Once a movie disappeared from U.S. theaters, it literally would not be seen again for around two years (that was the time needed for it to play in all theaters around the world). While a movie may have been out of sight, the studios worked hard to make sure it was not out of mind.
The first way was through the soundtrack album. You could buy it and listen to it on your Hi-Fi stereo, the music serving as the trigger to remember favorite scenes. Sometimes, the movie’s entire soundtrack would be released on LP and you'd listen to the movie as if listening to it on the radio.
Penning novelizations was not considered respectable work for a serious writer -- it is Annie’s profession in ANNIE HALL (1977) – just one step above ghost writing -- but many best-selling authors honed their craft doing this. John Jakes first got recognized for his novelization of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972) then went on to write the popular KENT FAMILY CHRONICLES series.
All these ways were used to tide us over till the movie premiered on network TV two years later. These were always treated as major television events. ABC premiered its new films on Sunday nights, CBS on Friday nights, and NBC on Saturday nights. You can still catch the credits for these movie shows on YouTube:
CBS Friday Night Movies
NBC Saturday Night at the Movies
Of course, it wouldn’t exactly be the same movie you saw in theaters. It would be edited to fit into a time slot. The movie would be interrupted by commercials. And any objectionable language, strong violence, or sexuality would be edited out or replaced with more acceptable dialogue. In the case of strong R-rated films, whole scenes would be replaced by brand new, less objectionable ones not in the theatrical version. The TV versions of HALLOWEEN (1978) and BLAZING SADDLES (1974) were vastly different from their theatrical prints.
The movie might play once or twice more on network TV and then disappear again. Eventually, it would show up on your local TV station either on weekend afternoons or as part of late night TV. Before FOX and CW came along, independent stations used to counter-program the networks all the time by running classic movies.
Some movies became TV perennials. THE ALAMO (1960) would show annually on 4th of July. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) became an Easter tradition (still is). NBC used to counter-program Thanksgiving football by showing a rarely seen major hit movie from its vaults. That’s how I first saw WEST SIDE STORY (1961) and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966).
But nothing was ever as big as THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939). From 1956 to 1998, CBS showed this classic once a year and America stopped to watch each time it came on. It was always one of the highest rated events of the year with over half the country watching.
All of this is gone now. Why buy a novelization when you can own the actual movie? Why watch a cut up version on network TV when you can see the film uncut and without commercials on HBO or Netflix?
And while it is great that we can buy a movie (first on VHS then on laser disc and now on DVD and Blu-Ray) months after its theatrical release, the fact that we can now watch our favorite films as often as we wish, there is still something missing.
Movies have gone from being an event that we traveled to see or stopped everything to watch on TV to background noise for our distracted, multi-tasked lives. The fact that we can watch them anytime we wish often means we don’t watch them at all anymore. And when we do, they rarely command our full attention.
It makes me sad.