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Thursday, May 01, 2014

Would Off-Campus Bogart Sell?

United Artists Puts Premium Rate On The Bogie Cult --- Part Two

What clicked at Harvard could do so for other places ... or not. Bogart packaging at colleges and revival houses ran hot/cool depending on locale and patron temperament. United Artists owned the old Warner pics and decided to package them for theatres beginning in April 1965. Bogart's campus and cult popularity was called a "whimsical phenomenon" by booker vets doubtful that ancient fare bled dry on television could now be sold on percentage for two week minimum run. The batch was handled by Film Representations, in association with Dominant Pictures, which was UA's theatrical arm for the WB vaulties. Nineteen titles made up Film Rep's Bogart package, initial playdates focused on Northeast territories where college towns laid welcome mat for classics in general and Bogart in particular. Dominant wasn't keen to invest in new prints for such a chancy proposition: there would only be two to six available of any from the group. Participating houses could run as many of the nineteen as they pleased, so long as two weeks was dedicated to Bogart. The 8th Street Playhouse in New York's Greenwich Village did $10K with the festival, that considered good for a two week stand at the small art house. Chicago's Carnegie did similarly well. What happened when Bogart made way down to Charlotte, North Carolina in December, 1966, was something else entirely, however.

The south was no bastion for Bogart, him being urban north,  distinctly so in affect and attitude. Visulite Theatre manager Bob Schrader told The Charlotte Observer his sad tale of bombing with Bogie. The whole of seven days had played to "a bunch of seat backs," said Schrader, who added that years spent in a college town had misled him to believe that Bogie would click in Charlotte. He'd run seven of the features, one day apiece, leading with Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, then Casablanca, and so on. Each came a cropper. Film Rep/Dominant's proviso that the festival last two weeks had by December 1966 been dropped. Charlotte franchise holder for Dominant was Harry Kerr, who had Bogart prints gathering dust at his exchange since 1956 (he would confirm as much to me in years-later conversation). Harry told the Observer that the Visulite's would be "the first Bogart festival in the South." He did not add that it would likely be the last.

United Artists kept punching. They'd load non-theatrical catalogues with Bogarts good and bad, each priced accordingly. Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon in 16mm demanded $125 for a 1975 day's rent, while mangier The Two Mrs. Carrolls or Conflict could be had for $35. UA also got out a pressbook the same year for theatrical replay of Bogart, with oldies offered on single or double-feature basis, ads available for whatever combination. The distributor looked to fill a product shortage, not with mere oldies, but "classics," a broad label they'd apply to the range of Bogart titles controlled by UA. Yesteryear pics had been yielding at most $30-$100K in rentals, not a lot admittedly, but "found money," said Variety, since there were virtually no costs in terms of lab or promotion. That would change with serious rollout of the Bogarts to first-run houses, with terms beefed up accordingly; in other words, the 1965 experiment being tried again.

UA didn't want to alienate revival house customers accustomed to product at flat rate (generally $50-$100 guarantee vs. 30% of daily gross), but new prints and hoopla didn't come cheap, so participating theatres would have to pony upward. Yes, advance cash payment was required, plus minimum playing time, and percentage terms as high as 50%, all of which spelled no dice to repertory vets who knew even the best of vintage films couldn't tote such load. "I haven't been back to do business with UA, because those terms are just unrealistic," said one. As to Bogart classics and others long shelved being sent in first-run direction, the rep showman said it was merely a matter of UA "spoon-feeding rich kids (first-run theatres) in a famine." Distrib chief Donald Krim admitted that he'd gone "into the corporate attic to dust off the antiques," but hoped still to realize "several hundred thousand dollars" within a first twelve months of oldie-play.

United Artists tied in with Little, Brown, and Co. to cross promote Bogart and the publisher's recently out bio by Nathaniel Benchley. RCA's LP compilation of music from Bogart films also got a push. In all, there were fourteen HB features tendered to first-run situations by UA, the expected classics like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, but also odd choices like Virginia City and Crime School. There were trailers for select titles, and cartoons from the pre-49 Warner library were "keyed to the program." Public response to oldies, no matter how smart UA may be, is not guaranteed at first run prices, warned Variety. There was risk of failure owing to a public's expectation that such films be free on television, or in low admission revival housing to which patronage was loyal.

Universal had put Animal Crackers out on firm terms (in 1974) and "failed to entice the public or exhibs," the trade recalled. Then there was Columbia's summer of Chaplin revivals in 1972, "which capsized before completion," said Variety. UA did little better with a pre-Bogart experiment that placed five Marx Bros. comedies (their MGM's) at the first-run  Drexel Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. So how did the Bogarts perform for United Artists? It varied according to title: Casablanca finished best with $1.2 million in domestic rentals, The Maltese Falcon $491K, then downward for Treasure Of The Sierra Madre at $164K (still good for a relic), Key Largo with $135K, The Petrified Forest ($45K), and High Sierra ($41K). These Bogarts, being evergreen in revival context, would go on earning revenue unto present day, where DVD/Blu-Ray sales, streaming, and TCM playoff have kept them all in healthy circulation.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

During the 1970s, I went to Charlotte's Visulite Theatre to see CASABLANCA, KEY LARGO, SIERRA MADRE, and HIGH SIERRA.

10:36 AM  
Blogger antoniod said...

Ever see the PETTICOAT JUNCTION episode where the local theatre is running "Two Ken Maynards and a Jack Holt"?

2:17 PM  
Blogger Chris H. said...

Fascinating article, Mr. McElwee! I didn’t know that United Artists was still circulating A.A.P. (Associated Artists Productions)/Dominant prints of pre-1948 Warner Bros. features.

2:46 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I first screened THE MARX BROTHERS in 1968 I announced them as a festival. The first one did well. The rest tanked.

Two years later, 1970, I was Director of Cinema Studies at Rochdale College (where everyone could safely, thanks to Canada's then PM, Pierre Trudeau, experiment with hashish, LSD, marijuana, mescaline and peyote. Rochdale was 18 floors. The higher up we went, the higher we got). Rochdale had no money. I had to make the program pay its way (which is as it should be).

At Rochdale I had access to the Universal MCA Library. This time out I played everything SINGLY. I had a huge audience response. For some reason, though others could, I have never been able to draw an audience with Bogart.

It is a BIG mistake to offer these films to people in festival packages from my experience. They have to sold as they were made, one at a time. That way I played them over and over and over and over. At the same time I double billed things I knew people wanted to see with titles I wanted them to see. I always put the one I wanted them to see on first. That way I developed my audience as their interest grew. I ran W. C. Fields' pictures over 17 times each always to packed houses.

Because my program has always had to pay its own way I learned much we can not learn in the classroom. I also introduced my programs thus educating my audience. Film buffs began to avoid my programs as they did not want to hear me. Film elites (those who drink tea with their pinkies out) also snubbed and snub my programs. That was fine by me as I have never cared for those people.

The CHAPLINS should have been sold ONE picture at a time. Rule Number One is never let people choose because they become confused. This is why Rep Cinema programming fails. Too much choice.

I love nothing more than introducing an audience to a great movie they know nothing about. They key to always to exceed expectation.

As well, when these films were first released they were often viewed as trash by the same type of folks who now embrace them(the "elites). Those people who first screened them used every trick in the book to get people out (that is why those ads look "trashy."). We who revive them need to use every trick in the same book which seems to, now a days, be one few have read. It is called SHOWMANSHIP.

6:28 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson poses a question about old film in new environments:

Back at UC Santa Cruz in the 70s, there was a popular revival house called the Sash Mill but it seemed most of the old film showings were on campus in large lecture halls -- often series tied to specific genre-related film classes, but open to all for a few bucks admission.

Bogart, Flynn, silents, and even Disney's second-tier "Make Mine Music" (not in commercial release at the time) drew big crowds.

Did those non-theatrical venues figure in studios' old-film marketing, or did they leave outfits like Films Inc. to sell them as they saw fit?

6:36 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

I recall going to Rochdale College in the early '70s to see Island of Lost Souls for the first time.

I remember being asked at the screening room door to provide whatever amount of money that I felt like giving. Afraid I was not the most generous of patrons. If memory serves me correctly, I saw the film for a quarter.

The biggest impression of all that I have that night was upon leaving Rochdale. Not two minutes after walking out of its doors police cars converged upon the building in order to perform a raid.

"What is the law?" Laughton had snarled in the film while snapping his whip. On that night it was not to get caught with any illegal substance on one's person while watching the film.

I didn't come to Rochdale that evening to do anything other than watch the film. Considering the police raid that soon ensued, I'm sure glad Lost Souls was a short film.

10:08 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

I know this sounds crazy, but I'd like to correct that 1969 ad from United Artists television, which claims that CASABLANCA premiered on New York television in 1956. After quite bit of searching, I've confirmed the actual date, on WCBS-TV, was Nov. 11, 1958, which is backed up by an ad in the New York Times from the day before. The page with the actual listing is missing from the New York Times online archives, but I finally solved this mystery thanks to this wonderful blog, which lists ALL of CBS' Saturday Night "Late Shows'' from 1951 to 1979! (Most of the big titles bowed on Saturday night, a few a year under the "Schaefer Award Theater'' umbrella.)

9:42 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's a nice catch, Lou. I had not noticed UA's error on that ad. People assume that all these pre-48 titles landed on TV in 1956, when a good many were actually kept back for a year, sometimes two, to allow for one more theatrical run through Dominant.

5:45 AM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

New Yorkers didn't get YANKEE DOODLE DANDY until 1959, when it was included in a package bought by WOR along with GO INTO YOUR DANCE, ALEXANDER HAMILTON and other WB titles that hadn't yet shown on WCBS, WRCA, WNEW, WABC or WNTA. There were at least three pre-48 WB's that later bowed on the networks: SARATOGA TRUNK (NBC, 1968); LIFE WITH FATHER (CBS, 1970); and MISSION TO MOSCOW (PBS, ca 1976).

9:40 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Did not realize that "Mission To Moscow" TV-premiered on PBS. I do remember watching "Saratoga Trunk" and "Life With Father" on the networks. Those were exciting nights!

1:22 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

Wait. I saw MISSION TO MOSCOW on Boston's WHDH-5(a CBS affiliate)around 1971!

11:03 PM  

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