Before there were iPads and iPods, before Netflix and DVDs and laser discs and VHS tapes, people had no control over where, when, or how they got to see a movie. Everyone understood this and everyone knew the pattern when a movie got released. So how did it work?
Major movies did not immediately show up at a theater near you. Maybe eventually they would but only months after the fact. Instead, they would get what was called a “Roadshow release” (something reserved for expensive, epic, or Oscar-worthy films). The movies would first show only in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. After a few weeks there, they would play one theater in each major city across the country. You actually had to travel to see the movie. Some of the earliest memories of my Indiana childhood are of being left with a babysitter while my parents drove down to Indianapolis to see Roadshow screenings of How The West Was Won (1963) , My Fair Lady (1964) , The Sound of Music (1965), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
Ticket prices were a few dollars more than usual. You would have to reserve your tickets in advance just like going to a play and you were actually assigned a seat in the theater. Souvenir programs and the soundtrack album could be purchased in the lobby. The movie always had an overture, an intermission, and exit music when you walked out. Depending on how successful it was, a movie could stay in Roadshow release for months on end.
Once a Roadshow movie was put into general release, it often was edited down. The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), The Alamo (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were each trimmed by a half hour for their general release. Greatest Story Ever Told went from 3 hours 42 minutes for its NY and LA premiere to 3 hours 19 minutes for its Roadshow release to 2 hours 21 minutes for its general release. Often times, the cut footage would not be restored even when the movie was shown later on TV. The only way to ensure you ever saw the whole film was to go to a Roadshow screening.
By the late 1960s, resistance to the increased ticket prices and a lack of quality films made Roadshow releases fall out of fashion. They were gone entirely by the early 1970s. Sending a movie straight into General Release became the norm..
General Release meant the movie premiered in theaters around the country at the same time. Most major cities had around a dozen movie theaters; medium-sized cities had 2-3; and each theater in town had its own unique specialty. Major releases would play in a town’s First Run Theaters. When I lived in Charleston WV, blockbuster hits like Jaws, The Towering Inferno, and Star Wars played at the large Capitol Theater. The other First Run theaters were Plaza East Cinemas 1 & 2, the Village Theater, and the Virginian Theater. Family films (and Disney films in particular) always played at the Kearse Theater, once the major vaudeville house in town. In large cities, foreign films and independent features would play at the local “Art House” theater – usually not so opulent and a little shabby.
Even how people attended the movies was different. You didn’t show up for a particular showing. You went to the movies regardless of what time the movie started. You may walk in a half hour into a movie or an hour. You then watched the film to the end, waited for it to start again and watched until you got to the scene where you first came in. The candy counter served up only soda, popcorn, and candy.
How long a movie stayed in the First Run theaters depended entirely on how big a hit it was. Huge hits could stay in theaters for months. E.T. opened in June 1982 and was still playing in first run theaters at Christmas. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was still in first run theaters a year after its release.
If you liked a film, you rushed back to see it many times because you wouldn’t know when you could see it again. If a movie was not a hit, it most often left the first run theater after two weeks and disappeared seemingly forever.
Hit movies would find themselves transferred over to the so-called Second Run theaters. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss those (now extinct) types of theaters which included Family Theaters, Art House Theaters, Revival Theaters, Drive In Theaters, and, Blue or Adult Entertainment theaters (yes, porn used to play in theaters!).
TOMORROW - PART II: SECOND RUN THEATERS & DRIVE IN MOVIES
WHY THIS SONG OF THE DAY?
Such Great Heights by Iron & Wine
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