Selling Oscar Winners – Pressbook for “The Slender Thread” (1965)

Just how do you sell a movie about a suicide to an audience for whom such a subject is still taboo? The answer is – you don’t. Instead, you fall back on your stars – and the fact that they are both Oscar winners.

We are pretty used these days to advertising campaigns, especially trailers, focusing on Academy Award recognition – The House of Gucci (2021), for example, boasting umpteen winners and nominees – but it was far rarer in the 1960s when exhibitors expected Pressbooks to provide them with sufficient marketing information to lure in the customers. Oscar success might have been mentioned in passing, forming part of a participant’s biography, but it would not be the entire focal point of the campaign.

The 16-page A3 Pressbook for The Slender Thread does nothing but. There was, of course, a link between the two stars in that Anne Bancroft recipient of the Best Actress Oscar for The Miracle Worker in 1962 had the following year presented Sidney Poitier with his Best Actor gong for Lilies of the Field (1963).

“Two Academy Award winners giving the performances of their lives” is pretty much as far as the tagline writers went in providing exhibitors with something to sell. The subsidiary tagline “when a woman’s emotions sway on a slender thread expect anything” offer little in the way of explaining the film’s content. An image of a phone plays a prominent role in artwork but again without clarifying its purpose. In much smaller writing, at the end of another reference to the Oscars, is the mention of “a motion picture rarely, if ever, surpassed in suspense” but again minus clarification.

You might actually come away with the notion that the drama takes place on the high seas since a ship features in the advertising.

The only other assistance given exhibitors came in the form of reviews which make more mention of suspense. Cue magazine termed it “gripping, bristling tension and suspense all the way.” Kate Cameron in the Daily News concurred – “a high tension suspense film” as did Alton Cook of the World Telegram (“Tantalizing Tension! Nerve-Wracking Suspense!). Nobody mentioned what caused the tension and suspense.

The best bet for tie-ins came from record stores since record label Mercury has organised a “giant merchandising campaign” promoting the Quincy Jones soundtrack. The studio took the chance that exhibitors might take it into their own hands to organise some tie-ups with beauty salons, telephone companies and discotheques since these make an appearance in the picture.     

Quite how 16 pages of the same repeated artwork was meant to inspire exhibitors into, first all, booking the picture, and then, consequently, selling it to moviegoers is never explained.

Selling Religion – “The Shoes of the Fisherman” (1968)

The Pressbook for The Shoes of the Fisherman is almost reverential in approach. For a start there is a complete lack of the madcap schemes designed by marketing men to promote the picture to the exhibitor. Nor is there any mention of the tie-ins that did exist – the book had sold seven million copies and the soundtrack by Alex North was already being acclaimed – it would be nominated for an Oscar. And there are very few of the titbits that might appeal to a local journalist.

There is only one piece of artwork, although a truncated version provides a secondary opportunity for advertising and combined with a scene from the film material for a third ad. Taglines are equally scarce. “A distinguished international cast ignites all the dramatic power…all the magnificent spectacle of Morris L. West’s best-selling novel” is all there is apart from a puff from Look magazine puff that espouses “The Shoes of the Fisherman restores faith in films.”

The better tagline, in the sense that it sold an actual story rather than promoted the ingredients, was: “A modern-day story that reaches from the shadows of the Kremlin to the splendor of the Vatican.” One further tagline gave away more of the plot: “In a last desperate attempt to prevent World War III, a secret meeting is arranged. One man is called upon to succeed where all the world leaders have failed. That man was once a prisoner in a Russian labour camp. He is now the Pope.”

So what’s left, you might ask. Well, as promised in the tagline, the “distinguished international cast” and “magnificent spectacle.” The cast was awash with Oscars. The stars included four-time Oscar winner Vittoria De Sica, two-time Oscar winner Anthony Quinn, Oscar winner Laurence Olivier and Oscar nominated Oskar Werner.

The sets were of the no-expense-spared variety. Barred from using the Vatican itself, the producers used a mixture of real locations and sets at Italian studio Cinecitta to create the necessary backdrops. The Sistine Chapel set measured 133 feet by 45 feet and the paintings that dominate the altar including “The Last Supper” were copied in Hollywood and transported piece by piece. This set actually functioned and was accurate down to the tiniest detail. The only major touch omitted from the sets was the steps leading to the altar, since that would have necessitated cumbersome ramps to track the movement of the cardinals as they cast their votes.   

Oher buildings were appropriated for modern scenes – the Palazzo dello Sport for the secret peace conference. Cardinals arriving to vote were filmed at Fiumicino airport and Stazione Termini railroad station. Other locations included the Palazzo Farnese at Capranola used for scenes of the breaking of the old Pope’s seals, the Church of San Andrea della Valle for the interior of St Peter’s for the papal coronation, and Castello San Angleo, Biblioteca Vallicelliani and Palazzo Barberini.

Incidental information, the kind that journalists could use to augment their material, was scant. Author Morris L. West had once been a monk; bit part actor Clive Revill had been knifed in his previous film by Burt Kwouk; stage actress Barbara Jefford was appearing in only her third film and her role as a cerebral wife was in stark contract to her debut as the sensual Molly Bloom in Ulysses (1967); small-screen star David Janssen of The Fugitive played a small-screen reporter; and Oskar Werner had turned down over a 100 screen roles if they interfered with his commitment to the stage.

Selling War – The Pressbook for “The Devil’s Brigade” (1968)

This was an extremely unusual Pressbook for the 1960s. For a start with one minor exception there was only one advertisement. In the 1960s it was traditional for studios to provide upwards of five or six separate ads so that exhibitors could display the one most appropriate for their audience – that could mean, for example, that a tough western focused on the leading lady because an exhibitor wanted to appeal to female customers for a film that would fairly straightforwardly appeal to the male clientele simply because of its genre. Joseph E. Levine had broken this rule for Nevada Smith (1965), but he was an experienced producer not someone making his first movie.

But producer David L. Wolper went with the one image repeated over and over in different sizes – the varying sizes mattered because to make up an advertisement in a newspaper an exhibitor simply cut out the relevant advert from the Pressbook and took it down to their local newspaper. However, it was an an unusual advert in one sense in that it was a composite, an attempt to sell the two separate parts of the film, a first section that related to training and the cultural differences between the American and Canadian troops, and the second concerning the war where battle illustration was the priority.

Smaller advert taken from a section of the main advert.

Again, when studios invested in several advertisements, the marketing team came up with a fair number of taglines. Here, that idea goes out the window.  The sole advert contained only three taglines – “What they did to each other was nothing compared to what they did to the enemy” / “Spit! The brass-knuckled Americans” / “Polish! The brass-buttoned Canadians.”

And that was it, ten adverts of differing sizes, all with the same three taglines. Some other adverts minus the taglines but incorporating the action illustrations from the main image were available in smaller sizes.

The one exception kept some of the action material but topped it with details of the characters above their photos i.e. “The major. He keeps rattlesnakes for pets.” / “The loser. Last time he led was Dunkirk” / “The Commander. Creator of the Brigade – a madman or a genius!” For whatever reason, the actors’ names were omitted, so it was possibly pot luck whether audiences recognised, Vince Edwards, Cliff Robertson and William Holden, respectively. There were nine characters featured in this collage, so it was possibly an attempt to humanise the picture which was otherwise sold on conflict.

As the Pressbook pointed out, Wolper was an innovator. But thus far that had been restricted to television where he was “called by many TV’s most skilful producer of documentaries” with over 250 credits to his name including The Legend of Marilyn Monroe (1965), Hollywood: The Golden Years (1961), The Making of a President: 1964 (1966), The Incredible World of James Bond (1965) and his debut The Race for Space (1959). His biggest claim to fame had actually been a financial one, going direct to sponsors for funding raher than relying on broadcast companies. 

Since adverts hogged the Pressbook, other marketing material was scant. That Vince Edwards had begun his career as a lifeguard, that William Holden had business interests in four continents and that screenwriter William Roberts had been responsible for The Magnificent Seven (1960) was hardly likely to stimulate into action editors of the entertainment sections looking for nuggets to promote the film. While there was a tiny bit of information about locations and the origins of The Devil’s Brigade outfit, Wolper saw fit to note that the unit was the fore-runner of The Green Berets all the time as the film had the men, erroneously, wearing red berets.

In terms of exploitation ideas for exhibitors the sole advice was to contact former members of the brigade for publicity purposes. Otherwise there was a Bantam paperback movie tie-in, an album of the Alex North soundtrack and single of the film’s march played by a group called The Devil’s Brigade.

Wolper may have gone an innovation too far with his restricted approach to marketing but he did become a movie and television producer of some distinction, behind such films as L.A. Confidential (1997), The Bridge at Remagen (1968), Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971) and television shows like Roots (1977), The Thorn Birds (1983) and North and South (1985).

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