Box office fans, excited no doubt at how Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), is charging up the all-time charts, might be surprised to discover that the concept of “worldwide” box office figures didn’t exist in the 1960s. Although foreign markets had proved important to Hollywood since the 1940s, there was no accepted way of measuring their impact.
Box office results in certain countries – Italy, France, Brazil, Australia etc – were reported only on an occasional basis and were never considered front page news. Global box office figures were more likely to appear courtesy of one of the profit participants. Star William Holden’s share of Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and producer Sam Spiegel’s earnings on Doctor Zhivago (1965), for example, were widely reported. Or a studio might want to defray rising investor discontent by pointing how well a Stateside flop such as The Magnificent Seven (1960) had performed overseas.
But these were one-offs and it was impossible to get a handle on the worldwide results for an entire year of Hollywood output. The kind of global box office reporting we take for granted did not appear until the 1990s and often even then, for many pictures, it was only as a year-end figure.
However, during my digging into hordes of records for my book The Making of “The Magnificent Seven” I came upon a tranche of reports on foreign box office figures relating to United Artists for the years 1965 to 1969. And they make for fascinating reading, not least to discover which Stateside hits did poorly abroad and, conversely, what flops in the domestic market made up for it in foreign countries.
Volume of production at UA more than doubled over the period, from 17 pictures in 1965 to 38 in 1969, but the average budget came down from $3.68 million per movie to $2.14 million.
You won’t be surprised to learn that James Bond pretty much reigned supreme, taking three of the top four spots. But you might be taken aback to discover just how profitable this series was – over $100 million in rentals (the studio share of box office once cinemas have taken their cut) for three movies mentioned here – more than four times what they cost to make, and that would not take into account the colossal revenues accruing from merchandising.
The 1965-1969 worldwide winner by some margin was Thunderball (1965), clocking up $48 million in worldwide rentals. In second place was You Only Live Twice (1967) on $36 million. but the prospect of a cosy one-two-three was nipped in the bud by Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy (1969) on $26 million with On her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969,) hampered by losing the services of Sean Connery, settling for fourth after pulling in $23 million.
Fifth spot went to big-budget roadshow Hawaii (1966) starring Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow which sank $18.8 million worldwide followed by Norman Jewison’s low-budget crime story In the Heat of the Night (1967) on $16 million helped by Sidney Poitier at a box office peak and Rod Steiger, courtesy of an Oscar, at a career one. Placing seventh was big-budget all-star British World War Two epic The Battle of Britain (1969) which soared, largely on foreign grosses, to $15.5 million. Next, on $14.8 million, came roadshow musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) starring Dick Van Dyke.
Biggest surprise of the year was the performance of family melding comedy Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) with out-of-favor stars Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda which closed in on $13 million. Rounding out the Top Ten was George Stevens’ Biblical roadshow The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). However, its global figures of $12.1 million were a disappointment given its budget topped $21.2 million.
Just behind, on $12 million worldwide, setting another comedic hot pace, was Clive Donner’s What’s New Pussycat (1965). Despite having no roadshow credentials it boasted an all-star cast consisting of Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Ursula Andress, Romy Scheider and Paula Prentiss. Comedy also accounted for twelfth – the unfancied, though timely, Norman Jewison effort The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) starring Alan Arkin and Eva Marie Saint which coasted in with $11.8 million.
Thirteenth was Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway romantic thriller The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) directed with considerable elan also by Norman Jewison. That flew in with $11.25 million, a cool million ahead of the second picture, Help!, by British pop sensation The Beatles.
Fifteenth place went to the final picture in the Sergio Leone trilogy The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1968) starring Clint Eastwood which crested $10.2 million. John Frankenheimer’s World War Two thriller The Train (1965) with Burt Lancaster trying to outfox Paul Schofield tracked $9.75 million. But, as if to emphasize Clint Eastwood’s growing box office power, his first American western Hang ‘Em High came next on $9 million worldwide.
Second World War mission picture The Devil’s Brigade (1968) starring William Holden and Cliff Robertson in a Dirty Dozen-style knock-off paraded $8.6 million for eighteenth position. Comedy filled out the final two places in the Top 20. Jack Lemmon scored a suprise hit in Richard Quine’s How To Murder Your Wife (1965). Co-starring Virna Lisi and Englishman Terry-Thomas it romped away with $8.4 million. Although The Graduate (1967) had been a massive global success, United Artists only held the rights to certain territories but that was enough to pull in $7.7 million worldwide.
There wasn’t actually an informal Top 20 reported by United Artists over this five-year period. I’ve concocted it out of the reports below.
SOURCE: “United Artists Corporation and Subsidiaries Motion Picture Negative Costs for Pictures Released in the Year Ended 1965;” “United Artists Corporation and Subsidiaries Motion Picture Negative Costs for Pictures Released in the Year Ended 1966;” “United Artists Corporation and Subsidiaries Motion Picture Negative Costs for Pictures Released in the Year Ended 1967;” “United Artists Corporation and Subsidiaries Motion Picture Negative Costs for Pictures Released in the Year Ended 1968;” “United Artists Corporation and Subsidiaries Motion Picture Negative Costs for Pictures Released in the Year Ended 1969,” United Artists Files, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, University of Wisconsin.