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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Another Merry Little James Bond Christmas

Who’d have thought James Bond would make his stateside debut in America’s dustbowl? A glittering Hollywood or Manhattan premiere was more what I’d have expected for Dr. No, a red carpet laid before the most successful of all movie franchises to date, but 007 was hardly that in Spring of 1963 when United Artists saturated 450 Midwest theatres and drive-ins. Dr. No loomed large overseas from its UK debut in October 1962. The film is said to already have recouped its negative cost in its initial engagements in England and on the continent alone, was The Motion Picture Herald's tip, their review comparing James Bond favorably with past boxoffice reliables Charlie Chan and The Thin Man. Said negative costs had amounted to $1.211 million, with intent to do more thrillers based on Ian Fleming backlog. Those were known, if not widely sold, in the US. President Kennedy confessed to liking them in a 1961 LIFE magazine profile, but how many Podunk moviegoers shared his tastes? One look at the completed Dr. No and UA merchandisers figured they had an actioner best introduced in further-flung outposts. James Bond might, in fact, develop momentum enough there to spread word-of-mouth toward both coasts. Advance selling would be needed in any case to acquaint both press and public with a character and hopeful star barely known to Yank moviegoers. UK imports were challenging merchandise at best. Most wilted at art houses and exchange shelves. A British (cultural) invasion was imminent but not yet upon us. Dr. No differed for being keyed from its start to reach an international audience, with action and sex the focal points crossing borders everywhere. United Artists was committed to James Bond, viewing the series as a long-range investment likely to gather momentum even if initial returns were modest. UA marketers had announced long-range promotional plans back in December 1961 before cameras began rolling on Jamaican locations in January of the following year. The campaign will precede the film's release by five or six months and will seek to establish James Bond, Fleming's British secret service agent, as a new Thin Man or Philip Marlowe character. UA also pledged at that time to hold down release of series entries to one per year or preferably at eighteen-month intervals. The American campaign began in earnest with a showing of theatre and television trailers to UA field men and trade press in February of 1963. Exhibitors were encouraged to use tie-ups (particularly the paperbacks) rather than just running the pressbooks ads, as 007’s penetration into the national consciousness was very much a goal yet to be accomplished. Part of their effort toward that was bringing the man himself, or at least the actor portraying him, to US shores for a nationwide publicity sweep. Thus did Sean Connery and James Bond make their domestic bow at a raucous showmen’s confab in Kansas City, a trade ad for which is shown here. Would 007 Brag or Drag in ’63?

A "traveling kit" of Dr. No related publicity was in circulation from February 18, with stops at media outlets and placement on editor’s desks. Exhibitors could purchase at cost, and by April 1, over 150 of them had. Boxed sets of the Fleming novels found their (gratis) way to magazines and newspapers, for selling James Bond encompassed more than a mere push for Dr. No. The latter would be 1963’s Midwest/Southwest "project" picture, those territories becoming labs to test what was still regarded an uncertain product. Suggestions from participating showmen would be incorporated into the final campaign. Launching Dr. No in the heartland was anything but surrender, for central US managers were among those most aggressive where it came to grassroots selling, their public likeliest to fill drive-in lots during a hot 1963 summer. Rural acceptance for 007 would after all help seal UA’s urban deal to come. Sean Connery and his retinue of "James Bond Girls" (clad in bikinis or other revealing costumes, as in this pose during a New York press conference, and in more conventional attire with Connery and exhibs at the Kansas City meet) were both incentive and good will outreach to showmen expected to put best foot forward on the project’s behalf. Histories to come would accuse United Artists of dumping Dr. No, but 450 (initial) prints and a saturation opening to encompass Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Omaha, and Minneapolis was no dismissive gesture, even if Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli would later disparage it. We were telephoned from New York and told the film was opening in drive-in cinemas in Texas and Oklahoma, so as to get the investment back quickly, from which I gathered their confidence in it was low. Was Broccoli aware of national exposure UA arranged during a March and April lead-up to Dr. No's May 8 bow? There were LIFE and TIME features, plus a network boost on ABC’s March 24 Sunday Night At The Movies in which Connery was "introduced" during a twelve-minute segment to a projected viewership of twenty-seven million. The potential audience for Dr. No was well lubed for its mid-west premiere. So who says legitimate birth for any film could only be achieved via delivery in New York or Los Angeles?

Dr. No was hosted for three weeks in fly-over country before landing in New York as part of United Artists’ "Premiere Showcase", booking new product in metropolitan and neighborhood theatres day-and-date with the Broadway opening. These were really just more saturation dates given a new label. The so-called Summer Festival would encompass nine UA releases, designed for the thousands of visitors to the city, as well as the local vacationers, and included The Great Escape, Toys In The Attic, Mouse On The Moon (another UK import), and Call Me Bwana (also from producers Saltzman and Broccoli). Dr. No began May 29 at eighteen theatres, then widened out to eighty NYC venues for mid-summer play-off. Its Washington DC date got a publicity stimulus when the 1963 Memorial Day parade honoring astronaut Gordon Cooper passed a marquee (shown here) with appropriate tribute (James Bond Salutes …). Business was good, if unspectacular, as Dr. No continued its nationwide run. Stunts included girls "wearing" the Fleming novels for street ballys, and the inevitable bikini models displayed where volunteers showed up (generally in exchange for passes and press notice). Such efforts resulted in $2.4 million in domestic rentals, a figure well short of blacker ink generated by other UA hits that season. Irma La Douce was more the horn they were tooting after a first quarter revenue dip the company had experienced (and at which time president Arthur Krim predicted that forthcoming It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Greatest Story Ever Told "would shatter without question all precedents in the history of the motion picture industry"). In fact, Billy Wilder’s comedy received far more in the way of trade ad support (many in full color) than a more self-sufficient Dr. No. Again they predicted (perhaps more accurately this time) that Irma La Douce would be the biggest grossing film in our history, with the exception of the top roadshow attractions, and none matching its holdover power. Irma La Douce eventually took a fantastic $11.920 million in domestic rentals, more than five times Dr. No’s figure.

It was reissues that leveled the playing field for Dr. No, plus foreign rentals way in excess of what the film realized domestically. Once the James Bond craze caught fire with Goldfinger, UA was quick to repackage their first two 007 features. Dr. No and From Russia With Love were offered 4-14-65 as a double feature and at terms of 50% to the distributor. Theatres were swamped, as many fans hadn’t noticed the secret agent prior to seeing Goldfinger. Now they were intent on catching up, and this time Dr. No realized a brisk $2.255 million in domestic rentals, nearly what was recovered during its original release. There would, in fact, be a total of six theatrical waves for Dr. No, including that 4-14-65 combo with Russia, an 8-31-66 parlay with Goldfinger (at which time an alerted UA increased its percentage demand to 60% --- domestic rentals were $645,000), again on 3-29-69 with Goldfinger, a 6-1-71 reunion with Russia, and finally a triple bill of Dr. No with both From Russia With Love and Goldfinger released 6-7-72. As of November 1991, Dr. No had taken $6.446,349 million in domestic rentals and a whopping $16.515,215 in foreign (that number as of 1986). Profits through 1984 were $15.745 million, this including revenues from television showings (ABC began telecasts of Dr. No on 11-10-74, and that sale netted UA an additional $800,000). There were 29,882 domestic bookings of the film, and 90,462 bookings foreign. Dr. No, along with the rest of the James Bond series, has had an incredible shelf life of over forty-five years and counting. A minute doesn't pass when one or more Bond isn’t generating profit somewhere. Dr. No thrives also on Blu-Ray, yet another incarnation, perhaps a best so far, for one of filmdom’s truest evergreens.
The End of Dr. No --- Part One, but James Bond Will Return in Dr. No --- Part Two


Blogger Vanwall said...

My father and mother, who must've read at least a few Bond novels, judging by the couple of 'em I was able to smuggle into my bedroom for private readings, were not terribly impressed with any of the Bond films after Connery left the franchise, I think because they made such an enormous impression on their initial release - and plenty of other readers were primed and ready for the invasion of the Brit-tech secret agent.

There really wasn't anything like the Bond books when they first came out, even tho the copycats soon came thick and fast, as most spy/adventure stories had been more of the restrained Dornford Yates-ish Clubland style rather than the considerably more wide-open Fleming fashion - I used to think there must've been a deep sado-masochistic streak well hidden in the heart of the post-war best-seller writers and readers. I'm a Yates reader, as well, so maybe I have repressed that aspect enough to have a restrained view of the Bondian stuff. The first three films were corkers, tho, with a slew of interesting actors - the great Pedro Armendáriz? who'da thunk it? - and the girls as genuine sexual objects aspect was unheard of in most of the action films playing in theaters back then, I think.

I really wanted to see "Goldfinger" when it was new, as the hype was ginormous, but I wasn't old enough, at least according to my parents - they had no idea my aunt's copy had already been clandestinely well thumbed by yours truly. Merry Xmas, Sir Greenbriar!

9:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John! An entire article about "Dr. No" without a mention of Ursula Andress? For shame! The Playboy feature on her that tied in to the film sure had me doing Tex Avery schtick. She certainly had a lot to do with the film's success.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Concerning today's GRACE BRADLEY's banner...wish I could be the ladder...

9:26 AM  
Blogger The Viewliner Limited said...

A Christmas message from Richard on board the Viewliner Limited:

May this Christmas end the present year on a cheerful note
and make way for a fresh and bright new year.

Here's wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

12:41 PM  

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