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

Duals, B's, and the Industry Discourse About Its Audience

double features feature percent

As the majors shifted their emphasis to A-class pictures and eased out of low-budget production in 1940-1941, and as the government railed against the foisting of substandard product on both exhibitors and audiences, the industry discourse was increasingly devoted to the “problem” of B movies and double features. As has been seen, duals and Bs did persist, owing to the prevailing market conditions and also to long-standing industry attitudes and practices. In fact, the industry discourse, especially that conducted in the trade journals, focused on the rationale behind B-movie production and double billing, and also on the industry’s conception of its market and its customers. Thus, the answer to the rather obvious question, why program “B’s” anyway? is most revealing in terms of the industry’s governing theories about its audience, about moviegoing, and about the preferences of certain audience segments.

In terms of actual production, it should be noted that B pictures and double billing represented more of a problem for the integrated major studios than for any other area of the industry, and that this problem was both practical and political. It was a practical problem in that the 1940 consent decree and the improving first-run market both compelled the majors to concentrate more heavily on A-class pictures, which did their best business when exhibited on a first-run, singles-only basis. It was a political problem in that the major studio powers had in fact been forcing second-rate product onto unaffiliated theaters via block booking and blind selling for years, and by 1940 the negative fallout from that practice could scarcely be ignored.

Thus, the studios began planning cutbacks in B-picture production in early 1940—even before the defense buildup began to gather steam, in fact, an indication of the importance of the political pressures involved. In January 1940, Variety reported that, given the economic and regulatory situation, “there is no place left in the [majors’] setup for the large number of quickies they’ve been turning out in the past.” 56 Consequently, Harold Hurley’s B unit at Paramount reportedly was cutting its output from seventeen pictures in 1939 to about ten in 1940; Sol Wurtzel at Fox was cutting back from twenty-seven B’s in 1939 to about thirteen; Bryan Foy at Warners was cutting back from twenty to ten. And while all three companies were cutting B production in half, they were planning to increase spending to obtain “better writing and more important players” and thus to enhance the production values on B movies. Moreover, Jack Warner claimed that the cutbacks at his studio were “in accordance with the policy of complete ‘B’ picture elimination.”

While the majors actually did scale back B production in 1940-1941, that effort was something of a public relations gambit as well. Whatever the practical and political imperatives involved, the majors could scarcely eliminate B-picture production altogether. Studio production operations and marketing strategies relied on B’s and double bills, and the blocks-of-five clause in the consent decree allowed them to continue tying second-rate product to their A-class films. Thus, in late 1941, Variety’s Arthur Ungar noted “the so-called abandonment—for publicity purposes, but not actually—of the ‘B’ class of product.” Ungar reported that the majors had upgraded B production via better scripts, directors, and casts. “But as long as Hollywood has to meet the requirements of theatres playing double bills,” he observed, “one finds films known as ‘second features,’ or ‘bottom of the bill,’ or ‘going into slough houses,’ never hitting the screens of the top first runs.” Ungar also noted that Columbia and Universal, which had not signed the consent decree, still relied heavily on B’s; forty-one of Columbia’s 1941 releases and thirty-seven of Universal’s fell into that category.

There is no question about the persistence—indeed, the prevalence—of double billing in 1940-1941, despite the supposedly negative view of theater owners and audiences and the routine attacks by the Justice Department, Congress, and state and local legislatures. Variety reported that as of July 1940, about 8,700 theaters in America were “dualing,” with over 50 percent of all bookings industrywide involving double bills. 59 The 1941 Film Daily Year Book indicated that 10,350 of the nation’s 17,500 theaters regularly double billed, and that half of all theaters relied exclusively on double features. 60 The single-feature policy tended to be strongest in the major first-run markets throughout the country, and also regionally in the South and Southwest. In general, however, double features were very common, and in fact, an ongoing battle in the Chicago area in 1940 centered on a move by the powerful Balaban and Katz chain to triple bill on a citywide basis after successful experiments with tripling in 1939.

Without question, there were strong sentiments against B’s and double features in some industry quarters, particularly among subsequent-run exhibitors. The reasons for exhibitor concern were evident enough. Double features meant dealing with more product and more logistical headaches, not only in terms of programming but also in handling shipping, promotion, and so on. Duals also were considered a drain on possible revenues, particularly if the second movie was a weak B film. Like various other competitive practices developed by subsequent-run theaters during the 1930s—notably giveaways connected with games such as “banko, bingo, and other [box-office] bait”—duals and B’s were deemed undesirable but difficult to eliminate. 62 Who would be the first to pull back? How would audiences respond?

The attitude among producers and the major studios was somewhat more complex. Major independent producers tended to oppose B’s and duals, predictably enough, since coupling one of their prestige-level features with a lesser product—especially a B-grade film—diminished both its stature and its income. The major studio-distributors also were voicing a more negative view as they steadily shifted their production and market strategy away from B’s and concentrated more heavily on the first-run market; however, they continued to rely on double features in their own theaters. The major-minor and minor studios, meanwhile, continued to rely on B’s for most of their output and to focus primarily on double features in the subsequent-run market.

As industry debate over B’s and double billing intensified, various market researchers and social scientists addressed the problem in a range of studies; some were commissioned by the MPPDA or by specific producers like Goldwyn, and some were done independently. The first of these studies to be publicized were conducted by Gallup’s ARI, and these were widely reported in the trade papers—not only to address the problem but also, thanks to Gallup’s knack for self-promotion, to promote interest in ARFs services.

First of all, in 1940 ARI was separating Americans into distinct categories in terms of national region, urban versus rural locale, age, income bracket, and gender. In the case of double features, according to Gallup, the programming practice was most popular in New England and among urban, younger, and lower-income individuals. Specifically, in terms of age, those 6—12 favored double features by 77 percent; the ages of 13—17, by 58 percent; 18-24, by 40 percent; and over age 25, by 32 percent. In other words, the younger the audience, the more inclined it was to prefer double features. In terms of income, 58 percent of those on relief preferred double features; of lower-income people, 53 percent;   middle-income, 37 percent; and upper-income, 25 percent. Thus, the lower the audience’s income, the greater the appeal of duals. ARI did note that if both pictures were equally good, then the figures would improve for the older and higher-income audiences.

This statistical data about the preferences for double features could then be compared with other information that Gallup supplied. Gallup’s statistics for 1940 also included who was most inclined to attend the movies. Gallup reported that moviegoing dropped after age 19, and that 57 percent of the U.S. population under 30 went to the movies at least once a week. Additionally, the poor and the lower and middle classes went more often than the upper class. In fact, in terms of total admissions, those segments of the audience accounted for 83 percent of ticket sales, although they had much less impact on the total box office since they were more likely to attend lower-cost showings and subsequent-run theaters. Further research indicated that afternoon audiences, “composed largely of housewives and children, want quantity for their money while the evening crowds want ‘something good and not too much of it.’” Analyzing these findings, Sam Goldwyn remarked that programming ought to be designed for those who can afford to go, not “by what the children up to seventeen years of age and people on relief like.” Gallup’s research, however, indicated that those people most inclined to go to the movies were the people who preferred double features. Not surprisingly, exhibitors were prepared to accept such conclusions as confirmation of both their intuition and established trade practices.

Additional research was conducted by Leo Handel’s MPRB, and those findings were summarized in Hollywood Looks at Its Audience. Handel summarized the pros and cons of double features:

The reasons most frequently given by those opposing double bills, in order of importance, were: (1) that one or both of the features are likely to be a “poor” picture; (2) that sitting through a double feature is fatiguing and takes too much time; (3) that seeing two full-length pictures is confusing because, as one woman puts it, “you generally think about a picture when you get home and a double feature gets you mixed up.” Those who preferred double features gave as their chief reasons: (1) that a double bill gives moviegoers more for their money; (2) if one picture is inferior, the other is likely to be good and in any event adds variety; and (3) a double feature gives those who attend a chance to “Kill more time.” (Handel, Hollywood Looks at Its Audience: A Report of Film Audience Research [1950; reprint, New York: Arno, 1976], pp. 132-33)

In 1940-1941, the research findings by ARI, MPRB, and other social scientists reported in the industry trade papers tended to endorse the practice of double billing not only as more popular (relative to single features) but also as more profitable. Thus, any serious reservations about the wisdom of “balanced” and more-for-your-money programming were allayed for the time being. 65 Indeed, B’s were promoted by the minor studios as a means of providing a variation in the genre from the main feature and thus an appearance of more for the customers’ money. As Steve Broidy, president of Monogram/Allied Artists, suggested, “Not everybody likes to eat cake. Some people like bread, and even a certain number of people like stale bread rather than fresh bread.”

Clearly key factors here were the range of viewing options offered to moviegoers in different kinds of communities and the variety of films available. The Hollywood studio-distributors   in 1940 were likely to have only about 250 prints of an A-class movie in simultaneous circulation. So although the industry judged 450 theaters to be metropolitan first-run theaters (large houses in cities with populations of over 100,000 people), one could not count on many choices about where to see the latest Bette Davis or Mickey Rooney film. This problem was alleviated, however, by the number of first-run movies circulating at any one time in major urban markets, since the studios sent anywhere from eight to ten features into national distribution every week and the major markets contained a number of first- and second-run theaters. Thus, while one might not see a new release at a favorite theater, he or she would not have to travel too far or wait too long to see it in another favorable venue.

Those in small-town or rural areas, where perhaps only one or two subsequent-run houses existed within reasonable driving distance, enjoyed fewer options in terms of available movie product. But the double-billing policies and frequent program changes in most subsequent-run theaters offered variety of a different sort—variety in terms of the sheer volume of films being booked in the local theater and the different types of films included in the programs. Although the programming strategy for the exhibitors who booked B films and ran double features was variety, it was important for the industry to acknowledge that while some types of films were of interest to certain subgroups of the audience, others were not.

In fact, the research studies of the early 1940s were an obvious extension of the informal “research” and speculation about audience tastes and preferences conducted by exhibitors since the earliest years of the industry. Exhibitors were well aware of audience resistance to certain types of films, and they provided various means to enable moviegoers to act on their tastes and preferences. By the early 1930s, for example, some theaters had begun to insert screening times in their newspaper ads. In an interesting variation on this effort, a New York theater in 1941 began routinely starting the feature at 9:00 P.M. so that patrons could time their arrival and avoid the B picture if they wished. Another industry analyst noted that sometimes one of the features would be considered inappropriate for children and knowing when it would be on might be useful to families.

Subsequent research throughout the 1940s also tended to confirm the governing industry assumptions about various preconceived audience segments preferring specific types of stories. Much of this research focused on genre preferences. From the beginning of the industry, exhibitors assumed that while different people were attracted to different stars, another significant taste distinction involved genres and story types. Additionally, advertising advice consistently stressed selling to subsets of the mass audience. Those subsets were to be added together through the “balanced” program—based on story type—which would then attract the largest possible number of people. Among the most important constructed audience subsets were children and women.

Since the 1910s and 1920s, it had been common to program for children and women on the assumption that they had specific tastes in story types to which the theaters could appeal. 68 Furthermore, children and women were considered valuable in two special ways: (1) advertising consultants believed that women led purchase decision-making for a household; and (2) the presence of women and children in the theater gave the establishment an aura of propriety. Other subaudiences supposedly existed: the rural or small-town audiences, for instance, which exhibitors believed favored B-grade Westerns and action pictures. 69 Differences in terms of gender, income, ethnicity, and race were deemed important as well. By programming for various subgroups, exhibitors were able to hedge their bets. Programs with sufficient variety would appeal to multiple subaudiences;   two movies in two different genres would attract more than one audience sub-group. And generally one of the films, for cost purposes alone, fell into the category of the B picture.

While research firms provided the industry with a general view of audiences and of moviegoing, and one which reinforced the industry’s own preconceptions, the actual situation was more complex and also more variable than the industry discourse at the time conveyed. Consider, for example, a brief case study of the sales and promotional practices conducted in the fall of 1940 by the Interstate Theater Circuit, a major chain of movie houses affiliated with Paramount and whose market area was Texas. 70 At the time, the Interstate embarked on a significant deviation from its usual trade practices. Traditionally, the Interstate prided itself on not having succumbed to the double-feature standards of exhibition prevalent elsewhere in the United States. It was one of the few circuits to continue the older pattern, dating back to the 1920s, of playing a single feature along with a large variety of shorts. Thus, it assiduously avoided the B picture, calling the double feature a “virus” in the film business.

However, the Interstate was always alert for new ways to make a profit. Hence, when the manager of the “New Ideal” in Corsicana, Texas, said that movie houses there had the “best week-end business in five months,” the Interstate was willing to amend slightly its attitude about B’s. The New Ideal was designed as a tactic for remedying the problem   of selling B pictures “devoid of box office names.” For promoting, as a company memorandum put it, “the little pictures about which we too often say, ‘Sure, it’s swell! But there’s nobody in the cast. How we gonna sell it?’” The New Ideal’s solution was to sell the 1940 Universal film LA CONGA NIGHTS as “the corniest pic ever.” This release probably did not mark the beginning of the cult movie, but it has similarities, for the New Ideal did not ask the audience to laugh with the film but to take an ironic stance, appreciating the film’s ineptitude.

The standard array of tactics used by the New Ideal to promote LA CONGA NIGHTS , and copied by other enterprising circuit houses, was suggested in Interstate’s management newsletter. Popcorn sacks were imprinted with the phrases: “Corn on film!” “Corniest-Funniest Picture Ever Made!” A mock candidate for election to “Assessor & Collector of Laughs—Mr. I. M. Corn,” was put on crutches—supposedly he hurt himself laughing—and “called on every home in Corsicana.” Ads for the film included drawings of Hugh Herbert, the main actor who played seven roles, with corn coming out of his ear. Other ads continued the theme. The theater was decorated with cornstalks. A series of teaser ads in the local papers personals column told the story of the dangers of watching this film. A contest was held in which the person who could sit through the film without laughing would be given a month’s pass. Consolation prizes included a case of corn, a case of cornstarch, a pan of cornbread, and a bottle of corn remover—all of which were tie-ins with local stores.

As successful as this promotion for one B picture might have been, the Interstate chain continued through the 1940s to advocate a high-value A picture combined with a series of shorts as its exhibition strategy rather than the double-feature plan so common elsewhere. The Interstate took the standard line about the disadvantages of double bills that economists had noted early in the 1930s. 72 For one thing, a typical minimum double-feature program with a short, trailers, and the news would run at least three hours; a single feature film with more shorts could be presented in much less time. Thus, a single-feature program could have four shows a day while the double-feature format could get in only three. The difference was one entire audience. In 1941, one programmer for the Interstate claimed that business at theaters that double-billed was off 10-30 percent compared with the Interstate.

A second disadvantage of the double bill was the recognized lower quality of the second feature, the B picture. In the industry’s terms of the 1930s and 1940s, the B picture was defined by its lacks. In terms of content (no performers considered to have star status), length (sixty to seventy minutes running time), in production value (minimal), a B picture, as one Interstate manager politely put it, was “a small picture.” 73 For the purposes of understanding the functions of the double feature and the B movie within Hollywood, this difference in quality helps explain the continuation of these exhibition strategies during the 1940s in spite of the evident “lacks” of B pictures. A second movie supplied quantity and variety to the program even if the variety came through unintentional “badness.” If LA CONGA NIGHTS was one of the corniest films to be distributed, it was not the only film exhibitors booked for the mere sake of providing an assortment for a spectrum of movie audience tastes. At the end of the 1940s, double features were still regular policy at some 25 percent of theaters and a part-time policy at another 36 percent. Only 39 percent of the houses (down by 2 percent from the reports in 1939) indicated they did single-feature programming only. What had changed were the sources for the second feature, since some of the major firms had moved toward primarily supplying A product.

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or