The Box Office Equalizer: Part Three

Trade magazine Variety’s innovative weekly Top 50 based on grosses that had begun in April 1969 changed the way exhibitors regarded box office. Instead of waiting till the appearance of the magazine’s year-end round-up which was limited to around the top 100 movies, cinema owners now got a week-by-week snapshot of how new movies were playing. All box office figures had previously concentrated on the big movies of the day – the roadshows and pictures with big stars – that opened at the first run city center houses that were easier for Variety to track. The switch to a computerized system made it more feasible to examine the takings from hundreds of cinemas not necessarily showing the big movies sucking up all the publicity oxygen.  

An examination of the films hitting the coveted number one position in the weekly chart illuminated the changes in the business. For a start, to reach number one a movie had to be showing on over 30 cinemas, but this could rise to 100-plus, and began to show the benefits of the wider first run release. This was also really the beginning of the per-screen average.  High figures could be achieved by recruiting a large number of screens but exhibitors could easily disseminate the information and decide whether the number of screens massaged the figures or showed how successful a film really was. And this was the start of another promotional ploy, the business of a movie holding onto to the top spot for a second, third or even fourth week, proof a movie had “legs.”

The Year’s weekly Top Ten performers make interesting reading. The biggest figures posted in any one week during 1969 were for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service which hauled in a massive $1.22 million (equivalent to $9.6 million today) from 99 screens – a $12,323 screen average. This was followed by Goodbye, Columbus with $935,000 from 65 screens, a higher screen average of $14,384. Next came The Love Bug with $724,000 from 76 houses ($9,526 average). Another week of Goodbye, Columbus shouldered $681,000 from 60 ($11,350).

The Love Bug had a further two weeks at the top, pinching $658,000 from 117 ($5,623) and $633,000 from 44 ($14,386).  Seventh-best week was taken by The Killing of Sister George with $621,000 from 70 ($8,871). Snatching eighth spot was Fanny Hill with $625,000 from 49 ($12,755). Ninth was Krakatoa, East of Java with $621,000 from 68 ($9,132). Last place in the top ten went to I Am Curious, Yellow with $594,000 from 52 ($11,423).

From the exhibitor perspective there were two notable points. The first was the per-screen average. Secondly, cinema bookers could not fail to notice not only that two of the top ten in weekly gross and three of the top five films in terms of screen averages went to sexploitation pictures.

It was soon abundantly clear that producers could sell their pictures to sometimes doubting exhibitors by the simple process, not so much of bombarding them with adverts and Pressbooks extolling a film’s potential, but of getting a movie into sufficient theatres for the box office figures to tell their own story.

Although the other big films expected to top the weekly chart did achieve that aim – among them True Grit (twice), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (also twice), Ice Station Zebra, Easy Rider (three times), Midnight Cowboy, Oliver! and Paint Your Wagon – there were as many unfancied movies perching atop the weekly pile.

Apart from the sexploitation films and The Killing of Sister George, others holding down the number one spot for a week were British star Carol White in Mark Robson thriller Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting ($544,000 from 71), What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice ($540,000 from 48), Gordon Parks’ bittersweet drama The Learning Tree ($401,000 from 49), Stella Stevens and Shelley Winters in horror film The Mad Room ($283,000 from 38) and reissues Bonnie and Clyde/Bullitt ($546,000 from 81) and The Longest Day ($501,000 from 76).

Distributors of low-budget pictures used to have to take ads out in the trades to prove to potential customers that their movies were pulling in decent business. Now they had better proof, from the most important source of all, Variety, whose box office figures were scanned by every cinema manager in the country. Once a week without a distributor putting a hand in their advertising pocket there was all the promotional evidence they needed.  

This was the second sea change in the way cinema owners perceived the business, the first being the opening up of the collection of box office figures through Variety’s annual report on upwards of 1,000 titles. To have figures at your finger tips for the price of a subscription to a newspaper was a game changer.

But there was yet another game changer to come. 

SOURCES: The Top 50 Grossers chart appearing weekly in Variety from April to December 1969.

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