Artists almost had to give away this picture in the United States in order to gain bookings. Astonishingly, it was the picture the studio felt it could not sell. And for good reason – the studio hated it. “To them it was a B-picture,” recalled producer Harry Saltzman. “They said Hammer made the same kind of picture for one-third of the price.”

Dr No, produced on a miserly budget of $840,000 – $40,000 over budget –  had triumphed in London after snagging an opening run in 1962 at the Leicester Square Theatre primarily because the cinema needed to fulfil its quota of showing British pictures. Although it set a London box office record that would stand for more than a decade and proved a huge draw throughout Britain, U.S. studio United Artists had been burned once too often by British films that did well at home only to flop spectacularly in America.

Since box office statistics began to be gathered in earnest in the 1930s only a handful of British pictures mustered the $1 million in rentals required for entry into the annual list of box office champions. The bulk of the Ealing comedies had not made the grade, nor had such diverse successes as Doctor in the House (1954), Reach for the Sky (1956), Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). American audiences rejected British films as too slow, technically backward, and with accents it was often impossible to understand. Putting together an advertising, public relations and marketing package for them could easily cost as much as the film itself.

“When we had an answer print ready there were about eight people from United Artists including (chairman) Arthur Krim who came to see it,” Saltzman told Variety a quarter of a century later. “We started the film at 10am and when it was over a few minutes before twelve the lights came up and nobody said anything except a man who was head of the European operation and he said, ‘the only good thing about the picture is that we can only lose $840,000.’ Cubby (Broccoli) and I were just shattered,” confessed Saltzman.

That didn’t stop Saltzman and Broccoli embarking on their own campaign to raise awareness. They went right to the heart of the American exhibition community, taking space at the annual Show-a-Rama event in Kansas City in March, bringing along Sean Connery and models to represent the Bond girls. In addition, around the same time UA held a sneak preview in New York attended by the likes of Johnny Carson, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Rudy Vallee i.e. not that high-falutin’ an audience but at least the festivities were filmed and broadcast on NBC Monitor and Armed Forces Radio. Sean Connery also featured in a 12-minute segment in the middle of ABC Sunday Night at the Movies.

The Bond promotional bandwagon set up shop for a couple of days each in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles between March 7 and March 15 and pulled in journalists from the surrounding areas. There was also a touring show comprising 150 stills. And the marketeers had some success in targeting exhibitors through the trade magazines although the two-page article featuring in Box Office attempted to interest exhibitors on the basis of a marketing campaign in Connery’s native Scotland, which hardly seemed to be ideally suited. Nor did the marketing team really care what tricks exhibitors pulled to bring in the customers – for no particular reason one cinema employed a safe-cracking stunt even though the film’s story did not lend itself to that.

Dr No’s biggest marketing tools were photos of Ursula Andress in a bikini and copies of the Ian Fleming novels which since 1961 had the endorsement of President John F. Kennedy. Cheap paperbacks sold in drug stores and newsstands had created greater awareness of the character as well as acting as unpaid advertising for the forthcoming film.

But, basically, that was as much – or as little – as the film had going for it. In effect, no great marketing energy.

As it happened, exhibitors were beginning to organise their own marketing programs – “box office building campaigns” – and the Bond team were able to convince exhibitors in the Midwest and Southwest to kick off the idea with Dr No.

That meant shifting away from the conventional release pattern where a film opened in one cinema in a big city and then fanned out week-by-week to smaller venues and towns. Instead it was everywhere all at once which meant it cannibalized its own audience since it could not be held over in any cinema for a further week because the prints were already scheduled elsewhere.

Although most historians pinpoint New York as the launch pad for Dr No, United Artists did not want to risk the picture potentially flopping in that territory.  According to Harry Saltzman the first commercial showing, effectively a trial run, was in Atlanta, Georgia, where it ran for eleven weeks and was considered a success. But not enough for UA to consider shifting its release strategy. A movie that launched anywhere other than New York was considered a dodgy proposition.

From May 8 it was launched in 450 cinemas in the Midwest and southwest. This was the same release strategy as had been employed on another film about which UA had its commercial doubts – The Magnificent Seven (1960) – and that had turned into a flop. It opened in New York in June in 18 cinemas including two in the city centre, the Astor and the Murray Hill, both arthouses.

But here’s the kicker.

In order to get the bookings, United Artists had to dramatically lower its asking price.

Normally new pictures were sold to exhibitors on a 50/50 basis – meaning the studio received 50 per cent of the gross. “The funny things is,” recalled Saltzman, “they booked it for 30 percent. The theaters took it at first because they got it for 30 per cent.” That meant UA sold Dr No to cinemas on the basis that any exhibitor booking the picture would retain 70 per cent of the gross.

This was not unheard-of. In fact, it was often the standard deal for foreign movies going into arthouses. But arthouse pictures with the occasional exception of a La Dolce Vita were usually hard sells to a very finite audience. James Bond was anything but.

As a result of this approach, the movie did not register particularly well on the annual box office rankings. In fact, it placed 42nd. Not a disaster, but not a particularly brilliant showing. However, that did not represent the film’s true appeal. Had it been sold on a 50/50 basis, the rentals would have been high enough to pitch it just outside the Top 20, which would been seen as a genuine success. On the other hand, if UA had not been so generous in handing the exhibitors the bigger share of the box office, perhaps it might have elicited far fewer bookings and the James Bond story might have been completely different.

SOURCES: “United Artists Sell Campaign in Its Dr No Film,” Box Office, February 25, 1963, p10;  “Festivities Mark Dr No Sneak Preview in New York,” Box Office, March 11, 1963, pE-2; “450 Situations Play Dr No at Opening,” Variety, April 3, 1963, 19; “Producer Saltzman Faces Big Decision on 2nd James Bond Thriller,” Variety, April 25, 1962, p13; “Feature Reviews,” Box Office, April 1, 1953 pA-11; “Showmandiser: Premiere Showmen Say Yes to Dr No, Ticket Buyers Too,” Box Office, April 29, 1963, pA1; “Harry Saltzman Recalls Early Coolness to Bond Features,” Variety, May 13, 1987, p57; “Dr No in 17 Theatres,” Box Office, May 27, 1963, pE-8; “Picture Grosses,” Variety, June 5, 1963, p10; “Smash Business General for 4-Day Holiday,” Box Office, June 10, 1963, pE-2; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, June 17, 1963, pA3; “Safe Crackers Invited,” Box Office, June 24, 1963, pA3.

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