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Monday, April 19, 2010




1953's Was A Beastly Summer







It hadn't taken television long to beat Hollywood down to the canvas. So many more people were now watching at home than going to theatres, those numbers arched ever upward with each survey taken. Distribution came to realize that promoting movies in living rooms was a surest route toward filling seats downtown. This worked most effectively upon kids propped bug-eyed in front of tubes. 1952 was transitional year for easing movie ads off newspaper pages and onto cathode sandwich boards. RKO pushed its King Kong reissue with territory targeted TV spotting and hit a jackpot no one expected (a spectacular $1.608 million in domestic rentals). Others got the wake-up call and began exploring video campaigning of their own. Gimmick shows were thought best for such high-powered appeals. MGM told Daily Variety in March 1953 they were set to test pulling power of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1941 in tandem with the same year's A Woman's Face. The pair would be sold as exploitation chillers after RKO's example, with ads getting right to horrific point (as illustrated above). Films ... will be supported by an extensive ballyhoo campaign similar to that credited with making "King Kong" a tremendous boxoffice reissue winner, said the trade. Metro's electronic tub-thumping was already in evidence with February's release of Jeopardy, a black-and-white suspenser hardly noteworthy other than as stalking horse to show what TV could deliver in added ticket sales. Daily papers squawked as advertising revenues were redirected to broadcasters. MGM was spending between $9,000 and $10,000 for station blurbs in Los Angeles and seeing profits way beyond norms for Jeopardy's kind of pic. Sobering was the fact receipts dropped significantly during a second week when TV advertising was dropped, while towns out of LA stations' range reported very ordinary business for Jeopardy.




Televised selling was nothing new. It had gone on since 1950 when Paramount put toes in water for Sunset Boulevard. The difference since was King Kong and sensational results directly traceable to lures planted at home. RKO's man who delivered here was exploitation director Terry Turner, buoyed into free-lance demand now that others realized his was a Midas touch. Turner got MGM's commission to push Jeopardy and the horror duo, while Paramount retained him to whisper War Of The Worlds into our rabbit ears. RKO was meantime squaring away for a Summer's repeat Ape-A-Thon, with 1949's Mighty Joe Young straining at the vaults. A test engagement during January 1953 in Minneapolis was promising. Trades exulted over the enormous mechanical figure of an ape ... set up on the sidewalk, fringing the curb, and facing the boxoffice. Teamed with 1951's The Thing, Mighty Joe Young gave that city's RKO Pan Theatre a splendid seven days. Boxoffice magazine's smart money prediction: Undoubtedly, RKO will make the reissued pair available generally.



















Warner Bros. was enjoying a lucrative 1953 Springtime with 3-D chiller House Of Wax. Quick-pacing grosses were through the roof. They'd never made this kind of money so fast, let alone on a horror movie. With a sales force primed to move novelty product, it seemed prudent to try again with a stunt attraction geared to the fastest possible play-off. Independent producers Jack Dietz and Hal Chester had completed The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, about a rejuvenated dinosaur on the loose, and were looking for distribution. Ray Harryhausen, who'd done the special effects, remembered they spent around $200,000 to make Beast, then sold it outright to Warners for twice that. The company thereby got their Summer saturation experiment ready-made, but for approximately $184,000 it took to lay on a David Buttolph score, add footage here and there, and generally polish the film to expected Warners standard. Trade announcements in early May promised a coast-to-coast television and radio campaign to blanket all the distribution areas of the nation, an expansion beyond more limited spending and saturation RKO had put forth for King Kong the previous year. WB was determined to begin and finish Beast's run within the three months students were on break, using television as principal hook. Kong/Jeopardy marketing whiz Terry Turner was brought on board to ramrod exploitation. June 17 would be lift-off date for territorial video pummeling. Within a month, they'd have this Beast roaring on nearly every TV station in the country.



















RKO meanwhile wasn't napping. They had Mighty Joe Young aimed for July 15 dates and saturation bookings to be repeated across territories nationwide. Four years old MJY was head-to-head with Warners' brand-new Beast, but wasn't there enough school's out money for everybody? RKO hedged bets with a co-feature to accompany the gorilla, Isle Of The Dead, which had laid dormant since 1945 but had Boris Karloff to decorate marquees. Also there were Joe Young masks, way more ferocious in appearance than the gentler ape on screen, along with jungle village cut-outs supplied to thousands of chain markets and drug stores (RKO claimed to have generated one million giveaways). Grass roots selling wasn't ignored by either distributor. Warners emphasized that newspaper coverage would be strong for Beast, with large directory ads to run in Sunday editions announcing all theatres playing the film within circulation vicinity. Radio spots were emphasized for areas out of TV station range, as there were parts of the US still without access to vid signals. While WB budgeted $175,000 for the saturation blitz, insiders predicted spending would climb to $200,000 (RKO, on the other hand, slated $35,000 for Mighty Joe Young's TV promotion and $20,000 for co-op newspaper ads). Market penetration for Beast would commence nine days ahead of playdates. For the first time, kids had themselves a big monster show running not only in their own hometown, but in scores of others surrounding, day-and-date. It's hardly a wonder that Beast From 20,000 Fathoms provoked such must-see fervor among them.




















There were ten different TV spots for Mighty Joe Young and sixteen for Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, this to avoid repetition of the same spiel and risk of tiring home viewers. It was unanimously felt that televised saturation campaigns were best suited to so-called "scary" and thrill attractions, their audiences described by critics of the day as having the mentality of 12 year-olds. Noted too was the fact that, as with King Kong the previous summer and MGM's Jeopardy, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms did not perform nearly so well in areas not canvassed by TV promotion. Still, there was sock business for situations where advertising word was properly coordinated. Broadway's opening was, unlike elsewhere, exclusive to one theatre, in this case the Paramount, where stage accompaniment included The Marco Sisters, singer Don Cornell, and comic Frank Fontaine. Beast also beat the combined total boxoffice of three features playing in 3-D among Los Angeles opposition houses, extraordinary for a "flattie" in black-and-white. WB was in fact reporting money from its initial 312 engagements as exceeding any of the company's product released over the last three years with the exception of House Of Wax (surprising even to some Warner officials, said The Motion Picture Herald). Saturated dates for Beast would eventually number 1,560. 1953's turnstile heat melted whatever ice encased this dinosaur. Business was looking more like the atom explosion that turned him loose. Columbus, Ohio's RKO Palace had to stop selling tickets several times during their run due to what management called jammed houses. Among attention getters was a ten foot high Beast figure (above) that moved, growled, flashed light, and belched smoke, all at modest cost of $16.50 to showmen who purchased the display. If vacation 1953 had a movie-going fad sensation, it was surely The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

































This leviathan strode swiftly across the US marketplace. June 17-23 was concentrated in the Central and Western territories, then to Southern venues on June 24 (our local Allen Theatre played it June 28-30), with Eastern saturation beginning July 1, and so on. Most theatres kept it a week, striking while irons were hot from the TV assault. Holdovers were discouraged as WB had promised exhibitors in succeeding waves that prints would be available to them, necessitating rapid turnover from one region's dates to the next. Exhibs on the tail end complained that Beast did nothing for them, but there's what came of missing the televised express. RKO's Mighty Joe Young locomotive moved slower and with less cargo, but still performed admirably. It's initial 250 bookings in the Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, and Cincinnati exchange areas scored grosses about the same as obtained from "King Kong" in the same areas last year, according to Showmen's Trade Review. Among (many) other ballys, RKO was arranging for milk trucks to include the Joe Young masks with morning deliveries, while kids at grocer checkouts received aforementioned jungle cutouts with Mom's foodstuffs. From these successful dates, it was Joe to Boston and surrounding areas for an August 13 open with 175 theatres participating. I don't have figures for Mighty Joe Young's ultimate take, but if it did half what The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms realized, RKO would have been happy indeed. Warners ended with $1.735 million in domestic rentals from Beast, plus $915,000 more foreign. A profit of $1.3 million established a record subsequent WB monster pics, including Them! and The Black Scorpion, would not beat.

5 Comments:

Blogger Jeff Overturf said...

I'm really thinking of hand-crafting an ornate procenium to go around my flat screen. Compete with gilded curtains and a chandelier in front.

Reading your blog makes me want to drag out my DVD's and pretend I'm down at the Liberty Theatre spending an afternoon in the balcony!

1:44 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson writes in on the subject of TV spots and promotionals:


Suddenly remembered the old Art Linkletter House Party, where he'd get kids to Say the Darndest Things. One week he ran a clip of just-released King Kong Vs. Godzilla and asked his primary-aged guests how excited they were to run out and see it. Don't think Art picked that topic on his own.


Walt Disney is always mentioned with reverence on this topic. He went beyond TV spots and got paid to promote his various products on his various weekly shows.


Usually there was an entertainment angle, like the workings of the giant squid from 20,000 Leagues, or Peggy Lee sashaying through "He's a Tramp." But at least once they did a pure, unvarnished trailer. For Moon Pilot, a throwaway comedy, they actually filled half of an hour episode with clips held together by straight pitch narration ("You'll ROAR as our reluctant hero . . ."). No backstage stuff or any other trimmings; the rest of the hour was an educational short about weather and satellites (which actually looked more lavish than Moon Pilot). Saw this on the Disney Channel, back when they ran ancient Sunday shows late at night.


Something I actually remember from early 60's childhood was sticking with World of Color through the end of the credits, because they ALWAYS had a spot for the latest Disney movie there. I assume that was built into the show they delivered to NBC -- many of the old ABC shows on DVD will include a trailer or voiceover plug at the very end.


TCM currently runs episodes of MGM Parade, where George Murphy talks up MGM from a chintzy office set. Besides coming attractions and the occasional stiff interview, the show features assorted classic clips and dramatic short subjects (sans original credits). Later they tried Off to See the Wizard, a weekly hour substituting Chuck Jones animated bits for Uncle Walt. That one seemed to be more of a dumping ground for pilots and curios than a showcase for MGM jewels.


I recall a few syndicated shows, like Hollywood and the Stars and the 70's-vintage That's Hollywood, that sometimes shilled new films but more often focused on nostalgia. Don't know if those were specific studio projects like the MGM and Disney shows.


Now we have whole cable networks for this. Takes a lot of the fun out of it.

6:24 PM  
Blogger normadesmond said...

i love mgm trying to sell "a woman's face" as a godzilla picture. quite amusing. also enjoyed
"ends today woman's prison + bamboo prison"

one can only imagine.

11:08 PM  
Blogger J. Theakston said...

Interestingly, HOUSE OF WAX's star, Paul Picerni, did a whistlestop tour for Warner Bros. national ad campaign to BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, which did do a lot of draw for a film that seemingly had no leading stars in the cast. Original prints were sepia toned, an effect lost on the DVD, unfortunately.

It was also BEAST's clout at the box office that convinced producer Steve Trilling to greenlight THEM! as a flat/black and white production rather than the announced 3D/color production it was planned as. That definitely established the "big bug" push in sci-fi in that era.

2:38 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

gotta agree..that Spencer Tracy /Joan Crawford double bill is one of the funniest things I've ever seen! heh heh

6:47 PM  

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