Sunday, 8 June 2014
A DAY TOO FAR: HOW THE HUBRIS OF HOLLYWOOD BURNED FINGERS
TODAY, No Grey Areas introduces another important signing - one to excite film buffs everywhere. Brian Hannan is author of The Making of Lawrence of Arabia, The Making of The Guns of Navarone, Hitchcock’s Hollywood Hell, Hitchcock at the Box Office – all of which are available in print from Amazon and Kindle. In his timely opening blog, he reminds us of how things can go wrong, even for the most famous of Hollywood executives.
IMPORTANT anniversaries have been usurped by marketers.
Accompanying last week’s 70th anniversary remembrance of the D-Day landings was a wide scale revival of The Longest Day, featuring an all-star cast including John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Sean Connery.
A Glasgow company, Park Circus Films, which is behind all those occasional big-screen showings of old favourites, has been promoting Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One, starring Lee Marvin.
More cynically, a 50th anniversary showing of Zulu has been shifted from January (when the film originally premiered in the UK) to June 9 to take advantage of the sentiment surrounding soldiering.
War is partly to blame for what appears now like an incessant rash of movie anniversaries. The first movie to take major advantage of the celebration of a historic military event was Gone With the Wind.
In 1961, to mark the centenary of the beginning of the American Civil War, MGM reissued the Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh classic.
It wasn’t the first time the movie had been reissued. It was the fourth. It had already been re-released in the US in1942, 1947 and 1954, each time sending the public back to the box office in droves.
The gap between showings was based on a Hollywood notion that a new generation of filmgoers popped up once every seven years. The film was a much bigger hit than anyone expected, one of the top ten films of the year at the box office.
Hollywood being that kind of place, everyone wanted to jump onto the reissue bandwagon with exceedingly mixed results. The idea – prevalent nowadays - that a film being ten, 25 or 50 years old was sufficient reason for a box-office rematch lacked marketing heft back in the 1960s.
But there was one significant historical event that could generate exceptional hype – D-Day. The 20th anniversary of D-Day would take place in 1964. There was only one problem. The Darryl F. Zanuck picture The Longest Day had just been released in October 1962.
It was the number three film of the year in America in 1963 and was so successful there, held over so long in the bigger cinemas, it still had not played in hundreds of small theatres.
But Zanuck thought the anniversary too good an opportunity to miss. So he curtailed the film’s release, cancelling contracts for future showings, withdrawing it from cinemas in February 1964.It had been shown in 4,400 cinemas, less than half of the expected final number.
He was not the only one to sniff the lucrative potential of the summer anniversary. One of the three main television networks offered a record $4m for the movie if it could premiere it on June 6.
Zanuck reckoned his movie was worth more and started a massive build-up to anniversary celebrations climaxing in a special showing on June 6 to a select audience of military and civilian leaders as a large-scale reissue got underway.
It was set for major cinemas in New York and Los Angeles. Nearly 500 cinemas, some of which had shown it on initial release, backed Zanuck’s judgement.
The public, it turned out, was not waiting with bated breath. Zanuck had gone a “day too far.” In all his arrogance, he had overlooked three things.
Firstly, a different perspective had been cast on war by Carl Foreman’s grittier The Victors, starring George Peppard and Albert Finney. Secondly, it went head-to-head with another reissue – David Lean’s multi-Oscar-winning Bridge on the River Kwai, which pummelled it at the box office.
Thirdly, the American public saw the tub-thumping for what it was – marketing hype. In one of Hollywood’s most catastrophic misjudgements – file under “hubris” – a film that was racing ahead of the box office pack trailed home with its tail between its legs.
The reissue barely grossed $2m, half of the box office of The Victors and Bridge on the River Kwai.
Strangely enough, that did not stop Fox taking another punt at a reissue in 1969, the 25th anniversary of D-Day, where, even more curiously, it brought in far better returns.