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Friday, October 25, 2013

United Artists Tries Storming The Beach

It Stretched 275 Feet From 45th To 46th Streets on Times Square ...

1959: The Year We Had To See On The Beach

Stanley Kramer Hammering His Yes Men At
Publicity Confab For On The Beach
Suppose you gave an end of the world party and nobody came? That was the crab on exhibition's Beach once openings were done and word of Stanley Kramer's grenade began preceding smaller-market play. So this is the one where everybody dies? Nix. Let's wait for The Shaggy Dog instead. Kramer knew he had a tough sell. United Artists knew it better. They had a sour apple in Kramer, who according to UA exec David Picker's new book, Must, Maybes, and Nevers, was "always confrontational and difficult" when it came to planning and distribution of his films. Says Picker re SK: "He wanted no input, sought no help, and usually argued about every issue once his film was delivered." David Picker makes it clear in his memoir, however, that United Artists had complete control of advertising for On The Beach. How then, to market this most expensive dose of death?

Life Among The Lowly In UA Publicity: They'd Spend Long Days Shipping/Handling
Such On The Beach Material As This

Citing reviews was a start. They were rhapsodic. To knock On The Beach was tantamount to being against world peace, Kramer's message so urgent that you just had to give it a boost. Not only did notices rave ... they came from all over the world. That looked swell on paper, but would it sell tickets in middle America? And was Moscow liking it necessarily a good thing? You could argue that the Soviets would use On The Beach as a propaganda tool, and indeed they would where practicable. It was understood early on that this would be a critic's pic, but kudos in print weren't CPR for deadly word-of-mouth once fate of all Beach's inhabitants became known.

A so-called "Seven Continent" Campaign promised to raise awareness of On The Beach "Across the Globe," this by way of star-studded premieres at various world capitals. December 17, 1959 was the target date for openings at eighteen far-flung sites from New York to Tokyo to Antarctica. This would be not only a test of the film's strength, but also of United Artists' worldwide distribution machinery, an opportunity they'd welcome, as success here would auger well for future releases. Staff was beefed up at foreign exchanges as UA saw opportunity to publicize merchandising manpower beyond our shores. Theirs was no provincial outlet with reach limited to US Bijous. Even if (or when) On The Beach failed, there would be at least this residual benefit for United Artists.

Lillian Gish, Honorary Chairman Of The Sponsoring Committee For The Astor Theatre
Opening, Poses With Tony Perkins and President Of The Academy Of Dramatic Arts, Frances Fuller. They'd Help Supply Prestige United Artists Was After. 

Toward touting the worldwide premieres, UA got out 150 prints of a "newsreel" narrated by Mike Wallace to play theatres and television during January/February 1960 as On The Beach achieved wider play. Charity openings were safe bet for US engagements, a Southeast splash for the March Of Dimes attended by On The Beach stars and taking place in Atlanta. Network-popular Bishop Pike, of Great Cathedral fame (that weekly pulpit addressing thousands) invited Stanley Kramer to his ABC Sunday  program for discussion on "The Motion Pictures --- and Fundamental Issues." Gregory Peck was appointed "official rep" by Kramer for purpose of handling foreign press. Peck found offshore scribes less interested in the film's serious theme and curious instead as to personal favorites of pics and leading ladies over a career so far (for the record, Peck picked Roman Holiday, The Big Country, and The Gunfighter). UA meanwhile was for popping corks, and, based on a first three weeks of US release, declaring On The Beach (and concurrent-playing Solomon and Sheba) "on their way to becoming the biggest grossers ever released by the company." Early returns misled, perhaps, as On The Beach saw its best reception in largest cities, where crowds were likelier to embrace its somber message.

On The Beach would be the picture we had to see, as in "If You Never See Another Motion Picture In Your Life." But what of patronage who might view The Shaggy Dog in those terms? Few films sell successfully in terms of patron's civic responsibility to attend them. Beach's campaign risked intimidating its public, but UA notably lacked selling choices. There was but one way to exploit this one, and that was with a sledgehammer. Miss On The Beach at your own risk went unsaid, but certainly was implied. Like A-Bomb preparedness drills at school, it would put us ready whatever the awful eventuality of world events. What helped in key engagements was On The Beach being a horror that could happen, sort of like science-fiction where the alien menace wins. Anti-nukers made signs, came out en masse at openings, and drew news coverage to UA advantage. Trouble was their tipping off bleakness of those 134 minutes. Besides, UA didn't want to sell On The Beach in political terms, even if Kramer did. That might require choosing a side, and consequent loss of half their audience.

Getting Set With a Fourteen-Foot Illuminated Shadowbox at the RKO
Keiths Theatre in Washington, DC.

UA's pressbook trumpeted worldwide openings and key dates here (Records Shattered!). Much was undoubtedly learned from mistakes, plus things done right, and it was here that marketers faced the greatest challenge of getting back investment via wide release in the US. It was suggested that bally begin four weeks ahead of playdates. That idea alone got the pressbook tossed by many a small showman who'd herd the pic through on a two-three day booking and spend a week's balance making house nut with easier sells. Tried-but-true merchandising applied to On The Beach came off as, well, strange. How many Toy Atomic Submarines would go in Santa stockings after parents got traumatic dose of Kramer's doomsday? Waltzing Matilda was an arresting, if overused, theme for On The Beach, but I wonder how many came to Fred Astaire Dance Studios seeking footwork accompaniment. If On The Beach was indeed The Biggest Story Of Our Time, then all such tie-ins must have seemed trivial indeed. Red ink washing up on this Beach was a doomsday UA marketers, at least those more experienced, may well have seen coming.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Being a New Yorker, I'm sorely tempted to make a photocopy of the "Ask This Cab Driver" sticker and quietly place it in the next cab I take. It might make for interesting conversation when the next passenger gets in.

2:21 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson recalls some toys that helped promote "grownup" films during the 60's:

Pitching grownup movies (or merchandise based on same) to kids is a venerable, oddball tradition.

I remember when "2001" was promoted as gee-whiz science fiction. Local kid shows pushed a cookie tie-in where you could get a model of the Pan Am moon shuttle (the least exotic spacecraft in the film). Magazines spreads focused on the technology. The film was a hit, but I suspect I wasn't the only kid seriously spooked by the vast emptiness of space so present in the film, not to mention that baby staring into the camera at the end.

Horror movies were almost by definition kid fare, imagined by parents as the late-period Universal monsters and hokey sci-fi. Remember a Reader's Digest account of a Saturday matinee of "Night of the Living Dead." The outraged author described the grimness of the film and how it traumatized a houseful of kids, who came expecting the more cheery and wholesome horror of Hammer or AIP. Even Art Linkletter approved "King Kong vs. Godzilla", showing clips before chatting with gradeschoolers eager to see it.

Almost from the get-go James Bond spawned a children's toy bonanza even though the films were as adult as you could then get.

4:02 PM  

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