Advance Buzz – The Phenomenon Created in the 1960s

In 1964, Twentieth Century Fox created a new way of selling pictures by inventing the advance buzz.

Of course, movies had always had some kind of pre-launch push but mostly on a small-scale via gossip columnists, who, while they had some influence, did not actually receive much space in a newspaper. Fox set out to change all that and put movies on the front pages and gain big feature spreads inside, an event that only usually occurred through  unwanted scandal (Cleopatra, for example), death  or a photo of a big female star.

Fox revamped the press junket – at that time primarily used as a vehicle to announce a movie premiere – and turned it into a method of creating advance publicity and expanding awareness on new pictures long before they reached the screen. And did so with enormous style, transporting over 100 American journalists to Europe to watch the production of three major big-budget roadshows.

Cecil B. DeMille of all people had invented the movie press junket – for the world premiere of his swashbuckler The Buccaneer in 1938. At a time when world premieres were confined to New York and Los Angeles, Hollywood had begun experimenting on a small scale with different locales for a first showing – whaling picture I Conquer the Sea (1936) was unveiled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, The Petrified Forest (1936) in St Louis and Sutter’s Gold (1936) in Sacramento. But these were all local affairs, the selected city putting on a big show for local dignitaries but the media were drawn only from the immediate surrounding area with stories syndicated to bigger newspapers.

When he selected New Orleans for his world premiere, DeMille, as skilled in marketing as he was in direction, hired a deluxe train to bring journalists from the top newspapers and magazines down from New York and Chicago. The train had a special compartment kitted out with typewriters, telephones, radio, Dictaphones and even stenographers to “relay hot news as it happens.”

All expenses – accommodation, meals, alcohol and various other sundries – for an entire week were picked up by Paramount. Three radio stations made daily broadcasts and the journalists filed news stories and features about the stars and the city, and, most important of all, reviews of the film they were privileged to be the first to see. The city went to extraordinary trouble, proclaiming a local holiday, organizing parades, enlisting the help of local organizations to ensure there was some event worth reporting every day. Local retailers, hoteliers and restaurateurs made a fortune as hundreds of thousands of people piled in to see the stars and witness the festivities.

The press junket was born.

In the following years, world premieres were held all over America either in locations where the movie was filmed or places linked with a star or character. These varied from major metropolises like Detroit (Disputed Passage, 1939), Houston (Man of Conquest, 1939), Memphis (Dr Erlich’s Magic Bullet, 1940) and Philadelphia (Intermezzo, 1939) to smaller locales like Littleton, New Hampshire (The Great Lie, 1941) and South Bend, Indiana (Knute Rockne, All American, 1940).

But by the 1960s, the world premiere idea had been done to death. There was scarcely a town, city or venue that had not been the subject of premiere marketing.

So in 1964 with an unprecedented three roadshow pictures in production Twentieth Century Fox upped the press junket ante by flying a fleet of 110 journalists on a specially chartered Boeing 707 to Europe to watch filming on actual locations in Britain, Austria and Italy.

Over 40 cities were represented by reporters and included representatives of the New York Post, Los Angeles Times, UPI, Detroit Free Press, Kansas City Star, Boston Globe and the Seattle Times as well as The Mike Wallace Show (television) and NBC Radio and magazines as diverse as McCalls, Cue and Newsweek.

At the reconstructed Booker Airport in Britain, journalists watched stunts for Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) and interviewed stars like Sarah Miles, Terry-Thomas and Robert Morley. Each journalist had a photograph taken as a personal souvenir alongside a replica of a 1910 Antoinette airplane specially built for the film, but undoubtedly many such photographs found their way into the newspapers and magazines.

When the media cavalcade shifted to Austria they were treated to a massive banquet at Schloss Klessheim in Salzburg where The Sound of Music (1965) was being filmed. Julie Andrews was interviewed with her feet on a table and the reporters watched choreographer Marc Breaux rehearsing the “I Have Confidence” number (the music had been recorded in Hollywood and then played back synchronized to the action). Andrews and co-star Christopher Plummer were interviewed at Frohnburg Castle.

Italy – where The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) was being shot – was the final destination. The visitors were conveyed up the perilous Carrera Mountains to the 4,700 ft Monte Altimissino to watch a scene being filmed in a quarry usually closed to visitors of a 200-ton block of marble being cut. Director Carol Reed, producer Darryl F. Zanuck and star Charlton Heston were on hand to welcome them. Rex Harrison (playing the Pope) was interviewed outside a restaurant in Rome that bore the Pontiff’s name 

Even before the journalists returned from the seven-day trip, they were sending stories back – over $8,000 (worth about $70,000 today) was spent on cable fees and nearly one million words had been written. Many of the journalists had never been to Europe before and took full advantage of the opportunity. Newspaper and magazines would not permit journalists to spend such a length of time away from the office without expecting a substantial bounty in the shape of news stories – the trip itself received extensive coverage.

Feature editors were deluged with stories and interviews that ran in the main sections of the newspaper and in weekend supplements, shifting the coverage of movies away from the  entertainment sections. In addition, to justify their time away, stories ran in the food, travel and fashion sections.

It was an unprecedented publicity bonanza for films that were still a full year away from release, creating a tsunami of public interest. For the first time a studio had created movie awareness on its own terms. While movies filmed in Europe had often received coverage based on reports by journalists living in that continent, this was rather cursory, had always appeared piecemeal in American newspapers, largely depended on an editor’s decision about reader interest in a particular star, and, more importantly, such stories usually coincided with the film’s launch rather than well in advance.

This huge media onslaught whetted public appetites well in advance. In addition, there were enough articles left over to be used up when the movies actually did open.

The trade press also widely reported on the event and Box Office magazine ran a 12-page feature one month later. In its evaluation of the junket, the studio concluded that it was the “most advanced type of industrial marketing.”

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere: A History of the Hollywood Wide Release 1913-2017, p32-36 (McFarland Publishing, 2019); “That Was the Week That Was…Fantastic,” Box Office, Jul 6, 1964, p10-21.

The Happy Thieves (1962) ****

A triumvirate of art thieves are blackmailed into stealing a famous Goya painting from the Prada museum in Madrid. Jimmy Bourne (Rex Harrison) is the actual thief, Eve Lewis (Rita Hayworth) smuggles the artworks out of the country and Jean-Marie (Joseph Wiseman, soon to be more famous as Dr No, 1962) creates the forgeries that replace the stolen masterpieces. Hayworth is the least reliable of the trio, her drinking (she had a problem in real life) jeopardizes their slick operation. Not only has the painting they have stolen slipped through her hands but the thief Dr Victor Munoz (Gregoire Aslan) has filmed the original theft and is not above a bit of murder on the side.

Harrison and Hayworth are a delightful pairing. Hayworth has abandoned the sultry in favor of the winsome, Harrison shifted from sarcasm to dry wit. He is always one-step-ahead but  never overbearing, and the thefts are carried out with military precision. Even when let down by colleagues, who are inclined to scarper when threatened, he takes it all in his stride, the calm center of any potential storm. And there is genuine chemistry between Harrison and Hayworth though his matter-of-fact attitude tends to undercut the kind of passionate romance that moviegoers came to expect from top-class players thus paired. His proposal, for example, comes by way of dictation, “the new Mrs Bourne.” It would have been tempting for Hayworth to act as the ditzy blonde (brunette, actually) but instead she plays it straight, which is more effecting.

Bourne is the archetypal gentleman thief (“there is a touch of larceny in all successful men”) and Eve does her earnest best to keep up (“I want so much to be a first-class crook for you, I’m trying to be dishonest, honestly I am.”) There is never the remotest chance of them being confused with real gangsters. “I thought that stealing was the only honest way Jimmy could live with himself,” says Eve.  In truth, their characters set the template for better-known later heist pictures like How to Steal a Million (1966), Gambit (1966) and A Fine Pair (1968) – all reviewed on this blog – which couple one determined thief with one less so.   

Of course, heist pictures rely for much of their success on the actual heist. And Bourne’s plan for the Prada is brilliantly simple and carried out, as mentioned, with military precision. The get-out clause, which, of course, is how such films reach their conclusion, is more realistic and human than the other movies I have mentioned.

What’s more, there are number of excellent sight gags and great throwaway lines while Jean-Marie and Dr Munoz are well-written, the villain’s motivation particularly good. Other incidentals lend weight – their apartment is opposite a prison, the security guards at the Prada are caring rather than the idiots of How to Steal a Million, and a sub-plot involving a bullfighter (Virgilio Teixeira, Return of the Seven, 1966) also sheds light on Bourne.  There is a jaunty whistling theme tune by Mario Nascimbene (One Million Years B.C., 1966) which maintains levity throughout.

The movie does tilt from the gentleman thievery of the initial section into something much darker, but, so too, do the two principals and, unusually, rather than in the usual contrived fashion, Bourne and Eve undergo personal transition by the end.

I found the whole exercise highly enjoyable. It’s very under-rated. My only quibbles are that it is shot in black-and-white, which seems bizarre when Spain, the location, is such a colorful country. The title, too, is an oddity. This was the only picture produced by Hayworth in partnership with husband James Hill. They split up before the picture was released which might explain its poor initial box office.  Hill was an experienced producer, part of Hill-Hecht-Lancaster (The Unforgiven, 1960), but this proved his final film.

Hayworth, too, had previously worn the producer’s hat for The Loves of Carmen (1948), Affair in Trinidad (1952) and Salome (1953). Hayworth was still a marquee attraction at this point, taking top billing here, and second billing to John Wayne in Circus World/The Magnificent Showman (1963). But this is quite a different performance to her all-out-passionate persona or the slinky deviousness of Gilda (1946). Alida Valli (The Third Man, 1949) puts in an appearance and trivia trackers might take note of the debut of Britt Ekland (credited as Britta Ekman).

Director George Marshall was a Hollywood veteran with over a quarter of a century directorial experience including film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946), Jerry Lewis comedy The Sad Sack (1957) and western The Sheepman (1958) with Glenn Ford. In fact, five of his previous six pictures had starred Glenn Ford and his next shift would be on How the West Was Won (1962).

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