Exhibition's Own Caine Mutiny
Quality product seldom came cheap to exhibitors. That was true of movies from the beginning. High-end merchandise did not equate with low rentals. Showmen felt both excitement and dread over blockbusters in the pipeline. How much? was always the first question, followed by, Can I earn it back? We assume big hits made profits for everyone, but how much ended up in theatre deposit bags? Warring between exhibition and distribution reflected ongoing distrust on both sides. The worst skirmishes bled into courtrooms. Both sides deplored these for embarrassment to an industry presumed to be working in harmony. Conventions and trade paper rah-rah masked simmering resentment among hands tirelessly picking the other’s pocket. Exhibitors kept a revolving enemies list of film companies trying to gouge them. Leading the rat pack in 1954 was Columbia, with The Caine Mutiny a blackjack applied to theatres waiting in line to play one of that year’s biggest hits. From Here To Eternity had been huge the previous season, with $11.6 million in domestic rentals. It wasn’t unusual to stiffen terms when following up on proven success, but this was a combination of rudeness and arrogance beyond belief, according to North Central Allied Exhibitors, meeting in Minneapolis to combat Columbia’s unprecedently and unbelievably harsh rental demands. To play The Caine Mutiny would require a guaranteed 50% of every dollar coming through the door. "Caine" will stand in motion picture history as a monument to that company’s (Columbia) greed and as a rallying point for exhibitors who will now recognize their peril and organize in effective opposition to the distributor’s tactics. The 50% was Columbia’s assurance it would make money off any booking of The Caine Mutiny, never mind the loss accruing to theatres playing it. Even where ticket sales fell below costs of operating, a showman would still be expected to pony up half of all receipts, a sure path to bankruptcy and eventual closure (He will have played "Caine" to the glory and enrichment of Columbia and the impoverishment of himself, said Harrison’s Reports). Further stoking fires was the company’s demand for a share of concession profits as well (Columbia’s position: It is our pictures that bring this confection business to the theatres). This was a last straw for houses experiencing both decline in attendance and increased film costs.
Allied was an organization of independent exhibitors, so they knew from getting fuzzy ends of lollipops. Dale Baldwin worked theatres around nearby West Jefferson, NC for thirty-five years between the early forties and late seventies. He still remembers the Caine Mutiny altercation and tells of how bigger chains routinely enjoyed preferential treatment from distributors, with under-the-table terms frequently negotiated for companies owning multiple screens. Columbia stomped on Allied’s membership because they could, and didn’t mind saying so (If the exhibitor can’t stand the gaff, that’s his tough luck was among quotes attributed to distributor execs). Allied finally retaliated by putting two picketers in front of the distributor’s exchange in Minneapolis (shown above) during mid-September 1954. Columbia is Unfair to the Independent Theatre Owners, read placards, though Allied wasn’t taking responsibility for the demonstration. It was hoped that booking showmen would go elsewhere for product and let Columbia feel some pain for their hard stance on The Caine Mutiny. For its part, the company moved for a court order to disband the picketers. The Motion Picture Herald, accepting weekly ads for Columbia releases, played down the incident, but had to report it now that parties were before a judge. It was not apparent that the picketers attracted any great stir on film row, said MPH, with the exception of a few photographers from local newspapers, the pickets did not attract any attention. Allied membership meanwhile was canceling Columbia programs and refusing further merchandise from them. North Carolina’s own Statesville Theatre Corporation sent notice to Dale and other managers that The Caine Mutiny would not be booked in member theatres. Baldwin's venue in West Jefferson, NC (735 seats) passed on Caine in accordance with Statesville’s policy. Folks in that small town would have to drive at least 60 miles, on roads a lot more primitive than ones we have now, to see The Caine Mutiny.
Most profits from big pictures came from metropolitan theatres that seated thousands, but smaller markets couldn’t be ignored. Reduced rentals were better than none at all, and no company could afford to alienate independent owners, as they represented by far a majority of US screens. Columbia began to relent on Caine Mutiny terms by mid-October, with theatres reportedly getting contracts at 35%. Part of said willingness was the result of Caine grosses below those collected by From Here To Eternity, its merchandising model and the biggest money picture in Columbia’s history to that time (Caine had $8.5 million in domestic rentals to Eternity's $11.6). The latter had sex angles Caine lacked, plus younger players (Lancaster, Clift, Sinatra) cresting at boxoffice lure. Another 1954 winner for that studio was On The Waterfront, sold as "Going My Way" with Brass Knuckles and headed for $5.7 million in domestic rentals. By late 1954, Caine was playing combos with Waterfront and December saw Columbia announcing they’d sell both at flat rates to small theatres (defined as those that customarily pay $100 or less for their top product). The company was ready to deal with independent exhibitors on a fair and equitable basis, though Allied’s member bulletin warned that the above information will not automatically settle your buying problems with Columbia, and you must still use all your wits and ingenuity to make flat deals that are fair and profitable. The pickets that had brought Caine’s exhibitor mutiny to a head were now a memory, having been dismissed after a single week's march. West Jefferson finally got Caine the following year and got in flat. One more show world crisis had passed.
Many thanks to Dale Baldwin for sharing his exhibitor memories of The Caine Mutiny.