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Friday, December 24, 2010

Vistavision and White Christmas --- Conclusion

Paramount's pre-releasing was the Grinch stalking White Christmas so far as down-the-line exhibitors were concerned. As was mostly case in days before mass saturation openings, 'twas urban palaces feasting first, with small situations left to patron questions as to why they couldn't unwrap White Christmas until ... after Christmas. City dwellers got favorable treatment accustomed them, while outlanders dreaming of a WC drove (sometimes a hundred or more) miles to Bing's holiday caroling. Added to Paramount's pre-release stocking was a short subject, Vistavision Visits Norway, a fiords tour familiar-voiced by James A. Fitzpatrick, veteran purveyor of travelogues who'd never had it so VV-vivid as this. Sights gasp-inducing in '54 first-run were only hinted in a 16mm print I watched yesterday (despite IB Technicolor), so imagination had to conjure glories they knew on mega-screens. Shipping Vistavision Visits Norway to all pre-release venues would settle any doubt of VV being a visual force to reckon with, and Paramount would continue issuing horizontal travel folders for a show season to come. Urgency to get White Christmas into theatres before or concurrent with Yule calendars saw Technicolor performing lab heroics to generate a record 450 prints by mid-November, which is unusually high, said Variety, but hey, so was demand for White Christmas, a See-It-Now attraction if Paramount ever had one.

Boxoffice awarded its Blue Ribbon to White Christmas, not unexpected for bushels of cash plowed. As of December 11 week, WC rang holiday registers loudest, averaging 270 percent of normal business in nineteen cities first-running it. Paramount's season tree was ornamented with Sabrina and Rear Window as well, either of which could dominate a less fulsome field. Hitchcock's show had been delayed owing to Para's deal with James Stewart not to muscle into The Glenn Miller Story's mid-54 window. Special permission was obtained from Danny Kaye to release White Christmas mere months behind his Knock On Wood, also for Paramount. Even biggest stars were acutely sensitive to crowding themselves marquee-wise. White Christmas tie-inning meanwhile represented industry of its own. There was money in this music even without a movie to propel same, for artists like Crosby and Rosemary Clooney needed not screens to abet Hit-Parading. Eighteen million recordings of the title tune, eight million of these Crosby's version, were already in circulation. Sheet music sales stood at three and a half million. Needless to say, these achieved records. Nine new songs looked to similar reception, of which one, Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep, led charts (President Eisenhower got in the act here by mention of Eddie Fisher's rendition during a nationwide broadcast). Sisters and Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me rode coattails to airplay, but where was likelihood juke-heads would embrace What Can You Do With a General? Crosby and Clooney both got out new Christmas albums --- it would have been folly not to. Irving Berlin was all over maps on the pic's behalf. Exhibs, record store owners, disc jockeys must have figured they were dreaming to host such a legend. Tunesmiths came and went, but everyone knew Berlin for having been (and continuing to be) maestro of them all.

Obviously, these were dollars everyone wanted in on, though with $3.75 million spent on WC's negative, Paramount looked toward celebrating first. Biggest returns had come through Radio City's play, its contracted (and maximum) eight weeks concluding in early December (MGM's Deep In My Heart was slotted for the Hall's year-end holiday program beginning the 8th). White Christmas widened past a thousand dates during crucial run-up to December 25. It didn't take genius to recognize these were best weeks for harvesting coin. But what of showmen not among said thousand chosen? Our Liberty was but one (of many) unspooling White Christmas whilst snows melted and flowers bloomed. Independent showmen resented hell out of freeze-outs plus ruthless and confiscatory terms on White Christmas. One called distributors octopi sucking blood out of the exhibitor system. Cited for the most insatiable lust for blood and strongest tentacles was Paramount. Being left crumbs of late WC booking stung exhibition worst. One manager's February 1955 letter to Harrison's Reports reported 30 to 40% drops for White Christmas in his territory after holidays passed. Minneapolis houses feuding with Paramount since October '54 had led to boycotts of the company's product. Said squall kept White Christmas off screens there until February 1955, late indeed but for patrons nostalgic for Yule-times two months past.

So who got richest off White Christmas? There were five hundred bookings designated as pre-release at 70/30 rate. These yielded $4.6 million in domestic rentals. General release, with 13,306 bookings, realized an additional $3.5 million. Variety took stock in August 1955 and listed paydays: Paramount's end of the profits was thirty percent. Bing Crosby got thirty percent plus $150,000 he'd collected to star. Irving Berlin received 30% along with $250,000 for the score (his reported net from the film was $1.3 million). Danny Kaye's share was 10% along with $200,000 taken after Donald O'Connor's drop-out. Director Michael Curtiz was paid a flat fee and no percentage. It was expected that White Christmas would end up with $18-20 million worldwide. These numbers were, of course, adjusted upward as the picture continued selling. Paramount withdrew White Christmas in June 1955, keeping it in abeyance for a second go that November-December, at which time it was designated the company's 1955 holiday release (as reported in Variety, although reader Mike Cline reports a booking he found for August '55 in Salisbury, NC). A 1961 reissue, with all-new paper, trailers, etc., brought another $635,000 into tills. Paramount leased White Christmas to NBC for two runs, the first in December 1964 primetime. Neilson reported a whopper forty share from that debut telecast. The network sought additional runs and Paramount made them pay. $500,000 was the tag for two further nights of White Christmas, an expense NBC duly passed along to advertisers. Shrieks along Madison Avenue greeted net demand of first-run prices (apx. $43,000 per minute) for a retread White Christmas plus two other Paramounts again in evening play, Stalag 17 and The Bridges at Toko-Ri, all three having proven themselves rating-wise (Stalag 17 passed even White Christmas with a forty-four share). The rhubarb ended when NBC guaranteed the pics would perform in line with first-run viewer numbers, which White Christmas did and would continue doing for multiple runs to come, earning NBC's approving label as a holiday perennial.


Blogger Jeff Overturf said...

Merry Christmas to you and your incredible blog! Mrs. Hoppy can come by and trim my tree any day!

1:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Merry Xmas! Your blog was one of the best things of 2010!

10:33 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Terrific three parter, John. Way above even your lofty standards! What a great holiday gift! Only yule log left unturned on the whole WHITE CHRISTMAS subject was the rights battle that kept WC out of circulation back in the eighties- early nineties (although I'm guessing everyone else on the planet except for me probably knows all the details on that chapter). Happy Holidays, John!

11:15 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for these nice comments, all. Dave, I'll need to look into the rights question you mentioned on WC. Sounds like an interesting story ...

5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John--Does Ann remember if the picture of her with Santa might have been taken at a Roses Dept. Store maybe around 1966? If so, I think I might know the identity of the man in the suit.

2:01 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Anonymous: I asked Ann about the Santa visit. It was in 1966 at a store in Hickory, NC. She doesn't recall if it was a Rose's or not. Where was your Santa stationed?

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can you believe 50+ years later the geniuses at Paramount still cant get it together for an OST recording featuring Bing, Rosie and Danny all together? The best we can get is a 50's "cast" recording with Peggy Lee substituting for Rosie. All the songs are turned into "Peggy Lee" songs nothing like the originals at all. What a crime for White Christmas fans everywhere.

4:16 PM  

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