A friend who is a William Friedkin fan marked the 43rd anniversary of the debut of “The Exorcist” on Monday with Tweets about the world premiere at Cinema I in New York.
That started me thinking about how different it is to see a first-run movie now versus the 1970s and 1960s.
The big hit of the current Christmas season is “Rogue One” which opened on more than 4,000 screens in the United States and has already grossed over $300 million in this country alone.
When “The Exorcist” debuted Dec. 26, 1973, it opened on fewer than 30 screens. The movie business in those days was all about a very slow roll-out, with exclusive first-run engagements in a few dozen cities followed gradually by more openings around the country. A hit film could be in release for the better part of a year as it filtered down from one center city theater to a network of second and third run houses in urban neighborhoods and the suburbs.
In that pre-cable, pre-DVD, pre-streaming era, if you wanted to see a new release you had to see it in a theater, and if you wanted to see it first-run, that meant going into a city’s downtown, where you would frequently have to wait in a long line to get in. For “The Exorcist,” which was extraordinarily popular, that meant waiting through at least one showing of the movie before the line would get to the theater’s doors.
Without Moviefone and the other advance ticket services, you had to schlep to the theater and see if and when tickets were available. Once you got tickets, you then had to get in line if you wanted a shot at a decent seat. (I still remember being forced to sit in the first row at Cinema I during the exclusive premiere engagement of “Chariots of Fire” – not a pleasant experience).
At the Stage Door Cinema in downtown Philly, where I saw “The Exorcist,” there was a party atmosphere on the long line, as people talked about news reports of the film causing moviegoers to faint. You had to work harder to see new movies in those days, but anticipation was a big part of the fun. And the scarcity of tickets fueled what used to be called the “want to see” factor.
Movie studios didn’t mind getting their money back slowly in the old days, because their advertising expenses were much lower. Since a picture would only be playing in a few markets first-run, national TV advertising was never purchased. The studios built everything around print advertising and publicity and then the hope that word-of-mouth would keep a hit running for months.
Because movies opened so slowly, and didn’t need expensive national advertising support, it was easier to take chances with offbeat subject matter. Adult pictures like “Dog Day Afternoon” or “A Clockwork Orange” would take off from the PR buzz and the review and feature attention given to those films in popular national magazines like Life and Look.
“The Graduate” was such a phenomenal word-of-mouth hit in 1967 that first-run engagements lasted six months — the film was still in theatrical release at the end of 1968. The 1966 French smash “A Man and a Woman” played nearly a year in its exclusive first-run engagement at the Paris Theater in New York.
With the so-called “white flight” to the suburbs in the 1970s, and the rise of multiplex theaters, adjacent to shopping centers, movies began to open much wider in first-run, supported by national TV ads. Offbeat films that needed nurturing, like those mentioned above, were too risky to open in 1,000 theaters or more, and the studios started to hedge their bets on financing anything odd. The quick box office bonanza from a wide-release such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” caused the studios to lose interest in smaller pictures that needed special handling.
The idea of standing in line for two hours to see a movie seems ludicrous now, but it was a way of life for me and my friends growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. And we had no iPhones or tablets to kill time with while we waited!