Selling “Doctor Zhivago”

Yesterday was the 55th anniversary of the launch of the European premiere of Doctor Zhivago (1965) in London and would you believe it the English weather came to the promotional aid of the David Lean epic with an unseasonal snow shower as fur-clad models took to the streets on a sleigh. As was common in the 1960s, there was no such thing as a global release date. The film had been launched in the U.S. in December 1965 but only a couple of countries since then, the main drawback being the lack of available prestigious cinemas for a big budget roadshow. The delay was also caused by hope of major success at the Oscars – given Lean’s two previous films had won Best Picture – held in March.

Doctor Zhivago launched at the 1,330-seat Empire, Leicester Square, in the heart of the capital’s West End in the presence of Princess Margaret and with the director and five stars in attendance.  The first public demonstration of colour television in Europe was a feature of the launch, a large screen set up in the theater foyer to relay the arrival of royalty and celebrities to the audience already seated in the cinema.

Typical advert with booking form.

MGM had pulled out all the publicity stops, the massive advertising campaign beginning on February 1, twelve weeks prior to the opening, with the switching-on of a 40ft by 20ft electric sign in Piccadilly Circus. That triggered an advertising campaign in the press about two weeks later announcing the premiere. That served only to stoke up interest, another two weeks elapsing before tickets went on sale. Advertisements ran virtually non-stop in national daily newspapers and London evening papers as well as entertainment and film magazines.

Roadshows benefitted from press advertising more than normal pictures. The bulk of the adverts for Doctor Zhivago carried a booking form so money started rolling in to the cinema long before the first screening. Selling tickets in this way was also a bulwark against sudden changes in weather – torrential rain or glorious sunshine as equally likely to deter moviegoers – whereas if you had already booked your ticket well in advance it did not matter whether you turned up or not, and most people would attend even in sweltering heat rather than forego their ticket.

MGM also undertook the biggest advertising campaign in its history in Britain. Unlike today, when there is one universal advertisement, in those days a film might have half a dozen different pieces of artwork. Doctor Zhivago boasted fifteen. Four weeks ahead of the opening 8,000 double-crown posters were plastered over the city. One-third of the entire London bus fleet carrying such artwork, while 50 Underground stations had 48-sheets (three times the size of the normal posters) on train platforms. In addition, closer to the launch, double quads were posted in a thousand locations. A special mobile box office toured the city advertising the film and selling tickets.

A special “Background to Doctor Zhivago Exhibition” was set up in the Garringes department store opposite Victoria Station, one of the capital’s biggest travel hubs, by the Historical Research Unit and including many costumes from the production. Tie-ins were far more numerous than for the New York launch. Mansfield Fashion launched a range of popular-priced clothing based on the film promoted by a sleigh-ride through London with a bevy of models against the unexpected background of snow on April 14. A more upmarket manufacturer Sidney Massin was promoting a more expensive fur coat.

Among the other fashion tie-ins were: a white coat of Kalgan lamb with a Mongolian lamb collar from Swears and Wells, long black wool coat with white fox fur hood and collar from Femina Furs, fur hats for men and women from Edmund Mann, evening dresses from Berkertex and fur-lined fabrics from Clarewood Fashions. Hardy Amies designed male fur coats for Hepworths department stores and range of gloves for either sex for Dent Allcroft. Worldwide the Zhivago look had been reflected in collections designed by St Laurent, Dior, Cardin, Chanel and Rabanne.

Unseasonal snow in London in mid-April helped the fashion launch.

Outside of fashion, there was a tie-up with Cossack Vodka. There was also a Cossack hair cream while Waddingtons produced a jigsaw puzzle. As well as hardback and paperback editions of the famous Boris Pasternak novel, there was also a hardback of the Robert Bolt Oscar-winning screenplay.  The music also provided promotional crossover, the theme tune and original soundtrack already big hits. BBC2 aired a documentary on the filming of the movie and the stars and director appeared on numerous television and radio talk shows.

BBC News, Pathe newsreel cameras and CBS America all covered the premiere. Stars in attendance were Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, Siobhan McKenna, Ralph Richardson and Rita Tushingham as well as Lean, Bolt and producer Carlo Ponti.

Although the movie failed to win any of the main Oscars, it still took home six: screenplay (Robert Bolt), color cinematography (Freddie Young), color art direction (John Box, Terence Marsh and Dario Simoni), set decoration (also Box, Marsh and Simoni), color costume design (Phyllis Dalton) and music score (Maurice Jarre). MGM promoted these accomplishments in its advertising and revamped its pressbook. And the studio was also able to take advantage of the fact that Julie Christie had been named Best Actress at that year’s Oscars for Darling (1965). Noted the new-look Pressbook: “probably no other motion picture actress has achieved the meteoric success and worldwide fame accorded Julie Christie.”

The Pressbook mainlined on awards of one kind or another. As well as Oscars, the Russian epic had picked up five Golden Globes included Best Dramatic Picture, Best Director and Best Dramatic Actor (Omar Sharif). It was named best film by the New York Daily News and was named one of the year’s top ten by the National Board of Review, and received awards from magazines as diverse as Seventeen, Parents and Scholastic.

Also contained in the Pressbook were snippets that might appeal to local journalists such as: six tons of nails were used in constructing the ten-acre set, Phyllis Dalton created 5,000 costumes and John Box 117 settings, rats in one scene were tested for infections, rumors of Omar Sharif shaving off his normal curly hair were false, movie livestock was donated to a local church at the end of filming.

Separately, a 32-page “Fact Booklet” was compiled for  journalists.

As ever, exhibitors were bombarded with promotional ideas by MGM publicists via the Pressbook. One idea was to ask female members of the audience whether they preferred Omar Sharif clean shaven or with a moustache with the intention of interesting the local women’s editor in the results of the informal survey. Cinema owners were encouraged to send bottles of vodka to entertainment editors with a message in Russian. Empty shop windows were often available “for the asking” from rental specialists and could be used for advertising. Since Zhivago has a son in the film, one aspect encouraged was a “father and son” competition and of course it was a no-brainer to dress doormen and ushers as Cossacks.

MGM had also made special efforts to promote the movie to younger audiences and combined that with marketing the music. More than million copies of the soundtrack album had been sold and “Somewhere My Love,” a single by Teddy Randazzo incorporating lyrics to “Lara’s Theme,” had also caught fire. The combination of records and sheet music plus general publicity material could encourage record store window displays.

One of the taglines I most remember is “one man…two women…and a nation ablaze.” But it was certainly not one of the initial official taglines when the movie was originally launched. Many of the British posters had no tagline at all beyond perhaps “the entertainment event of the year.” The post-Oscar Pressbook went with either “A love caught in the fire of revolution…Turbulent were the times and fiery was the love story of Zhivago, his wife…and the passionate, tender Lara”  or “The story of Zhivago – a man torn between his love for his wife and the passionate and tender Lara…told against the flaming background of revolution.”

SOURCES: Supplement to Kine Weekly, May 5, 1966; MGM Pressbook.

The “Psycho” Revolution

It wasn’t just that Alfred Hitchcock broke all the rules in Psycho, turning horror on its head with the shower scene, introducing themes like mother-fixation and cross-dressing and delivering the first bona fide serial killer to American audiences.

He also took on the exhibition business by insisting that nobody was allowed into theaters after the film had started.

This went completely against the way films were normally shown. Patrons were accustomed to entering a movie theater whenever they liked, be it beginning, middle or end and then staying on till they came to the section they had seen before. Hitchcock was effectively calling an end to this practice.

Exhibitors were so used to customers going to the movies as a matter of course, as a regular habit, that few cinemas outside of arthouses and those in city centers even bothered to list start times. Although tacitly endorsed by exhibitors, this system was a menace to business since there was no way of knowing how many people were likely to vacate their seats at any given time and the fact that they did so intermittently interrupted the viewing of those still watching the picture.

Exhibitors were already investigating new methods of keeping their customers, including setting up their own production companies and buying up old films to present as reissues to make up for the shortage of new movies.

The Psycho “see it from the beginning” gimmick was initially viewed as exactly that – a gimmick. But when customers obliged without any particular fuss, standing patiently in line in the lobby or outside while one show vacated, this seemed to many indicative of a change in audience perspective. Many exhibitors wanted to take advantage of the potential to change moviegoing habits.  

“A new concept in motion picture promotion – building appreciation of the merchandise by customers – is being undertaken by segments of the industry,” said Hy Hollinger in Variety. “The idea involves a revolutionary change in the presentation of films in theaters with the industry engaging in a vast educational campaign to indoctrinate the public.”

“The public must be taught to accept starting times,” became a mantra. A more orderly approach would lead to greater appreciation of the films being screened. For once, America wanted to follow the Europe. A system of fixed schedules operated in Europe.

There were already “significant signs that the public prefer to see pictures from the beginning.” Exhibitors had registered more telephone calls asking about start times and more tickets were being sold just prior to the film beginning.

The Psycho sensation had kicked off another experiment. The film was being shown in New York nabes concurrent with its ninth week in first run at the DeMille and Baronet theaters in Manhattan. Usually, films were clear of first run commitments before launching on the circuits.   

And there were yet other changes afoot. Two circuits in New York – Loews and Century – had shifted back the start time of the main feature from 10pm by an hour or more, in the case of Century to a fixed 8.40pm which allowed moviegoers to get home in time for the eleven o’clock news. New York also led the way in combining first run in big Broadway houses with a concurrent booking in an eastside arthouse – Sons and Lovers (the only genuine arthouse offering), Psycho and Portrait in Black among those benefitting from the practice.

In addition, Psycho was considered responsible for another psychological phenomenon. It was asserted by Paramount publicists that the long lines of people standing outside the theater waiting to see the film “plants in people who had no desire to see the picture the seeds of desire to do so.”

Eroding the double bill mentality was also seen as a way of setting a more rigid approach of start times. The double bill was already under pressure because the number of movies being made was much lower than a decade before. Some theaters had taken to augmenting a single bill with a 30-minute short rather than a full feature.

Arthouse audiences had already accepted that the price of their ticket entitled them to only one movie, not two. Single bills allowed a theater more showings during the day, thus increasing potential receipts. When Psycho went into the circuits it was as a single bill with five or six showings scheduled.  

The roadshow was still in its infancy, Ben-Hur and a handful of other films leading the way, although spectacles like Spartacus, Exodus and The Alamo were on the horizon. Roadshows were presented as separate performances so no waste of seating capacity.

Roadshows and a film like Psycho had something else in common that augured well for a future where “grind” was eliminated. People accepted separate performances for roadshow or an uncommonly attractive feature like Psycho because they wanted specifically to see those particular pictures, not because they routinely went to the movies with little regard for what was actually being shown.

In just 38 weeks in a limited number of theaters presenting the picture in a limited number of showings at a set start time, Ben-Hur had already taking $7 million at the box office.  At Loew’s State in New York it had rolled up $1.2 million, in Los Angeles crossed the million-dollar mark and close to that figure in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Psycho was on the way to being one of the biggest grossers of the year.

With Hollywood still battling the encroaching threat of television, and television beginning to snare the first tranche of 1950s movies, it appeared that exhibitors had found a way of guaranteeing survival. But whether these new ideas would be sustained was another story.

SOURCES: Hy Hallinger, “1960 Reasoning: Teach Appreciation, Prepare Public for Single Feature European-Style Fixed Schedules,” Variety, Aug 3, 1960, p3; Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release 1913-2017 (McFarland, 2019), 117-134; “May Shift Main Feature Hour,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13; “Gotham Playoff Revolution,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13; “Re Broadway & Eastside Day-Dating,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13; “Is a Queue Itself Best Form of Sell?,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13.  

The Blue Max (1965) ****

Quite how working-class George Peppard makes the transition from grunt in the trenches to Germany’s elite flying corps is never made clear in John Guillermin’s glorious World War One aerial adventure.

But he certainly brings with him an arsenal of attitude, clashing  immediately with upper-class colleagues who retain fanciful notions of chivalry in a conflict notorious for mass slaughter. He climbs the society ladder on the back of a publicity campaign designed by James Mason intent on creating a new public hero.

On the way to ruthlessly gaining the medal of the title, awarded for downing twenty enemy aircraft, he beds Mason’s playful – although ultimately treacherous – mistress Ursula Andress, for once given the chance to act. Mason’s aristocratic German somewhat redeems the actor after his appalling turn the same year as a Chinaman in Genghis Khan.

While the human element is skillfully drawn, it is the aerial element that captures the attention. The planes are both balletic and deadly. Because biplanes fly so much more slowly than World War Two fighters, the aerial scenes are far more intense than, say, The Battle of Britain (1969) and the dogfights, where you can see your opposite number’s face, just riveting. Recognition of the peril involved in taking to the sky in planes that seem to be held together with straw is on a par with Midway.

I was astonishing to discover not only was this a flop – in part due to an attempt to sell it as a roadshow (blown up to 70mm for its New York premiere) – but critically disdained since it is an astonishing piece of work.

Guillermin makes the shift from small British films (The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, 1960; Guns at Batasi, 1964) to a full-blown Hollywood epic with ease. His camera tracks and pans and zooms to capture emotion and other times is perfectly still. (Films and Filming magazine complained he moved the camera too much!).

The action sequences are brilliantly constructed, far better than, for example 1917, and one battle involving planes and the military is a masterpiece of cinematic orchestration, contrasting raw hand-to-hand combat on the ground with aerial skirmish. Guillermin takes a classical approach to widescreen with action often taking place in long shot with the compositional clarity of a John Ford western. Equally, he uses faces to express emotional response to imminent or ongoing action.

Peppard is both the best thing and the worst thing about the picture. He certainly hits the bull’s eye as a man whose chip on one shoulder is neatly balanced by arrogance on the other. But it is too much of a one-note performance and the stiff chin and blazing eyes are not tempered enough with other emotion. It would have been a five-star picture had he brought a bit more savvy to the screen, but otherwise it is at the top of the four-star brigade. Mason is at his suave best, Jeremy Kemp surprisingly good as the equally ruthless but distinctly more humane superior officer and, as previously noted, Andress does more than just swan around.

One scene in particular showed Guillermin had complete command over his material. Peppard has been invited to dinner with Andress. We start off with a close up of Pepperd, cut to a close up of Andress, suggesting an intimate meeting, but the next shot reveals the reality, Peppard seated at the opposite end of a long table miles away from his host.

The best scene, packing an action and emotional wallop, will knock your socks off. Having eliminated any threat from an enemy plane, rather than shoot down the pilot, Peppard escorts it back to base, but just as he arrives the tail-gunner suddenly rouses himself and Peppard finishes the plane off  over the home airfield, the awe his maneuver originally inspired from his watching colleagues turning to disgust.  

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Blue-Max-DVD-George-Peppard/dp/B007JV72ZO/ref=tmm_dvd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1592640176&sr=8-2