What a Product Shortage Really Meant

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.

Spans the nation “again” this ad fails to mention.

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.

Hot box office in its first few weeks of a revival at the Warner in London’s Leicester Square.

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.

Behind the Scenes: “Operation Kid Brother / O.K. Connery” (1967)

A new episode in the James Bond legend began on February 23, 1966, when a plasterer from Scotland made an audacious bid for movie stardom. His name was Neil Connery, currently earning $10 a week, shooting for a $5,000 payday as he took part in a screen test in Rome for producer Dario Sabatello (Seven Guns for the MacGregors, 1966) for a film entitled Operation Casbah that would later be tagged Operation Kid Brother (O.K. Connery in Italy).

Sabatello was an experienced producer beginning with The Thief of Venice (1950) starring Hollywood legend Maria Montez. Connery was a skilled laborer living in the four-year shadow of elder brother Sean and with little intention of moving out of that shadow. However, as a result of a work-related incident, he became the subject of a newspaper article and then a radio interview. Nobody was much interested in the reason for the interview – stolen tools – but everyone was impressed by the sound of Neil’s voice. “Sean’s brother spoke exactly like him.”

Archers Assemble! Connery on the bowstring.

The newspaper interview caught the eye of Sabatello, who noted the actor’s likeness to his brother and who flew over to Edinburgh to interview Neil and in so doing becoming aware of his athletic attributes, height and good looks. A month later came an invite for the screen test. Neil’s agent, who had no right to make such a claim, promised that if Neil got the part big brother Sean would play a cameo. For the test, Connery had to “embrace a girl, sing, dance and finally end up in  a hand-to-hand fight with a guy with a knife.” However, the test was so successful that the presence of Sean was not required. Sabatello signed the neophyte actor to a six-picture deal that would generate a six-figure salary if the film turned the Scot into a star.

Italian production giant Titanus sold the world rights (except for Italy) to United Artists, ironically the distributor of the James Bond pictures, thus securing the funding for the $1.2 million three-month shoot that kicked off in Cinecitta in Rome on December 14, 1966. Locations were scheduled to include Monte Carlo, San Remo, Turin, Barcelona, Malaga and Tetuan.

The supporting cast was dominated by actors with a Bond connection including Adolfo Celi, Daniela Bianchi, Anthony Dawson, who had all worked with director Alberto De Martino on Dirty Heroes (1967) and Lois Maxwell and Bernard Lee. Ennio Morricone, another De Martino aficionado, was brought in to do the score.

Affiliates Assemble! Connery with Bond regulars Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell.

Connery’s boxing training in the British Army came in handy when he had to become an archer. Pulling a bow takes considerable physical exertion. Target practice was held at Adolfo Celi’s house outside Rome. “I had remembered everything about putting the bow down, bringing it up, pull and push, as there was quite a pull on it,” he said. Celi’s arrow managed just a few yards but Connery hit the target. His luck did not hold when filming the real thing in Monte Carlo. Celi’s shot did not go far again but this time Connery’s arrow missed the target.

Although Connery had read the script he was only given his lines in the morning as he went into make-up. He acquitted himself well in the fight scenes, except for one scene which ended with him being taken to hospital.   

The film opened in Britain at the Pavilion in London’s West End on April 25, 1667, with a general release slated for May 5. But it didn’t get a circuit release. That is, it didn’t go out on either of the two main cinema chains, ABC or Odeon, or the lesser Gaumont circuit, so its bookings would have been restricted. It didn’t appear in the United States until November, 1967, having been reviewed without much enthusiasm in Variety which posited “at best the film deserves bottom half bookings”, i.e. the bottom half of a double bill, which means it would play for a fixed rental rather than a percentage.

It did open in first run in a number of city center picture houses in November and December, to occasionally decent but hardly lush box office. Its $20,000 week in Chicago was deemed “good”, as was the $4,000 in Providence, while $13,000 in Philadelphia was considered “brisk” but $5,000 in St Louis considered only “fair.”  There was a first run showing in New York but only at a 600-seater arthouse.

But when it went wider in “Showcase” releases the box office collapsed. In New York it managed only $67,000 from 25 theatres compared to, in the same week, British film The Family Way on $223,000 from 26, and the second week of Point Blank with $145,000 from 25. Business was worse in Los Angeles, just $49,000 from 26 compared to $125,000 from 29 for Barefoot in the Park, and it was dire in Kansas City, only $9,000 from eight houses.

Given the relatively low budget, the film globally may well have broken even but it certainly did not send Neil Connery’s box office status into the stratosphere. He had small parts in two more low-budget movies, The Body Stealers (1969) and Mad Mission 3: Our Man from Bond St (1984) plus some television.

SOURCES: Brian Smith, “Bond of Brothers,” Cinema Retro, Vol 4 Issue 12 2008, p13-19; Allen Eyles, Odeon Cinemas  2, (CTA 2005), p212; Allen Eyles, ABC (CTA, 1993), 123-124; Allen Eyles, The Granada Theatres (CTA 1998)’ p247; Allen Eyles, Gaumont British Cinemas, (CTA 2005), p197; William Hall, “Big Brother Is Watching Him,” Photoplay, June 1967; “International Soundtrack,” Variety, February 23, 1966, p33; “Titanus Sets Pre-Prod Deals for Two UA Pix,” Variety, December 14, 1966, p24; “International Soundtrack,” Variety, December 21, 1966, p24; “Hollywood and British Production Pulse,” Variety, December 28, 1966, p17; Advertisement, Variety, January 4, 1967, p65; “Connery Pix a Family Affair with UA,” Variety, March 8, 1967, p24;  Review, Variety, October 11, 1967, p22; “Picture Grosses,” Variety November 1, November 8, November 15, November 29, December 13, 1967.  

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