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America's Wartime Movie Marketplace

theaters million run pictures

While Hollywood and the government cooperated to create the world’s largest distribution-exhibition circuit during the war, the domestic motion picture market underwent a massive war-induced transformation of its own. With each successive year during the war, as American theaters set new box-office records, the very nature of movie exhibition changed rather dramatically—albeit temporarily. During the war, theaters took on a community role and import altogether different from any they held in any period before or since, and a role that was scarcely anticipated in the chaotic early months of the war.

In the first few months of 1942, despite Roosevelt’s edict that the movie industry continue commercial operations, theaters were plagued by war-related problems and disruptions. Blackouts and “dimouts” were ordered for theaters on the coasts and in major war production centers. Air-raid orders from the Office of Civilian Defense required theaters to train personnel and install special equipment in the event of air attack. 56 The rationing of gasoline and other fuel affected theater operations, delivery of prints, and patronage. All theater construction and remodeling was suspended, with the burgeoning drive-in movie industry abruptly halted. 57 The drafting of young men into military service limited available theater employees, bringing not only women but more teenagers and older workers into the exhibition field. A momentary shock went through the industry when, in April 1942, government officials suggested that one-third of American movie houses be shut down. 58 That never occurred, but the WPB continually warned exhibitors that theaters might be closed owing to severe shortages. 59 Movie exhibition flourished despite these problems, even in that trying first war year. As a January 1943 Variety story concluded after presenting a litany of exhibitors’ woes: “Offsetting the troubles is the turnaway business enjoyed by thousands of theaters from coast to coast.”

That first war year also saw movie theaters become war-oriented community centers, owing to the cooperative efforts of the WAC and the nation’s exhibitors. The WAC’s Theatre Division had two main tasks: to facilitate the distribution and exhibition of government films, and to facilitate the sale (in theaters) of war bonds and victory bonds. As mentioned earlier, the WAC managed by war’s end to get nearly all the movie houses in the United States to pledge to screen government films—totaling over 77,000 prints of 171 films in the course of the war. Meanwhile, bond drives became a regular feature in movie houses, particularly in first-run theaters near defense plants. Perhaps the best indication of the importance of movie theaters to the government’s bond-selling efforts was the role played by Ted R. Gamble. An exhibitor from Portland, Oregon, Gamble had been recruited before the war to advise the Treasury secretary on the role of movie theaters in government fund-raising. With the government’s subsequent decision to keep bond-buying voluntary, Gamble was appointed head of Treasury’s war finance division.

During the various war bond sales campaigns, U.S. theaters held some 30,000 “bond premieres” and over 40,000 free movie days on which admission was free with the purchase of a war bond. Over one-third of the theaters participating in bond drives became official issuing agents for the U.S. Treasury, and they sold literally billions of dollars in war bonds in the course of the war. In fact, government estimates credit motion picture exhibitors with selling 20 percent of all “E” bonds (those issued to individual investors) during the war. Besides the Treasury Department, other agencies used movie theaters for various drives and initiatives, including the Red Cross, the March of Dimes, United Nations Relief, and Army-Navy Emergency Relief. Theaters also became collection centers for various “critical materials”—blood plasma, rags and paper, copper, rubber, and other needed items in short supply. A nationwide “Get in the Scrap” campaign also filled theater parking lots with tons of scrap metal.

The war economy had a tremendous impact on theater trade, of course, and particularly in the downtown first-run houses that traditionally had been the chief source of box-office revenues. A typical trade press story appeared in April 1942 under the headline “Downtown Areas Boom”; the article noted that “business at the boxoffice has shifted markedly to the extent that the downtown theaters are cleaning up and the neighborhood or suburban houses are standing still or not doing as well as they did.” 63 Losses of male patrons due to the draft were easily offset by increased business from defense plant workers; indeed, many downtown theaters were soon forced to expand their schedules. In Detroit, for instance, a United Auto Workers request induced the 5,000-seat Fox Theater to offer pictures from 1:00 A.M. to 5:30 A.M. for swing-shift workers—a contingent of at least 100,000, by UAW estimates. 64 By late 1942, midnight shows were becoming commonplace in theaters in defense plant areas, where exhibitors tried, as Variety put it, “to catch the trade piling into downtown zones at the late hour.”

By 1943, the development of another war-related trend not only added to the downtown exhibition surge but indicated a significant shift in production and distribution strategies. In July, the Motion Picture Herald reported that “customers are leaving the neighborhood second and subsequent run theaters for first run houses downtown,” and it suggested two principal reasons. First, patrons had more spending money and were willing to pay the increased admission price at downtown theaters. And second, first-run pictures were taking longer to move out of the downtown houses and into the “nabes” (neighborhood theaters). The latter point was crucial, as films were enjoying increasingly longer runs and thus generating more money for all concerned—even the subsequent-run exhibitors, who also ran top features longer than ever when they finally were able to get them.

The penchant for holdovers and longer runs began before the war, of course, but it escalated sharply in 1942 and continued at record levels throughout the war. One well-publicized example was the run of MGM’s MRS.MINIVER at Radio City Music Hall. That June 1942 release ran for a record ten weeks at Radio City, surpassing the six-week record held by three other recent upscale woman’s pictures: REBECCA , THE PHILADELPHIA STORY , and WOMAN OF THE YEAR . In its ten-week run at Radio City, MRS.MINIVER played to a record 1.5 million persons and grossed $1.03 million, returning roughly half of the picture’s production costs in that single venue. The picture continued at a record pace after ten weeks but was pulled owing to a contractual commitment to Disney for BAMBI (1942). 67 While few pictures did as well as MRS. MINIVER , the number of holdovers continued to increase. During 1943, a record low of 163 films played in New York City’s first-run houses. Again Radio City provides an illuminating example of changing wartime distribution patterns. From 1936 to 1938, Radio City played thirty to thirty-two features per year; in 1939, the total fell slightly to twenty-eight and then held at twenty-six in 1940 and 1941. Then came the war years: Radio City played only sixteen pictures in 1942 and then played just ten or eleven in each of the next three years.

Holdovers and long runs created serious booking problems for subsequent-run exhibitors, who turned increasingly to reissues to satisfy demand. By late 1943, exhibitors were actually requesting that the studio re-release old hits, and the companies readily complied. MGM announced plans to reissue pictures for the first time ever; Columbia planned to bring back its Capra hits, while RKO planned an elaborate rerelease for SNOW WHITE . 69 Many of the reissues did excellent business; SNOW WHITE , for example, returned another $1.3 million in reissue. 70 The governing wisdom was that star vehicles released from two to ten years previously were the best candidates for reissue; the Motion Picture Herald reported that these pictures routinely returned $400,000-600,000 at the box office—a tremendous unexpected windfall for the studios and exhibitors alike. 71 Thus, Warners, Fox, and Paramount began re-release campaigns as well. By 1944, business for reissues was so strong that the studio-distributors began selling them at higher rates—even sometimes in percentage deals, a practice traditionally restricted to first-run features. MGM, responding to criticism by theater owners, announced that its reissues for 1944—1945 would be priced in a lower bracket, but only “in those areas where [exhibition] operations are suffering due to the big bottleneck in key situations.” 72 By the summer of 1945, the trend was set, with dozens of reissues in circulation and another twenty announced for the beginning of the upcoming season.

Because of the overheated first-run market, the success of reissues, and decree-related selling policies, the majors all but eliminated low-budget production during the war. But B pictures remained in demand, with the number of theaters playing B’s and double bills actually increasing during the war. 74 Columbia and Universal continued to turn out B’s at roughly the same rate as before the war, as did Republic, Monogram, and PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), although all these companies produced occasional top features as well.

Thus, the entire movie market was surging during the war era, with an increase in gross box-office receipts in each successive year. After previous highs of around $730 million during the pre-Depression talkie boom of 1929—1930, the total U.S. box-office take finally surpassed that record level in 1940, reaching $740 million. That total would double by the end of the war, as these figures indicate:

There were several key reasons for this wartime surge. One was a steady climb in admission prices, which rose from an average of 250 in 1942 to 300 in 1945. 75 (These figures do not include the federal admissions tax of 10 percent, which increased to 20 percent in 1944.) Another key reason was an increase in overall admissions, which, according to MPPDA figures, rose from around 85 million in 1941 to around 95 million by 1944-1945. 76 These figures were the subject of interminable debate, and they were challenged by an April 1944 Gallup/ARI study, which gauged weekly attendance at 62 million, plus another 10 million servicemen per week in military theaters. 77 More conservative estimates put admissions at 80 million before the war and 85 million by 1944-1945. 78

The real key to the wartime box-office surge was the first-run market, which enjoyed a higher proportion of paying customers during the war than ever before, and also a higher proportion of moneymaking pictures. In 1942, 101 pictures (representing about three-fourths of all A-class releases) returned rentals of at least $1 million to their producer-distributors and took in a total of $182 million. 79 In 1943, 95 pictures did at least $1 million in rentals, returning a total of $211 million; 55 of those hits returned over $2 million. 80 By 1944, million-dollar rentals were altogether commonplace. It was becoming difficult by then to produce a top feature for less than $1 million, owing to inflation and other factors, but the first-run market was so hot that these releases were routinely recouping production costs within the first twelve weeks of general release.

Despite higher first-run admission prices, as well as the numerous road shows and special engagements which pushed prices even higher, moviegoers flocked to downtown theaters as never before during the war. They enjoyed other entertainment forms as well, with radio, music, and theater also doing record business in the later war years. 82 Historians have argued that the American public grew war-weary in 1944-1945 as the Allies struggled toward victory and the U.S. war machine cranked away at maximum output. This may have been the case, but it scarcely diminished the public’s appetite for diversion, relaxation, and the collective ritual of mass-mediated entertainment.

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