The Movie Pushers
Behind the scenes at the Dallas Film Exchange: What they like is what we get.
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A FEW YEARS AGO A movie I had been waiting quite a while to see finally arrived at a theater in Houston. The day it was to open I had to leave town and wasn’t able to make it back for two weeks. I opened the paper and was greatly relieved to discover that my movie was now entering its “THIRD SMASH WEEK.” That night, a Friday, convinced there was going to be trouble getting tickets, I goaded a friend into limiting her dinner to a single harried bite of cheese, then careened, my car nearly out of control, to the theater. We were the first people to buy tickets, and we waited for 35 minutes, ears assaulted all the while by chintzy muzak, while the night’s nine other patrons drifted in one by one. I was wrong about the movie, too, as my friend pointed out through tightly clenched, cheese-encrusted teeth.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. A month or so later she wanted to go to a particular movie. I had driven by the theater the night before and seen a line from the box office to the Gulf of Mexico. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “Remember that dud that was here for three weeks? This one’s going to be playing for years.” A few days later, not even pretending to eat this time, I burned through most of the tread on my tires getting to the theater only to discover that her film had been replaced by a minor opus starring Fabian, an actor, she informed me through those same clenched teeth, who was not among her favorites.
A while later she had the good sense to go start a movie-less life on a homestead in Alaska, and left me wondering, among other things, what perverse logic made movie theaters and distributors do the things they do. Not long ago, I tried to find out.
SID PAGE IS TALKING A lot without saying much. As he talks, he smiles. If you think it’s easy to smile while you talk, try it. Sid Page can do it effortlessly. After 25 years in the movie business, he’s had plenty of practice. Right now he works in Dallas for National General Theaters.
Sid is tall, sleek, about 50. Though friendly, he’s not particularly warm; though smiling, not especially jovial. Except for his silver hair, he resembles Milton Berle right down to his slightly protruding front teeth. A large diamond ring sparkles on his left hand. He has settled in behind his desk after assuring me that he is ready to tell me anything I want to know.
How do movies get distributed? “Well, now that,” Sid says, “is a very complicated business.” There was a time, he explains, when it was simpler. In the good old days, when there was just a handful of important studios, the studios owned their own theaters and played their films there. The studios also had all the big stars under contract and sent them whistle-stopping around the country to plug their films. One company could handle everything from production to promotion to distribution. But anti-trust litigation, rebellion of the stars and changes in public taste changed all that.
“Today there aren’t any rules,” Sid says. “You name it, that’s the way it’s done. It’s all negotiation, confrontation, and friendship.”
Friendship? “Yes.” Smile.
What if two different theaters want to show the same film? “That,” Sid says, positively beaming, “is a highly technical question. Very hard to explain.” He pauses for a moment. “Let me put it this way. If a doctor told you in medical language what was wrong with you, do you think you could understand him?”
Couldn’t the doctor explain it in understandable language? “You mean layman’s terms? I guess so. When two theaters want to show the same film. ..” Sid ponders for a moment, staring down at his desk, then looks up with an air of self-satisfaction. “In that case, we do the best we can!”
While leaving, I wished that we hadn’t wasted each other’s time; but I came to discover that in his own carefully unilluminating way, Sid was pretty much telling the truth. People in the movie industry, particularly in the distribution and exhibition end of it, are, if not always friendly, at least clannish. And distributing movies to the theaters in Texas is a complicated process, although the bare mechanics of it are simpler than Sid would have us believe.
In Texas nearly every movie plays where and when it plays as a result of decisions made in Dallas. Every major film distributor and many not so major are there, as well as film bookers, or buyers, who among them represent nearly all the movie theaters in the state. Together the distributors and bookers participate in what is known as a film exchange, a loose organization— really just a set of procedures—for agents of movie distributors and exhibitors to hash through their business. The Dallas exchange is responsible for booking movies throughout Texas and in parts of neighboring states.
When a new movie comes along, and come along new movies invariably do, the producer contracts with a distributor whose first decision is whether or not to distribute in Texas at all. Well, it may not be the first decision he has to make; nevertheless, everyone has to make a decision about Texas sooner or later and film distributors are no exception.
If the movie is a Western, rest assured that it will play, and play, in Texas. Even a Western that has already bombed on the East and West coasts can arouse considerable interest in theater owners here. It may be that New Yorkers can’t recognize a good Western even when it bites the dust in front of them; or it may be that Texans are drawn to Western movies as ghosts are drawn to places they once lived. In any event Westerns have consistently done well here, and no distributor needs to be told to take advantage of the situation.
A distributor may decide not to try to sell a film here if the film has done very poorly in other markets or if the film is foreign made. No matter how highly acclaimed critically or financially successful elsewhere, or both, foreign movies are rarely profitable to show in Texas (with the important exception of Spanish language films from Mexico). Both distributors and exhibitors have learned to shy away from foreign films entirely or to book them only in certain theaters, for example one near a university.
But other than the proclivity toward Westerns and the antipathy toward imports, Texas audiences, at least in the urban areas, tend to have pretty much the same taste as audiences anywhere else in America. Consequently, the national distributor wanting to place his film in Texas markets will contact, through his representative in Dallas, the bookers representing the various theater owners and ask for bids. The bookers, if they want the film for one or more of their theaters, will offer a bid containing some combination of percentage split, front money, and guaranteed playing time. They can also offer additional frills like special promotion or a showing in an especially popular or prestigious theater.
The distributor, after consulting with his home office, generally either in Los Angeles or New York, sells the film to the theater whose booker has made the most attractive offer. A man could say it’s that simple, but that same man would probably say poker is simple—all you have to know is two pair beats a pair, trips beat two pair, a straight beats…
For the Dallas film exchange is something like a poker game, a game in which the distributor holds most of the chips. His primary advantage is that a theater owner must have a film to show every day he wants to open, and there aren’t enough films made to satisfy that demand. Sometimes a theater owner has to keep playing a movie which has turned out to be a dog just because he couldn’t get another film to replace it. That’s when the “Held Over By Popular Demand” ads start appearing in the newspaper; but the demand, in this case, is not from the public but from other theaters which have demanded the popular films first. Other times the reverse happens. The owner books a film for a week only to discover that he has to turn people away night after night. At the end of the week he may have to let the film go since it has been booked for the next week by another theater .
Some of this confusion might be avoided if the theater’s booking agents always knew what they were bidding on. Most of the time they must decide how much they are willing to pay for a film, how much front money they will put up, how long a run they will guarantee, without having seen the film. It is not at all unusual for them to be required to bid on a film that has not been completed or on one not even cast.
To do this kind of bidding the bidder has to rely on reports from trade publications, on past successes or failures of the producer, director, and stars if they have been chosen, and on his knowledge of the source of the movie if it happens to be based on, say, a bestseller. Still, it’s rather like betting in stud poker on rumors about your opponents’ up cards. It’s true that the broker may cancel his bid anytime within 48 hours after he has had a chance to see the film, but that means he’s going to have to find another one to replace it, which may not be all that easy to do.
The bookers’ biggest problem though, when all is said and done, is gauging the public taste. Last year about 275 pictures were released in the United States; but only 71, or roughly one movie in four, netted a million dollars or more. Allan Dillon, who books for United Artists Theater Circuit from the Dallas exchange, says that of those 71 movies, some may not do particularly well in Texas as a whole or may do well in some places and not in others.
“Take The Poseidon Adventure for example,” says Dillon of a movie that across the country is making money hand over fist, “We sent it out to some of our theaters and they wanted to know ‘How come you’re sending us this movie about an upsidedown ship?'”
Dillon believes that, generally speaking, audiences in Texas’ urban areas have tastes closer to those of the West coast than the East, only “we’re about four years behind.”
Even farther behind must be the audiences that patronize the theaters booked by Forrest White of the Ind-ex Booking Service. He deals with drive-ins located in such exotic movie markets as Coleman, Mineral Wells, Muleshoe, and Brenham. Mr. White has been in this business since 1937. He’s a thin, white-haired, reedy-voiced old gentleman who likes to smoke cigars as thick as a man’s wrist. He is prone to burst into high-pitched laughter that seems to take control of him making his eyes water, and coming to an end gradually as it runs out of inertia, like an automobile coasting to a stop.
His business has its special problems. “I can’t book movies with too much sex,” he says lighting another cigar. “My customers tell me ‘Send G pictures.’ So I send a G picture and they lose money. Then I book another G, and they lose money again. Then they call me. ‘Forrest, why don’t you send me an R?'”
“I can’t send black pictures out there either,” he says. “Nothing like Shaft or Superfly. The owners don’t want a majority of blacks coming to their theater. And I can’t have too much violence. If I book some horror features, I have to wait three or four weeks to book more or there’ll be complaints.”
Forrest White’s is not a good business for a young man to enter. “Used to be we could play movies in small towns when it came our turn. Now they sell ’em to TV before we have a chance to bid.” He lights another cigar, the smoke rising and hanging in clouds near the ceiling. “The young kids, when they want to see a movie, just hop in their car and drive to the city. When a good movie does come along, the distributors want such a big cut that we can’t play it. Just one of my theaters got The Godfather and they had to raise admission to make it.” He shrugs, puffs on his cigar. “The distributors milk the small towns dry.”
The distributors would answer that they are simply trying to do their job, which is making the most money possible from every film. If there’s more profit in a TV sale than in selling to drive-ins, and there usually is, then TV it’s going to be.
Making the most money from a movie in a particular market may be simply showing the movie in the theater that has bid the most money, doing some promotion, and letting the chips flow in. But it seldom works like that. In spite of whatever advantages the distributor may have, there are hazards he must consider as he makes his plays. He must decide how to offer the picture to the bookers: as an exclusive showing in only one or two theaters in an area, or as a multiple showing in the ten or so different theaters that make the best bids. It’s a crucial decision. The interest in certain films, The Last Tango in Paris for example, might quickly dissipate if people opened their morning newspaper and discovered that the film was playing in neighborhood theaters all over town. Yet even a low budget horror movie, or perhaps especially a low budget horror movie, can do quite well with multiple bookings and energetic promotion. In this case, the number of houses showing the film tends to increase interest both at the breakfast table and the box office.
Deciding which bid to accept can require some subtle considerations. Lloyd Edwards, who has worked in Dallas for 20th Century Fox over 20 years, says he “accepts the best money offer which will maintain the status the film deserves.” But status goes deeper than matching an expensive film with an expensive theater. “I put Sounder into a small, intimate theater,” Edwards explains, “because it’s a subtle, quiet film. It would have gotten lost in a larger house.”
What happens if no one bids on a film? “Then,” Edwards says, “I have to go peddling. I look up my friends.” Remember friendship?
That friendship, though it certainly exists, can’t extend too far. Because of anti-trust laws and court decisions made during the late forties, motion picture distributors are prevented from owning their own theaters. The bidding system was established so that each theater could have a fair chance to show the movies that are produced. Also gone with the wind are the days of block booking, when a distributor offered movies in blocks of ten or twelve. In order to get the two or three good movies in the package, the theater had to agree to show them all. The dross were often cheap imports which didn’t draw and had, in those days, the additional danger of bringing on a bust.
Nevertheless, independently owned theater chains have risen to fill the vacuum left by the courts’ decisions. In Texas there are about 1000 movie theaters but only 350 or so individual owners. The Republic Circuit, owned by Gordon McLendon, operates theaters with close to 40 separate screens. In Texas cities there are still some owners of just one or two theaters, but their days appear to be numbered.
Corresponding to the block bookings of yesterday are the multi-cinemas, theaters with more than one screen under the same roof, which are becoming the rule rather than the exception. Not only can the multi-cinema owner show several films for roughly the same overhead it would cost him to show one, but he can match, say, an R movie with a Disney. Parents shove the kids into the Disney while the big folks go watch the R. Or maybe it works vice versa. An otherwise mediocre draw, when matched with a popular film, may do quite well in a multi-cinema. The overflow, not able to get into the popular film, spills into the second film muttering, “Well, as long as we’re here already…” The multi-cinema in Dallas which showed The Poseidon Adventure did quite well running Pete ‘n Tillie to an audience of castaways from the good ship Poseidon.
The multi-cinemas, successful as they are, have not solved all the problems of theater owners, particularly those with one theater or just a few theaters in a single city. They have a hard time getting a break from the distributors since the distributors, by dealing with a chain, can (according to Hal Cheetham, a Dallas advertising executive with long experience in the movie industry) arrange numerous bookings by one meeting and one contract rather than by dealing with individual owner after individual owner. Since a chain may be paying a different rate for a movie in different towns, it is running on the inside track when bidding against other theaters in the town. Nor do the chains like anyone meddling in their business. No one at McLendon’s Republic would talk to a reporter and Interstate’s Conrad Brady positively snarled when contacted by telephone.
But both the chains and the independents suffer from the contractual agreements demanded by distributors. For a potentially top drawing film the theater may have to contract for a 90-10 split as well as advancing a sizeable cash guarantee. (Guess who gets the 90 per cent.) Charles Paine, president of Tercar Theaters which owns several theaters in Houston, including the Windsor, tells this story: “To get Mary, Queen of Scots I put up a $55,000 guarantee and I didn’t take in nearly that much at the box office. Now when the next money maker came along the distributor didn’t come to me and say, ‘Charlie, boy, I know you took a bath on that last one so I’m going to give you a break on this one.'”
Sometimes, instead of a percentage split, the distributor will want what is known as a “four walled” deal. The distributor in effect rents the theater for whatever the owner will agree to, leaving the owner whatever he may make from concessions and keeping 100 per cent of the box office receipts. Frequently these are the terms under which hunting movies like African Safari are shown. But major distributors are starting to consider the four walled deal for showing major films. The Last Tango in Paris may be shown in Texas under such an arrangement. Paine complains that the four walled deal prevents the owner from making back his losses when a successful film arrives. He says that the distributors play off one theater against another so that the amount of rent the theater receives, even for an important film, can be astonishingly low.
The economics of film booking are such that modern theaters could not survive without the income from their concessions. Drive-ins have already expanded their once dilapidated concession stands into what are really restaurants, and indoor theaters may be following suit quickly enough. Since more than 70 per cent of Texas moviegoers are under 25, theaters are really, at least when profits are considered, running a snack shop for the young crowd.
Movie houses and their representative organization, The National Association of Theater Owners ( they answer the phone “NATO!”) have been looking for many years for a new gimmick that will get people out of their homes and through the turnstiles. Of particular interest to NATO are the dinner theaters which have been a great success throughout Texas. Movie people feel they’re going to have to find something to compete with a threat they have known was coming since the early fifties: cable television.
“Even back then, we knew we could not put it off forever,” says Kyle Rorex, NATO’s executive director in Texas; “but we decided to stall it as long as we could.” Not much help has come from the rest of the industry. “The studios,” Rorex adds dismally, “sold us out long ago.”
It’s not surprising that they did. Movie patronage is declining while preparing films for national distribution is becoming constantly more expensive. A single print of a movie can cost as much as $3000. To supply theaters across the country 100 or even more prints are necessary. With cable TV, the studio needs only one print, one ad campaign, and no distributors to reach an immense audience that doesn’t need to leave its easy chair.
If theaters haven’t found something new by the time cable TV becomes a national pastime, many owners will have to close and the players in the elaborate poker game of film distribution and exhibition will have to throw in their hands and cash in whatever chips they’ve got left.