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Negative Cost and Domestic Revenue Comparison of Selected Titles Released 1927–1931

ledger film figures grosses

This table presents financial data about selected titles during the 1927-1931 transition to sound, compiled from published sources. The films are listed in order of general release date because that is when most people first would have seen them.

Warner Bros. (WB) and First National (FN) figures are from the William Schaefer ledger in the Schaefer Collection at the University of Southern California. (I am grateful to Ned Comstock, Bill Whittington, and Stuart Ng for their assistance.) Extracts from these ledgers have been published by H. Mark Glancy, “The Warner Bros. Film Grosses, 1921-1951: The William Schaefer Ledger,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 15, no. 1 (1995), pp. 55-73, plus microfiche appendix. For a discussion of the interpretation of the data, see also John Sedgwick, “The Warner Ledgers: A Comment,” ibid., pp. 75-82.

Schaefer was a longtime WB executive under Jack Warner. The figures are based on cumulative total revenue to 1944, so they include income from re-releases. The Schaefer ledger does not specify whether these are rental or box-office grosses; I assume that they are rental grosses. Beginning with the 1929-1930 season, WB and FN grosses are not separated.

Loew’s MGM data are from H. Mark Glancy, “MGM Film Grosses, 1924-1948: The Eddie Mannix Ledger,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television , 12, no. 2 (1992), pp. 127-43, plus microfiche appendix. The original reasons for the existence of the Mannix ledger, which is in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Collection, are not clearly understood. Some have suggested that the executive was Louis B. Mayer’s fiscal spy. The figures are rental grosses. Re-release figures are tallied separately and therefore have been excluded from my chart. Another version of this account is in appendix 1 of Samuel Marx, Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints (New York: Random House, 1975), pp. 254-64. Marx’s table, without a source citation, provides profit-loss figures for selected titles for the five years after their release but omits domestic and foreign income. He includes a few titles not listed in the Mannix ledger. His cost, profit, and loss figures match the amounts in the Mannix ledger.

RKO (Radio Pictures) data are from Richard B. Jewell, “RKO Film Grosses, 1929-1951: The C. J. Tevlin Ledger,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 14, no. 1 (1994), pp. 37-49, plus microfiche appendix, and John Sedgwick, “Richard B. Jewell’s RKO Film Grosses, 1929-1951: The C. J. Tevlin Ledger,” ibid., pp. 51-58. Tevlin’s figures were also cumulative—in this case, to June 1952. The ledger was compiled by the studio’s General Statistics Department and signed by Tevlin, who reported to Howard Hughes, owner of RKO. Like the MGM ledger, this one contains profit/loss figures. It also details net income, so a film might seem profitable based on a positive gross (cf. ROGUE SONG ) but still show a loss after expenses.

The Universal (Univ) data are very incomplete and list only “final cost.” The source is “Shooting Record of Pictures,” Universal Collection, USC.

In adapting this information to focus on domestic audience response, I have omitted foreign returns (supplied in all three original ledgers). (Domestic income includes the United States and Canada.) The “ratio” column is my own devising. This is not a complicated statistical operation; rather, it is simply the domestic return divided by the domestic return minus the negative cost. The resulting percentage approximates domestic return on investment and indicates box-office success. The ratio distinguishes hits from flops but should not be used for subtle distinctions between films because there are so many variable factors in the marketplace, not to mention the effects of “Hollywood accounting.”

Some general disclaimers: The reliability of this data is not assured (see Ian Jarvie, “Comment [on Glancy’s article],” Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television , 12, no. 2 1992, pp. 143-44). The data seem to lump together all the versions (silent and sound, foreign) for each title. Finally, each studio used different accounting procedures, so interorganization comparisons are risky.

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