Behind the Scenes: Sherlock Holmes and Other Stories, Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down, United Artists 1966 – Part Two

Although Billy Wilder had written a script based on The Life of Sherlock Holmes, he was not considered as its director. Mirisch was looking at a budget in the region of $2 million, which would rule out any big star. However, there were issues with the Conan Doyle Estate which was in the process of firing up other movies based on Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Terror (1965) being the most recent. That had been the brainchild of Henry Lester and perhaps to general astonishment these days Mirisch had  agreed Lester would be allowed to make more Sherlock Holmes pictures as long as they remained very low-budget, on the assumption, presumably, that the marketplace would treat them as programmers rather than genuine competition.

However, Mirisch and UA retained the upper hand as regards the Conan Doyle Estate and “could cut him (Lester) off at such time as we have made definite plans to proceed.”

There was another proviso to the deal. The Estate would agree to forbid any further television productions unless Mirisch decided it wished to go down the small screen route itself. It was odd that Mirisch had eased Billy Wilder out of the frame given the mini-major had enjoyed considerable success with the director on Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960), a commercial partnership that would extend to The Fortune Cookie (1966).

Instead, Mirisch lined up British director Bryan Forbes who would be contracted to write a screenplay based on the Wilder idea. The sum offered – $10,000 – was considered too low, but it was intended as enticement, to bring Forbes into the frame as director. If Forbes refused to bite, “the only other name suggested and agreed upon was that of John Schlesinger.”  Although David Lean was mooted, UA were not in favour. Mirisch didn’t want to risk paying for a screenplay before there was a director in position.

The offer of the Sherlock Holmes picture was seen as a sop to Forbes. At this meeting, Mirisch had canned The Egyptologists, a project which Forbes believed had been greenlit. And why would he not when he was being paid $100,000 for the screenplay. In bringing the project to an untimely close Mirisch hoped to limit its financial exposure to two-thirds of that  fee. Should Forbes balk at Sherlock Holmes, he was to be offered The Mutiny of Madame Yes, whose initial budget was set at $1.5 million, plus half a million for star Shirley Maclaine. Another Eady Plan project, this was aimed to go before the cameras the following year. If Forbes declined, then Mirisch would try Norman Jewison with Clive Donner and Guy Hamilton counted as “additional possibilities.”

As for Billy Wilder he had much bigger fish to fry. He was seeking a budget of $7.5 million to adapt into a film the Franz Lehar play The Count of Luxembourg to pair Walter Matthau and Brigitte Bardot. Should Matthau pass, Wilder would try for Cary Grant (whose retirement had not yet been announced) or Rex Harrison. Both sides played negotiation hardball. UA currently in the hole for $21 million for The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and Mirisch, having pumped $13 million into the yet-to-be-release Hawaii (1966), didn’t want to commit to another unwieldy expensive project. So Mirisch insisted the project advance on a “step basis” allowing UA to reject the project after seeing the screenplay. Wilder countered by insisting that if it went into turnaround he, rather than the studio, would have the right to hawk it elsewhere (generally, studios tried to recover their costs if a movie was picked up by another studio). But Wilder was also in placatory mood and even if UA rejected this idea he was willing to work with the studio on a Julie Andrews project called My Sister and I.

However, UA and Mirisch were all show. “After Billy left the meeting,” read the minutes, “it was agreed we would not proceed with The Count of Luxembourg since we did not want to give Billy the right to take it elsewhere if United Artists did not agree to proceed.” Harold Mirisch was detailed to give Billy the bad news, but use a different excuse.

Mirisch was also on the brink of severing links with Blake Edwards. Negotiations for a new multiple-picture deal were to be terminated, which would mean the director would only earn his previous fee of $225,000 for What Did You Do in the War Daddy? It was also sayonara for Hollywood agent Irving Swifty Lazar, whose current deal was not working out to the studio’s satisfaction.

Other long-term deals with directors were under discussion. While its previous John Sturges movie, The Hallelujah Trail (1965), had flopped, UA was still keen on the Mirisches pursuing a long-term deal with the director, feeling that he was a “good picture-maker with the right project.” To that end, it was suggested Mirisch reactivate Tombstone’s Epitaph, but emphasising Stuges had to bring the cost down.

At this point nobody knew Norman Jewison was embarking on all almighty box office roll – The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming set to hit the screens, In the Heat of the Night at screenplay stage, so Mirisch was prescient in trying to put together a long-term deal with the director. Wind on Fire and Garden of Cucumbers were seen as tentpoles for a multi-picture deal. Mirisch had already agreed a $50,000 producer’s fee for Wind of Fire, payment of one-third of which was triggered for supervising the screenplay.

The meeting also gave the greenlight to Death, Where Is Thy Sting-A-Ling, a project that would be later mired in controversy with shooting ultimately abandoned. The go-ahead was given with the proviso the Mirisches secured the services of Gregory Peck or an actor of his stature.  Budget, excepting Peck’s fee, was just over $3 million and it was another one hoping to take advantage of the Eady Plan.

This kind of production meeting was probably more typical than you would imagine, studios trying to keep talent sweet while not committing themselves to dodgy product. It’s perhaps salutary to note that of the projects under discussion, only a handful found their way onto cinema screens. Garden of Cucumbers (as Fitzwilly), How To Succeed in Business, having met budget restraints, and Tombstone’s Epitaph (as Hour of the Gun) with James Garner all surfaced in 1967 and Inspector Clouseau the following year. Neither of the Steve McQueen projects survived nor the pair proposed by Billy Wilder. High Citadel, Saddle and Ride, The Narrow Sea, The Great Japanese Train Robbery, and The Cruel Eagle failed to materialize. Billy Wilder eventually made The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes under the Mirisch auspices but not until 1970. 

Behind the Scenes: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down, United Artists 1966 – Part One

Most observers don’t have a clue why some films are made in preference to others, or even of which movies have sat in turnaround hell for years. When I was researching my book The Making of The Magnificent Seven I came across some priceless material that gave some clues regarding the process. An “Inter-Office Memorandum” dated February 3, 1966, provided an insight into how independent producers Mirisch, then allied to studio United Artists, set about giving the thumbs up or thumbs down.

The memo referred to a meeting held at the Beverley Hills Hotel on January 29-30, 1966, attended by the three Mirisch Brothers – Harold, Marvin and the recently-deceased Walter – as well as UA head honcho Arthur Krim, Herb Jaffe and David Picker. On the agenda: Inspector Clouseau, Sherlock Holmes, The Mutiny of Madame Yes, The Egyptologists, Garden of Cucumbers, Wind on Fire, High Citadel, Saddle and Ride, The Narrow Sea, The Great Japanese Train Robbery, Lydia, In the Heat of the Night, The Cruel Eagle, How To Succeed in Business, and Death, Where Is Thy Sting-a-Ling.

Separately, the group examined commitments to various talents including John Sturges, Norman Jewison, Bryan Forbes and Billy Wilder.

Top of the agenda was Inspector Clouseau, a sequel to the successful Pink Panther series, from which Peter Sellers had withdrawn. The budget was set at $3 million including $466,000 for director and star. Alan Arkin was not yet a lock, UA reserving its opinion on Arkin’s marquee’s credentials until it saw how The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), in which he was the star, performed at the box office. Should it bomb, second choice was Zero Mostel. Jonathan Winters, viewed as a “questionable choice,” was also in the running. Clive Donner was the preferred director. If he passed, next up was Guy Hamilton. (In the end both rejected the offer and it was released in 1968 with Bud Yorkin at the helm.)

Two projects on the table were mooted as vehicles for Steve McQueen. The first, Wind of Fire, was intended as “immediately following Sturges’ racing picture.”(This was Day of the Champion but a legal battle with MGM would derail this and McQueen was five years away from releasing Le Mans). Wind of Fire, to be directed by Norman Jewison, suffered from an incomplete script which restricted discussion. John Wayne had shown an interest but UA “was not really interested in Wayne,” possibly as a result of the fall-out from The Alamo (1960). The second McQueen project was the thriller Lydia based on the book by E.V Cunningham (the pseudonym of Howard Fast of Spartacus fame). Here, the script was complete and in the actor’s hands. Doris Day had been touted for female lead but Mirisch had nixed her involvement. When dealing with any major star, greenlighting a picture depended on schedules not clashing. (In the end neither project saw the light of day.)

Mirisch was also juggling two properties to star Dick Van Dyke.  The Great Japanese Train Robbery was due to commence filming in June 1966, although that meant cooperation from Columbia and Disney who had first call at that point on the actor; Disney had excused him, Columbia had not. Virna Lisi, the intended female lead, was dunped for demanding too much money, $300,000 her current asking price. In her place were suggested Claudine Auger, Catherine Deneuve, Stefania Sandrelli or Luciana Paluzzi. Although the budget was approved at around £3.3 million, the movie never went ahead.

Garden of Cucumbers with Van Dyke, though minus a female lead, was already scheduled to start shooting in August-September 1966. Proposed director, in order of preference, was Norman Jewison, Arthur Hiller or Elliott Silverstein. This project did make it over the line though the title, changed to Fitzwilly, was helmed by Delbert Mann and co-starred Barbara Feldon in her biggest role to date.

A budget of $1.89 million had been set for High Citadel, based on the Desmond Bagley thriller. UA was locked into a pay-or-play deal, which meant star James Garner would receive his salary whether or not the picture was made. However, there was a get-out clause. The studio could use Garner for another picture as long as it slotted into the same timeframe. The other options were Saddle and Ride and The Narrow Sea. Of these Mirisch preferred the former, UA the latter. But there was a directorial issue with The Narrow Sea. Mirisch had a moral commitment though not a legal contract with producer Robert Relyea to make this his directorial debut and UA didn’t want him. (In the event neither film was made.)

There were budget issues on How To Succeed in Business. UA had given the go-ahead on the basis that it would cost no more than $3.25 million but the budget had since soared by over half a million. To meet the May 1 start date, the budget had to be trimmed back to the original amout. (This was presumably done, since the movie appeared the following year). In the Heat of the Night was in the early stages of development, the production company still to see the Stirling Silliphant script, but at this stage no objections were raised. Fred Zinnemann was being considered as the director of The Cruel Eagle by Frederick E. Smith, author of 633 Squadron. (It was never greenlit).

Making movies in Britain – in order to take advantage of the tax advantages of the Eady Plan – was central to the Mirisch strategy. While Inspector Clouseau, Death, Where Is Thy Sting-a-Ling,  and The Mutiny of Madame Yes– budgets totalling around the $10 million mark – were already committed to the Eady Scheme, Mirisch was also seeking backing to set up a low-budget unit in Britain to maximize the government’s largesse. Budgets per picture would be limited to $1 million or less. In the memo they were described as “disciplined” or “service” pictures to be “produced in color.” In essence that meant basic programmers that could be sold to drive-ins and cinemas with a high movie turnover, on a rental basis if they topped the bill, for a flat fee if they were supports. This would have the added benefit, for those houses whose customers demanded a double bill, of being able to offer a program where all the revenue would end up in the Mirisch pocket.

Behind the Scenes: When “Worldwide” Didn’t Exist – Global Box Office Part One

Box office fans, excited no doubt at how Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), is charging up the all-time charts, might be surprised to discover that the concept of “worldwide” box office figures didn’t exist in the 1960s. Although foreign markets had proved important to Hollywood since the 1940s, there was no accepted way of measuring their impact.

Box office results in certain countries – Italy, France, Brazil, Australia etc – were reported only on an occasional basis and were never considered front page news. Global box office figures were more likely to appear courtesy of one of the profit participants. Star William Holden’s share of Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and producer Sam Spiegel’s earnings on Doctor Zhivago (1965), for example, were widely reported. Or a studio might want to defray rising investor discontent by pointing how well a Stateside flop such as The Magnificent Seven (1960) had performed overseas.

But these were one-offs and it was impossible to get a handle on the worldwide results for an entire year of Hollywood output. The kind of global box office reporting we take for granted did not appear until the 1990s and often even then, for many pictures, it was only as a year-end figure.

However, during my digging into hordes of records for my book The Making of “The Magnificent Seven” I came upon a tranche of reports on foreign box office figures relating to United Artists for the years 1965 to 1969. And they make for fascinating reading, not least to discover which Stateside hits did poorly abroad and, conversely, what flops in the domestic market made up for it in foreign countries.

Volume of production at UA more than doubled over the period, from 17 pictures in 1965 to 38 in 1969, but the average budget came down from $3.68 million per movie to $2.14 million. 

You won’t be surprised to learn that James Bond pretty much reigned supreme, taking three of the top four spots. But you might be taken aback to discover just how profitable this series was – over $100 million in rentals (the studio share of box office once cinemas have taken their cut) for three movies mentioned here – more than four times what they cost to make, and that would not take into account the colossal revenues accruing from merchandising.

The 1965-1969 worldwide winner by some margin was Thunderball (1965), clocking up $48 million in worldwide rentals. In second place was You Only Live Twice (1967) on $36 million. but the prospect of a cosy one-two-three was nipped in the bud by Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy (1969) on $26 million with On her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969,) hampered by losing the services of Sean Connery, settling for fourth after pulling in $23 million.

Fifth spot went to big-budget roadshow Hawaii (1966) starring Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow which sank $18.8 million worldwide followed by Norman Jewison’s low-budget crime story In the Heat of the Night (1967) on $16 million helped by Sidney Poitier at a box office peak and Rod Steiger, courtesy of an Oscar, at a career one. Placing seventh was big-budget all-star British World War Two epic The Battle of Britain (1969) which soared, largely on foreign grosses, to $15.5 million. Next, on $14.8 million, came roadshow musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) starring Dick Van Dyke. 

Biggest surprise of the year was the performance of family melding comedy Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) with out-of-favor stars Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda which closed in on $13 million. Rounding out the Top Ten was George Stevens’ Biblical roadshow The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). However, its global figures of $12.1 million were a disappointment given its budget topped $21.2 million.

Just behind, on $12 million worldwide, setting another comedic hot pace, was Clive Donner’s What’s New Pussycat (1965). Despite having no roadshow credentials it boasted an all-star cast consisting of Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Ursula Andress, Romy Scheider and Paula Prentiss. Comedy also accounted for twelfth – the unfancied, though timely, Norman Jewison effort The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) starring Alan Arkin and Eva Marie Saint which coasted in with $11.8 million.

Thirteenth was Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway romantic thriller The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) directed with considerable elan also by Norman Jewison. That flew in with $11.25 million, a cool million ahead of the second picture, Help!, by British pop sensation The Beatles.

Fifteenth place went to the final picture in the Sergio Leone trilogy The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1968) starring Clint Eastwood which crested $10.2 million. John Frankenheimer’s World War Two thriller The Train (1965) with Burt Lancaster trying to outfox Paul Schofield tracked $9.75 million. But, as if to emphasize Clint Eastwood’s growing box office power, his first American western Hang ‘Em High came next on $9 million worldwide.

Second World War mission picture The Devil’s Brigade (1968) starring William Holden and Cliff Robertson in a Dirty Dozen-style knock-off paraded $8.6 million for eighteenth position. Comedy filled out the final two places in the Top 20. Jack Lemmon scored a suprise hit in Richard Quine’s How To Murder Your Wife (1965). Co-starring Virna Lisi and Englishman Terry-Thomas it romped away with $8.4 million. Although The Graduate (1967) had been a massive global success, United Artists only held the rights to certain territories but that was enough to pull in $7.7 million worldwide.

There wasn’t actually an informal Top 20 reported by United Artists over this five-year period. I’ve concocted it out of the reports below.

SOURCE: “United Artists Corporation and Subsidiaries Motion Picture Negative Costs for Pictures Released in the Year Ended 1965;” “United Artists Corporation and Subsidiaries Motion Picture Negative Costs for Pictures Released in the Year Ended 1966;” “United Artists Corporation and Subsidiaries Motion Picture Negative Costs for Pictures Released in the Year Ended 1967;” “United Artists Corporation and Subsidiaries Motion Picture Negative Costs for Pictures Released in the Year Ended 1968;” “United Artists Corporation and Subsidiaries Motion Picture Negative Costs for Pictures Released in the Year Ended 1969,” United Artists Files, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, University of Wisconsin.

The Bond They Couldn’t Sell – “Dr No” (1962)

United Artists almost had to give away this picture in the United States in order to gain bookings. Astonishingly, it was the picture the studio felt it could not sell. And for good reason – the studio hated it. “To them it was a B-picture,” recalled producer Harry Saltzman. “They said Hammer made the same kind of picture for one-third of the price.”

Dr No, produced on a miserly budget of $840,000 – $40,000 over budget –  had triumphed in London after snagging an opening run in 1962 at the Leicester Square Theatre primarily because the cinema needed to fulfil its quota of showing British pictures. Although it set a London box office record that would stand for more than a decade and proved a huge draw throughout Britain, U.S. studio United Artists had been burned once too often by British films that did well at home only to flop spectacularly in America.

Since box office statistics began to be gathered in earnest in the 1930s only a handful of British pictures mustered the $1 million in rentals required for entry into the annual list of box office champions. The bulk of the Ealing comedies had not made the grade, nor had such diverse successes as Doctor in the House (1954), Reach for the Sky (1956), Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). American audiences rejected British films as too slow, technically backward, and with accents it was often impossible to understand. Putting together an advertising, public relations and marketing package for them could easily cost as much as the film itself.

“When we had an answer print ready there were about eight people from United Artists including (chairman) Arthur Krim who came to see it,” Saltzman told Variety a quarter of a century later. “We started the film at 10am and when it was over a few minutes before twelve the lights came up and nobody said anything except a man who was head of the European operation and he said, ‘the only good thing about the picture is that we can only lose $840,000.’ Cubby (Broccoli) and I were just shattered,” confessed Saltzman.

That didn’t stop Saltzman and Broccoli embarking on their own campaign to raise awareness. They went right to the heart of the American exhibition community, taking space at the annual Show-a-Rama event in Kansas City in March, bringing along Sean Connery and models to represent the Bond girls. In addition, around the same time UA held a sneak preview in New York attended by the likes of Johnny Carson, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Rudy Vallee i.e. not that high-falutin’ an audience but at least the festivities were filmed and broadcast on NBC Monitor and Armed Forces Radio. Sean Connery also featured in a 12-minute segment in the middle of ABC Sunday Night at the Movies.

The Bond promotional bandwagon set up shop for a couple of days each in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles between March 7 and March 15 and pulled in journalists from the surrounding areas. There was also a touring show comprising 150 stills. And the marketeers had some success in targeting exhibitors through the trade magazines although the two-page article featuring in Box Office attempted to interest exhibitors on the basis of a marketing campaign in Connery’s native Scotland, which hardly seemed to be ideally suited. Nor did the marketing team really care what tricks exhibitors pulled to bring in the customers – for no particular reason one cinema employed a safe-cracking stunt even though the film’s story did not lend itself to that.

Dr No’s biggest marketing tools were photos of Ursula Andress in a bikini and copies of the Ian Fleming novels which since 1961 had the endorsement of President John F. Kennedy. Cheap paperbacks sold in drug stores and newsstands had created greater awareness of the character as well as acting as unpaid advertising for the forthcoming film.

But, basically, that was as much – or as little – as the film had going for it. In effect, no great marketing energy.

As it happened, exhibitors were beginning to organise their own marketing programs – “box office building campaigns” – and the Bond team were able to convince exhibitors in the Midwest and Southwest to kick off the idea with Dr No.

That meant shifting away from the conventional release pattern where a film opened in one cinema in a big city and then fanned out week-by-week to smaller venues and towns. Instead it was everywhere all at once which meant it cannibalized its own audience since it could not be held over in any cinema for a further week because the prints were already scheduled elsewhere.

Although most historians pinpoint New York as the launch pad for Dr No, United Artists did not want to risk the picture potentially flopping in that territory.  According to Harry Saltzman the first commercial showing, effectively a trial run, was in Atlanta, Georgia, where it ran for eleven weeks and was considered a success. But not enough for UA to consider shifting its release strategy. A movie that launched anywhere other than New York was considered a dodgy proposition.

From May 8 it was launched in 450 cinemas in the Midwest and southwest. This was the same release strategy as had been employed on another film about which UA had its commercial doubts – The Magnificent Seven (1960) – and that had turned into a flop. It opened in New York in June in 18 cinemas including two in the city centre, the Astor and the Murray Hill, both arthouses.

But here’s the kicker.

In order to get the bookings, United Artists had to dramatically lower its asking price.

Normally new pictures were sold to exhibitors on a 50/50 basis – meaning the studio received 50 per cent of the gross. “The funny things is,” recalled Saltzman, “they booked it for 30 percent. The theaters took it at first because they got it for 30 per cent.” That meant UA sold Dr No to cinemas on the basis that any exhibitor booking the picture would retain 70 per cent of the gross.

This was not unheard-of. In fact, it was often the standard deal for foreign movies going into arthouses. But arthouse pictures with the occasional exception of a La Dolce Vita were usually hard sells to a very finite audience. James Bond was anything but.

As a result of this approach, the movie did not register particularly well on the annual box office rankings. In fact, it placed 42nd. Not a disaster, but not a particularly brilliant showing. However, that did not represent the film’s true appeal. Had it been sold on a 50/50 basis, the rentals would have been high enough to pitch it just outside the Top 20, which would been seen as a genuine success. On the other hand, if UA had not been so generous in handing the exhibitors the bigger share of the box office, perhaps it might have elicited far fewer bookings and the James Bond story might have been completely different.

SOURCES: “United Artists Sell Campaign in Its Dr No Film,” Box Office, February 25, 1963, p10;  “Festivities Mark Dr No Sneak Preview in New York,” Box Office, March 11, 1963, pE-2; “450 Situations Play Dr No at Opening,” Variety, April 3, 1963, 19; “Producer Saltzman Faces Big Decision on 2nd James Bond Thriller,” Variety, April 25, 1962, p13; “Feature Reviews,” Box Office, April 1, 1953 pA-11; “Showmandiser: Premiere Showmen Say Yes to Dr No, Ticket Buyers Too,” Box Office, April 29, 1963, pA1; “Harry Saltzman Recalls Early Coolness to Bond Features,” Variety, May 13, 1987, p57; “Dr No in 17 Theatres,” Box Office, May 27, 1963, pE-8; “Picture Grosses,” Variety, June 5, 1963, p10; “Smash Business General for 4-Day Holiday,” Box Office, June 10, 1963, pE-2; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, June 17, 1963, pA3; “Safe Crackers Invited,” Box Office, June 24, 1963, pA3.

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