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eat this time, I burned through most of the tread on my tires getting to the theater only to discover that her film had been replaced by a minor opus starring Fabian, an actor, she informed me through those same clenched teeth, who was not among her favorites.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.