Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Producer Also Rises

In the motion picture years B.A. (Before Auteurs, pre-1954), other folks not only had a role in making movies besides directors, but in many cases contributed to their success. Many sources note that Casablanca’s classic last line, "Louis, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship" was thought of by producer Hal Wallis, who called Humphrey Bogart back into a sound studio after the film was cut to dub it into the film.

This week, the motion picture industry lost one its best producers, 93-year-old David Brown, whose long Broadway and Hollywood career boasts of stage and film versions of The Sweet Smell of Success and A Few Good Men. In 1972, with his then brand new producing partner, Richard Zanuck, he produced the wildly successful film The Sting. And—according to PRNewswire (Feb. 1, 2010)—Brown gets credit for bringing Elvis Presley to the big screen for the first time, in Love Me Tender, and talking George C. Scott into playing Patton.

But to me, the single most important achievement of David Brown’s producing career was hiring a very young Steven Spielberg to direct the adaptation of the popular suspense novel, Jaws.

Zanuck/Brown Productions launched Spielberg’s film career, backing him on the 1974 low-budget car chase film, The Sugarland Express¸ with Goldie Hawn. Brown actually had to convince the novice feature film director to sign on for Jaws because Spielberg wanted to make more art-type films rather than crass, Hollywood moneymaking movies. Can't blame him for that, but it seemed to have worked out for him.

But while launching Spielberg’s career has had to me a very positive impact on the movies, it was the epistemological shift that Brown and Zanuck unleashed on Hollywood with how Jaws was released that makes David Brown of greater importance to me.

Before Jaws, but after the heyday of picture palaces, movies--even the big, expensive ones--were released first to maybe a couple theaters in the big cities, gaining reviews, word of mouth; until they got “traction.” Then, once a film got some “legs,” it would be released in a dozen or more cities and towns over a few week period and after five, six weeks, it would get a general release and in most cases play for weeks at the same theaters.

But the film David Brown and Richard Zanuck produced for Universal Pictures changed all of that and, in the process, changed Hollywood. The history, as posted on Wikipedia, goes like this:

"Jaws was the first film to use studio executive Sid Sheinberg's scheme of "wide release" as a distribution pattern … Some films eventually achieved a wide release, such as The Godfatherbut even that blockbuster had originally debuted in just five theaters.
"Jaws was the first film to open nationwide, on hundreds of screens simultaneously, coupled with a national marketing campaign—a then-unheard of practice. Scheinberg's rationale was that nationwide marketing costs would be amortized at a more favorable rate per print than if a [traditionally] slow, scaled release were carried out. Scheinberg's gamble paid off, with Jaws becoming a box office smash hit, giving the phenomenon the term BLOCKBUSTER; Jaws became the father of the blockbuster, especially the summer variety. Following the success of Jaws, major studio films have almost universally been distributed and marketed on a national scale.
"When Jaws was released, on June 20, 1975, it opened at 465 theaters. The release was subsequently expanded on July 25 to a total of 675 theaters, the largest simultaneous distribution of a film in motion picture history at the time. During the first weekend of wide release, Jaws grossed more than $7 million, and was the top grosser for the following five weeks ... [and] eventually grossed more than $470 million worldwide ($1.9 billion in 2008 dollars) ... Jaws and Star Wars [1977] are retrospectively considered to have marked the beginning of the new and current business model in Hollywood."

For comparison, 35 years later, the industry magazine "The Hollywood Reporter" reports that James Cameron's Avatar opened in december 2009 on 14,604 screens in 106 territories, soaring to No. 1 earning $165.5 million in its opening five days.

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