From the Press Democrat Business Section Sunday, September 13, 1981
“MOVIE BUSINESS IS MORE THAN SELLING TICKETS” by Dick Phillips
The ushers are coming.
That’s not the title of a new thriller movie, but a trend in the theater business designed to attract moviegoers as profits sputters and competition fires up.
“We may see things such as the return of the usher,” said Wes Porter, manager of the United Artist Theaters six-plex in Santa Rosa.
“Showmanship will keep the small, outlying theaters open when things get tougher,” Porter predicted. To improve his own business, he has installed a Dolby sound system in theater six and is studying snack bar techniques and methods to streamline crowd-handling.
“We’re also looking at adding short subjects,” he said. “As the price of tickets rise, we have to give something back to the audience. We don’t make millions in snack bar sales, but sometimes the concession means the difference between going broke and making it.”
Part of “making it” is projection room innovations at the UA-6 where one operator (per shift) runs all six projectors. Four hours of film, set up “platter-style,” can be shown per projector.
Despite such innovations to stay ahead of creeping inflation, tougher times may lie ahead for theater owners, if national figures are an indication. Last year’s box office figures slipped 9 percent from 1979 as 1.02 billion tickets were sold.
So far this year, ticket sales are the worst in a decade and film exhibiters keep their fingers crossed that Thanksgiving-Christmas period & traditionally the season’s highest-grossing period – will pull profits out of the slump.
Some coming attractions viewers can expect at the end of the year are “Mommy Dearest” the Joan Crawford story starring Faye Dunaway and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” with Meryl Streep.
Theater owners sold $2.75 billion worth of tickets last year and pocketed $600 million in concession stand sales.
Despite the significant sales, profits grow slimmer as film distributers demand larger shares of the box office grosses (as high as 90 percent) and the American movie-going habit changes.
“Television and Home Box Office opened a whole way of life that people never thought about before,” Porter said. “Things like concerts, horseback riding and plays used to be a rich man’s pleasures. Today, everybody does those things.”
Last year, 12 – 24 year olds, comprising 29 percent of the U. S. population, bought 59 percent of movie tickets.
Statistics show that 35 percent of the public never sees a theater film.
About 25 percent of the population accounts for 85 percent of total movie admissions. The top year for ticket sales remains 1946 when 4.07 billion were sold.
During the late 1940’s, before television became as popular as the toaster, the average American attended 33 movies a year.
“What the gloom forecasters don’t look at is what theaters are doing to keep alive,” said Porter, who managed the old Cal Theater in Santa Rosa in 1974-75. “We survived radio and television; we’ll make it through the rough times, too.”
Box office grosses, generally kept secret from the public, are reported daily within the industry, and competing theaters are well aware of each other’s business.
“We’re pretty close to Fresno in a business sense,” Porter said. “What plays well there will generally do well here. In some cases, I’ll even out gross San Francisco.”
The film business is a wheeling-and-dealing industry where producers try to make the best deal with the distributers and distributers offer the products to theaters – each trying to squeeze as much profit as possible.
“The film distributor has the product and he wants to know how much will you give for it?” Porter said. “Our buyer, Joe Karoty in Los Angeles, has a grapevine on new film products you wouldn’t believe. It’s like hot stocks.”
Occasionally, if a major film company has a hot movie production, it’ll seek offers from theaters in a process called blind bidding.
The theater owners don’t see the film, since it isn’t completed, and often only know who the star is, who’s directing and the basic storyline.
Generally, theater owners don’t like blind bidding because it’s risky. Money is exchanged up front to acquire the film for exhibition and the theater owner can only hope he’ll make his money back.
“Risks are taken when the deal is made,” Porter said. “Sometimes a theater will take a loss for six months to force its competition out of the market, but that’s the nature of the business.”
Two film disasters were (sic) theaters bit the bullet were “Hardcore” with George C. Scott and “Cruising” with Al Pachino (sic).
“The public places a trust in us that the film rating is right. We put an X-rating on ‘Cruising’ and we were obligated to show the film because we bid on it,” Porter said.
“We held to that rating even though it slowed down some of our business. This was a case where theater owners took a stand with the community,” he said. Porter said he received an R-rated version of the X-rated film called, “Debbie Does Dallas”.
“I screened it and called our office in San Francisco and told them what was in it and the film was pulled,” Porter said.
United Artists Theaters also banked on a film called, “A Bridge Too Far”, another box office disaster.
“’Breaker Morant’ was an excellent film, but we barely make our money back on it and the move played three weeks here,” Porter said.
But, occasionally a blockbuster hits the screen, such as George Lucas’ “Raiders of the Lost Ark” which opened here last June and remains a top draw.
“And we’re still paying 90 percent of the box office grosses to the distributer because it’s still popular,” Porter said.
In the days managing the Cal Theater, Porter launched a midnight movie program for the night owl audience that has proven successful. He carried the concept to UA theaters where it represents about one-sixth of his salary in commissions.