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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Thirty Seconds Over L.A. --- Part One

Among Greenbriar's favorite briar patches is movies' arrival to television, easily forgotten being fact that way more folks first saw pics there than in theatres. Huge was viewership when a biggie saw network premiere, attitudes then being same as now ... why pay for something you eventually can get free? By the sixties and unleashing of post-48 inventory, we'd for a most part chucked theatre-going in favor of short waits at home. Exhibitors poll of patrons found most assumed movies went tele-way within a year or so of theatre play. That wasn't accurate, but neither was it wide enough of truth to propel bodies off sofas and back into paying mode. The horror that was near-collapse of big screen attendance began when Hollywood backed dump trucks to broadcaster doors in 1956, a year that would live in infamy among showmen bitten by hands they'd been feeding.

Up to then, most features sold to TV were B's, British, or bank-repossessed. Major distribs guarded well their treasure and swore home viewers wouldn't pillage same. Old movies thus went unseen but for reissues and 16mm rental, these representing but a fraction of what vaults hid. It was Howard Hughes what breached walls with December 1955 tender of RKO's backlog to tubes. Blows continued landing on exhibition's solar plexus through a following year. Warners sold its pre-48 library outright that Spring, and by May 1956, 20th Fox was leasing fifty-two from its trophy case for airplay. "TV's Box Score," according to The Motion Picture Herald in June, '56, included 2,628 "first-class" US features available for broadcast, including just announced, and most coveted of all, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's pre-48 library numbering 770.

Loew's, Inc. had studied "very carefully" a surrender to TV since February, according to the Herald, but didn't want to sell the farm as had Warners and RKO, despite fifty million having been offered. Lure of half such a windfall had enmeshed WB/RKO in respective devil's bargaining with Associated Artists and General Tire. Despite $ realized, they'd see but a fraction of what pics would earn once syndicating began in earnest (WB cartoons alone were worth many times what the company took for their entire library). Loew's had dabbled in television with its MGM Parade, what MPH called an "ill-fated" (gone as of May '56) venture in partnership with the ABC network. Feelers were out for network unspooling of Metro oldies, but policy as of then discouraged web reliance on feature pics. NBC was ironclad against using them, while ABC had but dipped toes prime-timing a British package to notable lack of success. Only CBS broke bread with Loew's by leasing The Wizard Of Oz for November 1956 airing, but they'd have none of others from Metro's stash.

Competing Los Angeles Stations Display Their Respective Best Of Hollywood ...

Late Shows Suddenly The Hottest Ticket in Town
From beginnings, Loew's sought control. It wasn't enough merely to lease its library --- the company wanted at least part-ownership of buying stations. Stockholder pressure compelled some sort of parlay with television to compensate loss sustained on MGM theatrical output. The opener deal, much publicized, was with KTTV of Los Angeles, an also-ran independent that had been struggling against network dominance, but no more once ties were bound with Metro. Licensing called for a seven-year term of unlimited play. The parties also agreed that MGM's lion trademark could be used by KTTV for promotional purposes. Metro was mum as to how much the station had paid, but The New York Times estimated between four and five million, kicker being MGM's tender of $1.6 million back to KTTV for one-fourth of its stock. We expect many more deals with similarly strategic outlets in other parts of the country, said Arthur M. Loew.

Markets nationwide coveted MGM's library, the question being how many could meet their price. These fabled Biggest Of Big were conceded to be far and away most desirable of movie groups offered so far. KTTV put together a massive ad assault for 10/12/56's roll-out of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, set for 8:00 to 10:30 PM and interrupted but twice for sponsoring Colgate products, each break held to two minutes. The movie would be shown in its entirety. Variety estimated KTTV sunk $100K into promotion for Thirty Seconds, $20,000 of that going to thirty-seven daily Southern Cal newspapers running half-page ads for the Friday night show, figure exceeds that normally spent when a studio opens a top film in a local first-run, said the trade. Choosing Thirty Seconds for an opener was wise --- it had stars still prominent (Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, a starting-out Robert Mitchum) plus action and much fond viewer association.

Two-weeks' thumping found all local KTTV personalities using toy lion gimmicks on their shows, according to Billboard, along with MGM-supplied trailers for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and others of the so-called "Great MGM Library." These are the same trailers originally used by theaters, said Metro field reps targeting buyer stations to help out with ballyhoo. Helicopters went aloft touting Tokyo. Colgate was said to be paying $15,000 per week for commercial time and The Colgate Theatre banner over KTTV Friday evenings for a 1956-57 season (Variety estimated the sponsor's yearly buy at $750,000). KTTV otherwise played off its MGM's at 10:15 weeknights, Colgate participating here as well. Ad rates for these berths were $800 per minute, considerably up from $500 KTTV was getting before. Such was anticipated drawing power of the Mighty Metros.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo duly went through the roof. KTTV claimed over two million Angelinos sat for part, if not all, of the two-and-a-half-hour event. Billboard called it the most auspicious debut any show has ever had in Los Angeles since it became a seven-station market. Those other six were whipped to standstills --- their combined audience wasn't so great as Tokyo's. Head Metro cheerleader Mickey Rooney said oldies would boom the popularity of vet stars: I contend ... that (Spencer) Tracy is bigger today in L.A. than he was before they ran Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo on KTTV. The New York Times wrote of area theatres suffering an overall drop of about twenty-five percent in attendance, a high and wide estimate that L.A. circuit owners immediately challenged. In fact, said several, business was better on Friday the 12th.

TV producer Dick Powell figured KTTV's two million viewer claim for hooey: We're playing a numbers game and don't know how they come up with the numbers. If Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo captured 54.6% of watchers, that meant four million or so people were home in front of their televisions between 8 and 10:30, and yet, said Dick, there were shoppers on the streets and traffic on the freeways. If Audience Research Bureau figures were accurate, to me, it would mean no stores did any business that night; there would be no traffic --- just about everybody would be home watching TV. Variety and theatre executives researched deeper and found that big-screen biz on the Friday night in question was, in fact, ahead of recent weekends: The damaging wallop that was anticipated would be dealt Los Angeles first-run film boxoffice ... failed to materialize. Warner's Toward The Unknown, in fact, had a particularly big opening that night. Within days, The New York Times acknowledged errors in its initial calculation and said that indeed it was premature to call a winner in the KTTV/MGM vs. theatres contest.

Tokyo fallout lingered, the threat of its success affecting TV series producers as well as theatre-men. Bill Self was a former actor (for MGM, among others) whose Schlitz Playhouse Of Stars "was murdered" (Variety) by Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. We make a show for $30,000, and we're lucky if we get a star. Against this, we face a Metro picture which costs millions and has big names, to which Self darkly added, I think the move is suicidal for the majors too. MGM veteran Sam Zimbalist, whose own producing credits included Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, was reached by Variety's Dave Kaufman for post-broadcast comment: My own emotions were mixed --- I was pulling against the film because it was on TV, and I was very upset because it was so good. Zimbalist was surprised how well Tokyo played after twelve years: Some may say the emotions in the picture were corn, but it was honest corn.


Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

Thanks for another great post. This is a favorite topic for me too, and the KTTV story helps explain why CBS dug deep to buy the MGM package for its non-L.A. O & Os -- to keep them out of prime time! Have you seen the August 11, 1956 edition of Billboard available online through Google books? It covers not only the flood of big-studio titles into the marketplace, but details the steady trickle over the previous decade. Virtually all of the major independent producers -- Selznick, Roach, Wanger, Small etc. -- had sold their films, sometimes years earlier. The only major holdout was Goldwyn, who didn't sell until the late 60s. He would call and complain when some of his lesser black and white classics premiered in the middle of the night on CBS O & Os.

9:24 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's a great issue of "Billboard," Lou, and there was much about the pre-48 MGM package that I used from there. This mag was really tuned in on the "Thirty Seconds" L.A. event, as was all of the trade at the time.

1:07 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

In the 60's MGM tried to clone Disney's Sunday night show with "Off to See the Wizard", an hour show in which animated Oz characters introduced MGM live action fare. The problem was, they seemed to get mostly the runts of the MGM litter. recall "The Glass Slipper" as the biggest movie they had. They also burnt off some unsold pilots.

Cutting features into episodes of an anthology wouldn't fly today -- the last gasp of the Disney show itself was in two-hour form to show complete movies. But I'd definitely buy a season set of the original "Disneyland" show, with avuncular Uncle Walt replacing the movie's original credits. Heck, the complete movies are on video anyway.

Also old enough to remember when various movies were events, from holiday chestnuts on local stations ("March of the Wooden Soldiers", A&C's "Jack and the Beanstalk") to any Bond film on network (I think ABC on Sunday was the usual spot).

Don't get me wrong -- I like the guys on TCM. But I miss in-character movie presentations: the monster hosts, the guy in a Baker Street set talking about this week's Rathbone Sherlock, the kiddie movies with cutaways to Santa getting ready for Christmas . . . For me those were genuine value added.

When "Star Wars" finally made it to network, they tried to make an event out of it with stars in tuxes at a faux premiere, which was off-key and annoying. They shoulda put a host in a retro spaceship set and evoke the old kid shows that Lucas and his original audience were raised on. Everybody had seen the movie commercial-free by then; if you're going to drop in breaks, have fun with them.

2:40 AM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

DBenson's comment reminds me that in the spring of 1956 -- before CBS's first showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ -- MGM presented condensed version of two features during the last gasps of its ill-fated MGM PARADE TV series on ABC.

After George Murphy was placed on "leave'' as host along with the original format, Walter Pidgeon introduced abridged three-part versions of both CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS and THE PIRATE.

On the DVD and Blu-ray releases of FORBIDDEN PLANET there are two MGM PARADE clips of Walter promoting that film and advising viewers to return next week before more CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS.

11:54 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

DBenson...exactly. OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD ran on Fridays at 7:30 in the 1967-68 season. The on-air announcer (Gary Owens, right before he hooked up with NBC and LAUGH-IN) described it as "A wonderful world of entertainment" I call it MGN'S WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR.

MGM and ABC used that spot for things that leveraged other successes. It aired the 1965 film CLARENCE THE CROSS-EYED LION, which was the basis for the CBS series DAKTARI, which had been in the Top 10 the previous year. In addition, it showed the 1963 FLIPPER feature film, with Chuck Connors as human lead. After three seasons on NBC, it was a hot new syndication title.

And one of the unsold pilots starred Barbara Eden, the woman in the title I DREAM OF JEANNIE. Her, and silver anniversary boy Jerry Lewis (the picture of 4/22) with his variety hour following on Tuesdays are the likely reason DAKTARI fell out of the Top 30 that year.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Exhibitors were nervous about television as far back as 1940, when one of the trade papers published a list of "recent" features available to TV. Almost all of them were independent productions: lots of budget Westerns, and features that have been kicking around the public-domain market since then. I was surprised to see that certain titles had played in theaters only a few years before, like the four Pinky Tomlin features for Ambassador, vintage 1936-37.

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Jim Reid said...

There an excellent book from McFarland on this topic called "Movies at Home".

12:03 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

"Movies At Home" is sure enough great, Jim, as are all the Kerry Segrave books I've read, most of them published by McFarland. His history of drive-in theatres is especially fine.

1:07 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

If I recall, RKO itself was sold to General Tire, but had sold its film library to Cantrell & Cochrane, the Irish soft-drink manufacturer, which plastered its "C&C Movietime USA" logos on the films and actually altered the title cards, changing "RKO Radio Pictures presents..." to "C&C Television Inc. presents...." Thanks to a vault fire, the C&C prints are the only ones that remain for many RKO films.

12:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if MGM's anal policies were the reason that the pre-48 MGM's were off Boston TV for so long in the late 60s-70s?

3:23 PM  
Blogger Unca Jeffy said...

I love getting lost in your blog. Wonderful stuff.

5:49 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thank you for that nice complement, Jeff. I tend to get pretty anal about this TV release stuff, so it's good to know there's a few out there who enjoy looking over it.

9:58 AM  
Blogger KingKongFan said...

Great stuff! I could read and read for hours. Thanks for sharing!

10:16 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

And thank you, KingKongFan, for your very kind words.

4:56 AM  

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