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.

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