Monday 1 March 2021

The Exhibitor Faith Index - Scholar Dean Brandum provides an extraordinary snapshot of what Australians liked at the movies in 1950

As someone fascinated by box office data, it has long saddened my that there is little in the way of historical records for the performance of films in the Australian Market. For recent years there is, of course, a wealth of accurate information but the further we go back in time the less available and reliable it becomes. Thankfully
 Variety did offer some sparse but valuable reporting throughout the 70s and 80s but before that there is next to nothing that can provide a reasonable snapshot of what the public were (or not) paying to see. Film Weekly remains a crucial resource for snippets of information and anecdotal reporting of how films were faring in city theatres, but accurate representations are still frustratingly elusive. It does not help that (thank you Hoyts!) much of the business records of the major theatre companies were destroyed many years ago. 

Several years ago I completed a PhD that examined the experience of British films at the US box office in the 1960s with a focus on how the films performed at individual venues in a couple of key US cities. In a nutshell, rather than measuring their ‘success’ in terms of profit / loss for their producers and distributors, my thesis dealt with how they performed for the exhibitors – ie: within the data set of theatres, did British films enjoy higher grosses then their US and foreign counterparts? As each venue had a different audience demographic, seating capacity and profitability requirements there was little use in comparing one to another, therefore the thesis utilised what I called ‘horizontal evaluation’ in that the comparison was between the films that played in the same venue within a calendar year. 

Since then the notion of success for the exhibitor has continued to intrigue me. For the PhD I was fortunate in that Variety, in the 1960s, carried a weekly rundown of box office grosses of hundreds of individual venues across the United States. Sadly, no such records exist for Australia so no such horizontal evaluation is possible. Instead, what is publicly available is the superb archive that is Trove by which the National Library of Australia has made available a number of newspapers, splendidly scanned and, for the most part, accurately searchable. This is a genuine goldmine for historians and something for which the NLA should be proud of as it is not just world class – it sets a standard of quality. 

What Trove does provide is a thorough recording of the suburban playdates of films throughout much of Australia. With that at hand, was it possible to create something from this information, to find a value and meaning? I thought I would find out. 

I picked the year 1950 on a whim – the information was readily available on Troveand it was of a time when the number of individual venues was at its highest. Within the dataset there are 45 venues advertised as ‘Independent’ (usually aligned with Union’s distributors including MGM, Paramount, Columbia and British Empire Films), 27 as ‘suburban’ (officially aligned with no major chain but a number did appear to either exist on either Union or Hoyts product) and 38 Hoyts houses (usually Warners, Fox, RKO, Disney, Universal and United Artists). 

I recorded every screening that appeared on a Saturday and the following Tuesday of each week, beginning on Saturday, 7th January 1950 and ending Monday, 24th December 1951 (as Tuesday was Christmas day and cinemas were closed – as a note, this was done on a couple of occasions due to public holidays). Thereby 52 weeks of each film released into the suburbs in 1950 would be accounted for – a full year on suburban screens. 

How many engagements were logged into the database? Over 20,000. 

How many individual ‘slots’ (ie: mostly four per week on screens running a full week – double feature Saturday & double feature Tuesday)? 41,535.

Naturally this number included films within the bill that were released to the suburbs in 1949 and those released to the suburbs in 1951. These were discounted. So were older catalogue items that were often used to fill the second half of a bill. However, if a particular film had a genuine re-issue, it was counted within the dataset. In total, what was left was 18,368 ‘slots’ taken by 355 titles released to suburban theatres in 1950 (note – this does NOT include titles screened in the city on exclusive release in 1950, but hitting the suburbs in 1951. Conversely, it DOES include city releases from 1949 that came to the suburbs in 1950). The analysis within this site concerns these titles. 

So, after a long period of transcribing, it was apparent that there were patterns of interest appearing. Firstly, it was clear just how prevalent the weekly ‘split’ was. That is, in suburban venues, how often a week’s engagements would (usually) be a highly popular double feature on a Saturday night (beginning Friday and lasting through to the Monday – no Sunday Screenings at the time) and a less enticing double running Tuesday – Thursday. Therefore, it seemed that an appropriate weighting was required to gauge the ‘value’ of each slot. The chart below explains the weighting. 

To put it simply, a week is worth twelve points. Any film to scoop those twelve points will have to play, on its own (as a FO – Feature Only presentation) for the full ‘week’ (observed Saturday and Tuesday). If it was a week long double feature, the top-billed film would receive 9 points and the support 3. For a Saturday double feature the split is 6/2 and for Tuesdays it is 3/1. 

I have based this on the notion that of a double feature, 75% of audiences would be interested in seeing the main feature and only 25% the support. This may seem odd, considering that the studios of the the time were producing genuine A and B features – surely the audiences’ interest would be in the A feature, certainly to a degree more than 75%? Perhaps a 90/10 split would be accurate? That is true, however this does not account for the number of mid-tier engagements that included two titles (say a western and a comedy) that were regularly played together and could be ‘flipped’ depending upon audience preference at that particular venue. These engagements were probably closer to 50/50. This was not a judgement call I was willing to make. So for a degree of fairness, the first – bill : second – bill split is 75:25 in order to account for these issues. 

The other crucial difference is the weighting given to Saturday engagements compared to those on a Tuesday. The earlier day (Saturday) has traditionally been seen as the most popular of the week for distributors, the Tuesday the weakest. Therefore, for this metric a Saturday (total 8 points) is worth twice as much as a Tuesday (total 4 points). One may argue with this determination, but it is what I have used. 

Below is the final determination of that data – it represents what I call the “Exhibitor Faith Index”. That is, the positioning individual exhibitors gave to each to each film. Is it a replication of box office takings? No, not exactly, instead it is an a illustration of the potential the collective exhibitors provided to each film to engage an audience. Therefore, the Clifton Hill cinema screening an engagement for a full week (in its sixth week of suburban release) is valued just as highly as the St. Kilda Victory screening that same engagement for a full week (on its opening). Of course, the Victory is going to nab more tickets that the Eltham, but I doubt whether the manager of the Eltham cinema cared about that. For he / she was worried only about their own venue’s viability and therefore, the tickets sold there. This metric is based on scope provided for a film to succeed, not its final box-office takings. And yes I am aware that certain contractual obligations needed to be fulfilled but until that evidence is clear, this is what we have. 

So, after that long winded exposition, here are the ‘Exhibitor Faith’ rankings of 1950:

Due to space restrictions I have Included the title, Chain it was mostly exhibited through, Country of origin, distributor, Exhibitor Faith points, number of engagements, whether it was feature only, Saturday observation, Tuesday observation, first billing or second billing. 

To access the full chart of the Index from #1 Larry Parks in The Jolson Story  to # 355 The Hopalong Cassidy picture Strange Gamble  you will need to  CLICK HERE and scroll through the text to the table at the foot. Unfortunatly this blogspot format wont allow it to be reproduced in any readable form.

A deeper dive of this will come and for the performance of individual titles IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER, look here.

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