Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » The Hollywood Studio System in 1940-1941 - The Major Studios, METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER, WARNER BROS, 20TH CENTURY-FOX, PARAMOUNT, RKO

Production Strategies for the Changing Marketplace

premiere run picture top

Among the challenges facing the Hollywood studios in 1940-1941, clearly the most significant were the war and the antitrust campaign. These challenges were especially intense for the Big Five integrated majors, which stood to realize enormous gains if they could both overcome their declining overseas income and respond to the trade restrictions mandated by the 1940 consent decree. Two points about the Big Five’s response to these challenges should be underscored here. First, the 1940 consent decree was signed in October 1940 but was not scheduled to take effect until September 1941. This period gave the studios ample time to adjust production operations to the new sales policies, and it also happened to coincide nicely with the defense buildup, which began gathering steam in early 1941 and hit the movie industry in full force during the summer. The second point is that the Big Five responded to both the consent decree and the surging domestic market with roughly the same strategy: scaling back low-budget production and concentrating on high-end pictures geared for the first-run market.

As will be seen in more detail later in this chapter, the majors did reduce B-picture production but did not eliminate it altogether. The market demand for low-grade product and the uncertainties of the prewar marketplace virtually demanded that the major studios continue to produce B’s—and that they cultivate various other defensive market strategies as well. The most significant of these was an increased reliance on presold movies and story properties; in the B-picture realm, such properties generally were series pictures—films with recurring characters, settings, and plots whose market value was firmly established. In 1940-1941, over 10 percent of Hollywood features were series pictures, with all the studios except Warners and UA heavily invested in the practice. 27 The vast majority were B’s, most of them Westerns; the presold status of some series was doubly reinforced by their having been adapted from popular radio series—for example, Paramount’s Aldrich Family, RKO’s Dr. Christian, Columbia’s Blondie, RKO’s Fibber McGee and Molly, and Republics Melody Ranch. 28 There were a few important A-class series as well—MGM’s Thin Man and Hardy Family series, for instance—although the demand for product differentiation at the A-class level tended to discourage this strategy.

The Big Five developed defensive strategies for the first-run market as well. Here too the key was preselling, which at this level generally involved the reissue of A-class features and the adaptation of best-selling novels and hit stage plays. While reissues were scarcely an innovation, the trend saw a sharp increase in the prewar era. In April 1941 alone, for example, nineteen “new” reissues joined the dozens already in release. This number included several military and combat films, such as HELL’S ANGELS (1930), HERE COMES THE NAVY (1934), and DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR (1935), along with more routine fare like RAIN (1932), SCARFACE and BRINGING UP BABY (1938).

Meanwhile, the market for presold literary and stage properties was booming. In 1939, the number (and cost) of such purchases had increased substantially, and by 1940-1941 the studios and major independents were breaking one record after another in the amount paid for the screen rights to top novels and plays. 30 Back in 1936, Selznick had considered the $50,000 he paid Margaret Mitchell for Gone with the Wind (1936) to be exorbitant; in 1940, Paramount paid three times that amount for Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). 31 That record was broken in early 1941 when Warners paid $175,000 for Edna Ferber’s Saratoga Trunk (1941). Also in early 1941, Paramount paid $275,000 for the rights to Moss Hart’s hit play Lady in the Dark (1941), and in fact higher prices for top plays had become the rule, since these were more easily adapted to the screen. 32 (Plays were in dialogue form, and the length of a stage play and a feature film was roughly equivalent.) To keep such expenditures down, Paramount, Warners, and MGM all provided financing for Broadway plays, literally banking on possible hits with minimal screen-rights costs. 33 Ultimately, however, this type of speculation proved less efficient than simply paying top dollar for proven hits.

The consummate presold picture in 1940-1941, of course, was Selznick’s adaptation of Gone with the Wind. In fact, the phenomenal performance of that single picture taught the major studio-distributors a great deal about the full potential of the motion picture market in 1940-1941, and how to exploit it.

Beyond the presold value of the novel itself, Selznick enhanced audience interest with the much-publicized “Search for Scarlett” and the signing of Clark Gable to portray Rhett Butler. The promotion went into high gear in December 1939 with a press screening for 750 in Los Angeles’ Four Star Theatre to launch a nationwide newspaper, magazine, and radio campaign. The world premiere of GONE WITH THE WIND —or simply WIND , in then-current industry parlance—was held on 15 December at the Loews Grand Theatre in Atlanta, culminating a weeklong, citywide gala which was widely reported in the national press. 34 One week later, a double premiere was held in New York City at the Astor and Capitol Theaters, with the latter covered live by NBC-TV—the first movie premiere ever to be televised.

When it finally opened in L.A.’s Cathay Theatre in late December, WIND already was breaking attendance records in New York; at the Capitol, for instance, the picture was averaging over 11,000 admissions per day. 36 The record attendance continued throughout its half-year road-show run, with the unprecedented admission prices (75C in the afternoons and $1.10 in the evenings, versus 25—500 for most first-run films) pushing its record box-office take ever upward. W IND produced record rentals for distributor MGM as well, which was collecting an unprecedented 70 percent of the box-office take as a distribution fee (versus the usual 30-35 percent) during the films road-show run. And in the process, the blockbuster was steadily revising the definition of a long-running hit as it played for weeks and months on end in major metropolitan houses, in an era when even top features played only one to two weeks.

By July 1940, W IND reached saturation as a road show, and MGM revised its terms: the picture was sold on a 50-50 basis (i.e., 50 percent of the exhibitors receipts would be returned to MGM) at prices of 40C in the afternoon and 500 in the evening; reserved seating was recommended but not contractually required. 37 By April 1941, with its road-show and first-run engagements finally played out, W IND had grossed $31 million played to an estimated audience of 45 million in 8,500 theaters, with another 3,000 bookings still to be played as the film finally went into general release at “popular prices.”

While GONE WITH THE WIND clearly was an exceptional case, its release pattern and sales strategy had considerable influence on the marketing of top features in 1940-1941. Its most obvious impact was on asking prices for top features and the length of time those features played in metropolitan first-run theaters. In February 1940, RKO released Disney’s PINOCCHIO on rental terms of 70 percent and an admission scale averaging 750 in New York City’s 3,200-seat Center Theatre. 39 In March, UA released the Selznick-produced R EBECCA, which surpassed SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS to become the first picture play six weeks at Radio City. 40 In late 1940, MGM’s THE PHILADELPHIA STORY also ran six weeks at Radio City, while Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (sold by UA on a 70 percent rental basis) played twenty-three   weeks at the Astor, one of New York’s more modest (1,100-seat) first-run theaters. 41 By 1941, long-running hits were becoming routine, especially in New York; in July, eleven of the fourteen first-run theaters on Broadway were playing “holdovers.” Among these was Warners’ SERGEANT YORK, a surprise hit of such magnitude that after doing six weeks of sold-out business at the Astor, it moved to the larger Hollywood Theater on Broadway for an indefinite run (at 75C for matinees and $1.10 for evening shows) on a 50-50 basis.

W IND’S heavily publicized location premiere in Atlanta was also crucial to its promotional campaign, and it represented Selznick’s effort to take a recent marketing innovation to another level altogether. Until the late 1930s, virtually all prestige-level pictures were launched with a Broadway premiere. Several major releases in early 1939 departed from this strategy—notably Paramount’s UNION PACIFIC, which premiered with much fanfare in Omaha, and Warners’ DODGE CITY, which premiered in its namesake Kansas town. 43 Similarly well-publicized openings were held in 1939 for YOUNG MR.LINCOLN in Springfield, for ALLEGHENY UPRISING in Pittsburgh, and for MR.SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON in the nations capital. Variety’s year-end survey of “Film Showmanship” termed the location premiere a “revolutionary method of exploitation” in 1939, and a “breakdown of the long-established precedent of a Broadway premiere as the accepted official first showing.”

The impact of WIND’s weeklong Atlanta premiere underscored the promotional value of the location premiere, and the trend intensified throughout 1940. By then, in fact, even the minor studios were getting into the act. Monogram, for instance, held a gala premiere in Phoenix for the opening of THE GENTLEMAN FROM ARIZONA, a Technicolor picture shot entirely on location in Arizona (Hollywood’s first). 45 Location premieres had become fairly commonplace by 1941, and in fact the more predictable ventures—BIRTH OF THE BLUES premiering in New Orleans, SUN VALLEY SERENADE in Salt Lake City, and KEEP’EM FLYING in Detroit—were complemented by a few truly offbeat efforts like the premiere of UNDERGROUND in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns and of THE SEA WOLF on the SS America off California coast.

The location premiere phenomenon was cut short in late 1941 with the U.S. entry into the war, but it was a significant prewar marketing trend on several counts. It clearly signaled the rise of the big picture and a nascent blockbuster mentality in Hollywood as the studios began to recalibrate the profit potential, market impact, and promotional requirements of their top releases. These campaigns also provided nationwide multimedia exploitation, which sales offices were convinced had a much greater impact than national radio or magazine campaigns. The locale also invoked the epic stature and spectacle quality of the pictures, not only in terms of their production values (lavish sets and costumes, location shooting, Technicolor, and so on) but also in terms of the subject matter in that an increasing number of these were distinctly American pictures. As these pictures well indicated, the troubled overseas markets and the growing need to promote Americanism as the nation faced the prospect of global war provoked an on-screen emphasis on domestic settings, domestic issues, and the domestic marketplace.

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almost 6 years ago

To Whom it may concern, I have just recentley become the owner of one ticket for the world premier Of Gone With the Wind which took place on Dec15,1935 at the Loewes Grand theatre,in Atlanta Ga.The ticket is in excellant condition and I am curious as to its value. The closest ticket value that I have been able to asertain is a ticket for a matinee showing in Iowa in1940