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Promotion at the Distribution Level

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Promotion emanating from the studios was concerned primarily with creating and maintaining star images. Promotion at the distribution level was concerned mainly with advertising and publicizing new releases. The publicity campaign for a picture was formulated in Hollywood as it went into production and was developed and executed in New York at a company’s distribution headquarters prior to its release. Hollywood and New York were both concerned with promoting stars and with hyping the new release, but promotion at the distribution level was aimed at motion-picture exhibitors as well as the public.

Vertical integration ensured that the majors controlled every facet of promotion in their attempt to funnel as many patrons as possible into their first-run theaters. To keep the process free from political or censorship harassment, the majors submitted all advertising materials to the Advertising Advisory Council (AAC), a wing of the Production Code Administration, for approval prior to its distribution. Advertising materials included posters, sketches, publicity stories, poster art, accessories, pressbooks, and exploitation ideas. The majors adopted the Advertising Code in 1930 and made the review process mandatory in 1933. The Advertising Code addressed many of the same concerns as the Production Code, such as respect for religions, national feelings, and the law. Similarly, both codes prohibited profanity, vulgarity, and nudity. But as Mary Beth Haralovich points out, “the Advertising Code is a general call for good taste and the honest representations of films while the Production Code is much more specific in what constitutes good taste.”

A promotion campaign began prior to the release of a new picture and was aimed at multiple segments of the audience. Although motion pictures were theoretically designed to reach an undifferentiated mass audience, a uniform campaign would be unsuccessful. Hollywood had already determined that a gala premiere could launch a picture with the biggest bang. And it was a longtime practice to stage such galas in New York and Hollywood. During the thirties, Hollywood added imaginative permutations to its stock of gimmicks.

Warners’ launching of 42ND STREET in 1933 started the trend. Because this   backstage musical boosted “the New Deal philosophy of pulling together to whip the depression” and because Warner Baxter, its star, “played a role that was a patent allegory of F.D.R.,” the studio dreamt up the idea of linking the picture to the excitement surrounding Roosevelt’s inauguration. 67 Near the eve of the inauguration, Jack Warner and a contingent of studio stars boarded a gilded and decorated train in Los Angeles, the 42nd Street Special, bound for Washington. General Electric put up money for the stunt in exchange for the advertising. As the train sped across the continent, “its radio broadcasted Dick Powell’s jazzy contralto, GE ad-copy, and optimism…. When the train arrived at a major city, the stars and chorus girls motored to the largest available showroom and demonstrated whatever appliances they found themselves thrust up against. In the evenings they appeared at a key-theater for a mini-premiere.” Describing the stunt as "unique in the history of ‘personal appearances,’ " Motion Picture Herald reported that “thousands have crammed railroad stations to get a glimpse of the trainload of stars. In small towns, where the train stopped only ten minutes, entire populations turned out to accord a welcome.”

Arriving in Washington in time for the inaugural parade and ceremonies, the stars made personal appearances later that evening at a local theater. The entourage then proceeded to New York in time for the premiere on 9 March. Charles Eckert has described these festivities:

On March 9 bawdy, gaudy 42nd Street looked as spiffy as a drunkard in church: American flags and red, white, and blue bunting draped the buildings; the ordinary incandescent bulbs were replaced with scintillant “golden” GE lamps; a fleet of Chrysler automobiles (a separate tie-up) and GE automotive equipment was readied for a late afternoon parade which would catch those leaving work. In the North River a cruiser stood at anchor to fire a salute—a great organ-boom to cap off a roulade of aerial bombs. As the train approached New York from New Rochelle, a pride of small airplanes accompanied it. Once it arrived, the schedule was as exacting as a coronation: a reception at Grand Central by Forty-Second Street Property Owners and Merchants Association, the parade, a GE sales meeting at the Sam Harris Theatre, and the grand premiere at the Strand. (“The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window,” p. 3)

By the end of the decade, studios regularly preceded the New York and Hollywood openings with a world premiere staged in a city or town connected in one way or another to the subject matter of the picture. GONE WITH THE WIND’S premiere in Atlanta is the most obvious example of the practice, but such treatment was also given to DODGE CITY , UNION PACIFIC , and YOUNG MR. LINCOLN in 1939.

To distribute its regular class-Á product, the majors used tried-and-true practices and procedures. Prior to the release of a picture, the distributor placed ads in trade papers such as Variety and Motion Picture Herald to kindle exhibitor interest. After an exhibitor booked a picture, he received the official pressbook, containing order forms for posters, lobby cards, and stills and pre-written publicity stories that he could place in the local newspaper.

Advertising reflected the exchange values studios used to differentiate their   products. According to Janet Staiger, these values consisted in part of stars, genres, “realism,” authenticity, and spectacle. 70 The pressbook for Warners’ CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935) illustrates just how these values were incorporated into motion-picture advertising. Directed by Michael Curtiz and featuring two up-and-coming young stars, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, CAPTAIN BLOOD initiated Warners’ swashbuckler series. To call attention to the spectacle in the picture, catchlines on posters read,

See—A Whole City Built in Splender to Show You How “Blood” Razed it with Cannonfire!

See—The White Slave Markets of the Caribbean Reproduced in All Their Infamy to Show You Why “Blood” Hurled Defiance at an Emperor!

See—Priceless Galleons Launched and Manned to Show You How “Blood” Blew Them to Bits!

To call attention to the novelty, a publicity release related that “the entire studio found itself struck with amazement over the quaintness of the costumes.” To call attention to the authenticity, a story for a Sunday feature recounted the history of piracy and discussed legendary pirate heroes. Referring to the appeal of the genre, a catchline read “Exciting as Your Childhood Dreams … Thrilling as the Ring of Steel on Steel … Romantic as Red Sails in the Sunset!”

The pressbook promoted Errol Flynn as a “carefree adventurer and a rogue to opportunity.” A pre-written story entitled “Errol Flynn’s Life One of Astounding Adventure” revealed that Flynn was a former Olympic boxer, a wanderer, and a British stage actor. Described as “tall and handsome, lean and brown, with a flair for romance and a craving for excitement,” Flynn is quoted as saying, “I would give a leg to play [the part of Blood], but I figure I haven’t a chance. I’m an unknown.” As Margaret Sullivan noted, “It was the perfect statement to follow two full columns extolling his exploits. He is the young unknown fighting for success against all odds. He expects nothing to be given to him but given a chance he will prove himself.”

The pressbook suggested a range of stunts an exhibitor might use to attract different segments of the audience. For example, to attract children, it suggested staging a pirate parade: “If you’re having a pirate party for the kids, try to get them to parade to the theatre in their pirate costumes. By pulling a few strings, Boy Scout band may add a little music, while notables at theatre give ducats for best costume.” To attract adolescents, it suggested holding a pirate song contest: “Using pop music alter the words into pirate song.” And to attract educated men and women, it advised a music plug over radio: “On local radio get orchestra or choral group to perform numbers from Pirates of Penzance.”

In terms of advertising strategy, such promotional gimmicks avoided deep-seated attitudes and worked on curiosity and association. Because the choice of seeing a movie rarely involved an attitude change, a simple message with appealing language, content, and form was deemed enough to kindle interest in a picture. It was thought that once a film became a curiosity it was an easy matter to draw associations to it because there was no predisposition to avoid it.

Promotion at the Production Level [next]

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