Coming Soon: 60 Years Ago

NEW YORK JULY 1960: Although summer six decades ago did not have the same hype as summers now it was still a prime time to launch new movies. The big cinemas also were more attractive than smaller ones because they tended to have air conditioning so if it was hot outside audiences did not swelter inside.

But Disney did not yet have a stranglehold on the summer – although the studio had given note of its intentions by launching Pollyanna at the gigantic Radio City Music Hall – so the range on offer was wide. Psycho had just taken New York by storm so newcomers had their work cut out.

The expected big hitters were Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry starring Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons in a murky tale of evangelism and the under-rated Richard Quine’s steamy drama Strangers When We Meet with Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak. (Douglas and Simmons would be seen later in the year in Spartacus).

Paul Newman was hoping for a commercial breakthrough with From the Terrace, based on the John O’Hara bestseller, co-starring his wife Joanne Woodward and directed by Mark Robson. At this point Newman’s career had yet to spark, the success of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) in which he was relegated to leading man status behind undoubted star Elizabeth Taylor had been followed by misfires Rally Round the Flag, Boys (1958) and The Young Philadelphians (1959). Plus, Robson with two Oscar nominations and Woodward a winner for The Three Faces of Eve (1957) were more highly-regarded than the star who had but one nomination.

Also hoping for a career uplift was Richard Burton in Ice Palace, adapted from the Edna Ferber bestseller set in Alaska, co-starring Robert Ryan and Martha Hyer and directed by Austrian veteran Vincent Sherman. Targeting a different market entirely were Murder Inc, The Lost World and Battle in Outer Space.

Although Stuart Whitman was the star of the low-budget Murder Inc. set against the background of 1930s gangster Lepke, Peter Falk stole the show with an Oscar-nominated turn. The Lost World had British actor Michael Rennie and Jill St. John in the cast and was more notable for  being one of the few directorial outings of Irwin Allen, later the inventor of the 1970s disaster mini-genre. Sci-fi Battle in Outer Space was a dubbed import from Japan.

Three arthouse pictures also made their debuts. The pick of these should have been The Trials of Oscar Wilde with Peter Finch as the eponymous playwright  but some of its potential had been sapped by the release a short time before of Oscar Wilde starring Robert Morley. The other two were British comedy School for Scoundrels starring Ian Carmichael and Terry Thomas and the Russian adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Sources: Variety – Jul 6, July 13, Jul 20, Jul 27, 1960.

Industry Insider : Ben Marcus

You’ll probably never have heard of Ben Marcus but without him you would not be seeing movies the way you do these days.

Polish-born Marcus owned a chain of 36 picture houses in Wisconsin and he was growing alarmed at two aspects of a fast-changing business: how long  it took for big movies to reach his theaters and the fact that by the time he did get hold of them audience interest had been sapped by their long runs in big city houses.

So he invented the Marcus Plan. In the early 1960s there was no such thing as a national wide release as there is now, the same movie appearing at the same time in every multiplex in the country. Instead, there was a drip-feed down the long tail of a food chain, some movies taking a year or more to complete their release.

There had been some experiments in localized wide release – what was then known as “saturation” – The Magnificent Seven the most high-profile movie shown in this manner, bundled from one small group of states to another over a matter of months, but mostly pictures that went down this route were low-budget exploitationers, gone before word-of-mouth could sink them.

Marcus thought it would make more sense for exhibitors and studios to work together in a concerted fashion, equally contributing to a marketing campaign, to come up with a longer-term strategy for coordinated wide release. So he set up a test project in 1961 and soon had the box office figures to prove that movies as disparate as Operation Petticoat, The Time Machine and Gidget could make more by using the plan than Pollyanna, The Apartment and Ocean’s 11 could without.

Just to prove the idea  did not depend on star names or films with an inbuilt attraction, he ran the experiment again, this time revolving around The Trapp Family, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, Hoodlum Priest and Operation Eichmann with nary a star between them and The Great Imposter starring Tony Curtis whose initial prospects had been considered bleak. The Trapp Family was not just already six years old but a foreign picture, made in West Germany, the only element in its favor that Twentieth Century Fox had snapped up the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway hit The Sound of Music based on their story.

The five pictures sent out in this fashion did so much better than expected that trade magazine Box Office called the Marcus Plan a “magic device.” United Artists, Columbia and Universal became enthusiastic supporters and worked alongside exhibitors to develop the idea. But it was the participation of Warner Brothers  which took the concept to the next stage.

The studio was persuaded to switch release dates to suit exhibitors and brought forward Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane from March 1963 to November 1962 resulting in a release in a thousand theaters in three consecutive waves. It went into profit in the first two weeks and the modern wide release was born.