Roadshow theatrical release
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A roadshow theatrical release (known also as reserved seat engagement) was a term in the motion picture industry for a practice in which a film opened in a limited number of theaters in large cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and other major cities around the world for a specific period of time before the nationwide general release. Although variants of roadshow releases occasionally still exist, the practice mostly ended in the early 1970s.
As far as is known, virtually all of the films given roadshow releases were subsequently distributed to regular movie theatres. This was called a general release, and was akin to the modern-day wide release of a film. However, there are five important differences between a roadshow presentation of a film and today's limited releases:
- Roadshow theatrical releases almost always placed a ten to fifteen-minute intermission between the two "acts" of the film, and the first act was frequently longer than the second.
- Films shown as roadshow releases, especially those made between 1952 and 1974, were nearly always longer than the usual motion picture, lasting anywhere from slightly more than two hours to four hours or more, counting the intermission. Examples include Ben-Hur (1959), or Cleopatra (1963). There were no short subjects accompanying the film, and rarely any movie trailers.
- Roadshow presentations were always shown on a one or two-performance a day, reserved seat basis, and admission prices were always higher than those of regular screenings. Unlike today's limited releases, seats had to be reserved; one could not simply buy a ticket at the box office and go in to watch the film. The two-performance-a-day screenings were usually limited to Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. During the rest of the week, the films would be shown only once a day. (However, in the case of Oklahoma!, there were three showings a day of the film on weekends, rather than two.)
- Souvenir programs were often available at roadshow presentations of films, much as souvenir programs are made available when one goes to see the stage version of a play or musical. These movie souvenir programs contained photos from the film, photos and biographies of its cast and principal crew, and information on how the film was made, rather like today's "extras" on DVDs.
- In the days of frequent roadshow releases, production companies and film distributors never used them to determine whether or not a film should be given a wide release, as is done today occasionally when films perform poorly at the box office. From the 1920s to the mid-1970s, a roadshow release would always play widely after its original engagements. This was true even of box office flops.
1910s to 1951
The roadshow format had been used since the days of silent films, but the rise of widescreen and stereophonic sound in the 1950s made it especially attractive to studio executives, who hoped to lure audiences away from television by presenting films in a way that an audience at that time could never hope to see at home. Possibly, the first film ever shown in a roadshow engagement was the French film Les Amours de la reine Elisabeth in America in 1912, a 53-minute motion picture which starred the legendary stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. Films shown in roadshow format before 1951 included silent epics such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), The Covered Wagon (1923), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Ten Commandments (1923), Ben-Hur (1925), The Big Parade (1925), and other films, such as the first Oscar winner Wings (1927), the very first feature length part-talkie The Jazz Singer (1927), the silent film Chicago (1927) (based on the play that inspired the Kander and Ebb Broadway musical and Oscar-winning film), Show Boat (1929) (a part-talkie based not on the 1927 stage musical but on Edna Ferber's original novel from which the musical was adapted), The Desert Song (1929), Rio Rita (also 1929), Howard Hughes's World War I drama Hell's Angels (1930), Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932), the all-star Oscar-winning Grand Hotel (1932), the Oscar-winning biopic The Great Ziegfeld (1936), the fictionalized historical epic about the great Chicago fire In Old Chicago (1937), the classic films Lost Horizon (1937), Gone with the Wind (1939), Fantasia (1940), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and The Song of Bernadette (1943), the 1943 wartime musical revue This Is the Army (shown in roadshow format only in its initial run), the wartime tear-jerker Since You Went Away (1944), Samuel Goldwyn's Oscar-winning postwar epic The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), the flamboyant Western Duel in the Sun (also 1946), the O'Neill adaptation Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), the biopic-spectacle Joan of Arc starring Ingrid Bergman (1948), and DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949). British films that were shown as roadshow attractions included the Olivier Shakespeare adaptations Henry V (1944 in England and 1946 in the U.S.) and Hamlet (1948), as well as the ballet film The Red Shoes (1948). Warner Brothers' A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), the first sound film version of the Shakespeare play, was also given a roadshow release, as was the 1951 religious epic Quo Vadis. However, the theatre exhibitors of Quo Vadis took the unusual step of opening the film in two New York theatres simultaneously, where it was shown in roadshow format in one theatre, while the other one ran the nearly three-hour film in the more conventional, "continuous performances" manner.
In a roadshow release, an often large-scale epic film would open in larger cities in an engagement much like a theatrical play or musical, often with components such as an overture, the first act, the intermission, the entr'acte, the second act, and the exit music. The overture should not be confused with the main title music. The overture, recorded on film without a picture (and years later, on tape), was always played before the beginning of the film, while the lights were still up and the curtains were still closed. (Most movie theatres until the 1980s had curtains which covered the screen, and which would open when the show actually began.) As the lights dimmed, the overture ended, the curtains opened, and the film began with its main title music and opening credits. Likewise, the exit music should not be confused with the end title music. The exit music, also recorded without a picture on film, was always played after the end of the film, while the lights were up and the curtains were closed. As the lights came on, the end title music ended, the curtains closed, and the exit music began.
An early example of this was Gone with the Wind (1939). Running almost four hours in length, the film was divided into the above components, so that the film patron can experience the film as if they were seeing an actual play in a theater.
The original theatrical release of Walt Disney's Fantasia, presented in Fantasound in selected large cities in the United States, never had an overture, intermission music, or exit music. Still, Fantasia was first released in the roadshow format, included an intermission in its first run, and was originally presented without on-screen credits to perpetuate a concert-going experience—the printed souvenir program, given out to patrons as they entered the theater, presented the film's credits.
The original New York run of the English-language film Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), starring Jose Ferrer and based on Edmond Rostand's 1897 French play, was likewise presented in a roadshow format (that is, one or two performances a day), although the film is only two hours long, was not produced on a large budget, and does not contain an intermission. The 1951 "Show Boat" was also shown in a roadshow format in some theatres, despite being less than two hours long, and not having an intermission, overture, entr'acte, or exit music.
1950s to 1970s
With the rise of television, beginning in 1952 and continuing through the early 1970s, studios tried to bring movie audiences back to theatres by making widescreen epics, again using the "roadshow" formula. (Films shot in 3D sometimes were also shown in a roadshow format.) As a result, there was an avalanche of roadshow films during those decades, often more than one in a single year. Among them were This Is Cinerama (1952), The Robe (1953), Oklahoma! (1955), Richard III (1955), Cinerama Holiday (1955), Helen of Troy (1956), War and Peace (1956), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Ten Commandments (1956), Seven Wonders of the World (1956), Giant (1956), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Raintree County (1957), Search for Paradise (1957), Windjammer (1958), South Pacific (1958), South Seas Adventure (1958), The Big Country (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Ben-Hur (1959), Sleeping Beauty (1959) (an animated feature only seventy-five minutes long with no intermission), The Alamo (1960), Spartacus (1960), Exodus (1960), Can-Can (1960), Scent of Mystery (1961), El Cid (1961), Barabbas (1961), King of Kings (1961), The Guns of Navarone (1961), (shown only occasionally in roadshow format), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), The Longest Day (1962), It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), The Cardinal (1963), Cleopatra (1963), Hamlet (1964), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), The Carpetbaggers (1964), My Fair Lady (1964), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Othello (1965), Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Great Race (1965), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Battle of the Bulge (1965), Khartoum (1966), Cinerama's Russian Adventure (1966), Hawaii (1966), The Blue Max (1966), Grand Prix (1966), Half a Sixpence (1967), Camelot (1967), Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), The Happiest Millionaire (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), The Lion in Winter (1968), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Oliver! (1968), Romeo and Juliet (1968), Finian's Rainbow (1968), Where Eagles Dare (1968), Star! (1968), Funny Girl (1968), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Paint Your Wagon (1969), Sweet Charity (1969), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), Hello, Dolly! (1969), Ryan's Daughter (1970), The Adventurers (1970), Patton (1970), Song of Norway (1970), Darling Lili (1970), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Young Winston (1972), The Great Waltz (1972), The Cowboys (1972), and Man of La Mancha (1972).
Not all of these post-1951 roadshow releases were hits. Several of them, especially the musicals, were box-office flops that cost the studios fortunes, even if they had previously been hits as stage shows. Some of the films, such as the Olivier Othello or the Burton Hamlet, were not even designed to be box-office smashes as films, but were merely meant to bring these productions to a wider public than could have seen them onstage, much as American Film Theatre would do in the mid-1970s.
Many of these newer roadshow releases, including the Disney Sleeping Beauty, were shown in six-track stereophonic sound, a then non-standard feature of motion pictures. West Side Story (1961), although shown in 70mm and six track stereophonic sound, was originally intended to be shown with intermission, but was, in most areas, shown without one in order to increase the tension in the plot - an idea recommended by the filmmakers themselves. The VHS includes options for watching the two-and-a-half hour film both with and without a break.
In 1961, The King and I, which had originally been shown in 35mm with four track stereophonic sound, without an intermission, was re-released in a 70mm format with an intermission and six track stereophonic sound, and shown in a roadshow format. The film had originally been made in Cinemascope 55 and was now re-released in a process called Grandeur 70.
Many films made in the various larger widescreen processes, such as Todd AO, MGM Camera 65, and Super Panavision 70, were given roadshow presentations. Films made in three-camera Cinerama always received roadshow releases. The special requirements needed to show films in Cinerama - a theatre with a huge, ultra-curved screen, three projectors running simultaneously, and seven-track stereophonic sound - made it impossible to show its films in wide release unless the picture was converted to standard one projector format (i.e. Panavision).
There were some notable exceptions to the standard roadshow release format, three of them Shakespeare productions. One was Othello (1965), which was essentially a filmed visual record of the already famous Laurence Olivier 1964 London stage production, shot in a movie studio, but on enlarged stage settings. The nearly three-hour color film, made in Panavision and shown in 35mm and mono sound in many areas, was shown in 70mm and six-track stereophonic sound in only one engagement in London in 1966, and, being a film that lay somewhere between a photographed play and a true motion picture, did not make use of the spectacular vistas that 1960s widescreen epics usually boasted. While it had no overture, entr'acte music, or exit music, it was shown on a two-performance-a-day basis with an intermission, as nearly all roadshow releases were. However, it (quite deliberately) was shown in U.S. cinemas for only two days, in contrast to the lengthy engagements which most roadshow films were granted.
The same was true of the Richard Burton Hamlet, which was presented onscreen in limited two-day engagements throughout the United States. Filmed over two days in a quickie black-and-white process called Electronovision, which resembled a 1960s videotaped broadcast, this three hours plus production featured none of the epic features that were a standard of roadshow theatrical release - no impressive scenery, beautiful costumes, or stereophonic sound, only an intermission halfway through the performance. It was not even, strictly speaking, a full-scale film version of the play, but merely a visual recording of a performance of it at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, with a live audience. At three hours and eleven minutes, it was the longest film version of Hamlet to that date.
Another exception was Franco Zeffirelli's hugely successful 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet, which, although photographed in beautiful settings and certainly having the look of an epic, was shown in most areas in monaural sound (although its three soundtrack albums were all made in stereo), and at a screen aspect ratio of 1.66:1; that is, roughly the dimensions of today's average movie screen or HDTV screen, not the very wide screens required for films made in Ultra Panavision, Cinemascope, Todd-AO or any of the other ultrawide processes invented in the 1950s. (The Mexican release of the film, however, did use six-track stereo and was shown in 70mm.)
Similarly, the film version of James Goldman's The Lion in Winter (1968), although a filmed-on-location roadshow release, was shown in 35mm Panavision and Technicolor, but with mono sound. It was only in Australia and in its 1973 London re-release that it was shown in 70mm and stereophonic sound. 1971's Nicholas and Alexandra, another roadshow release, was also shown in 70mm 6-track only in Europe, while its U.S. release was in regular Panavision with monophonic sound.
Edited versions and restoration
It was common practice for studios to cut some of these epics for general release in order for theaters to book more showings a day and present the film at reduced "popular prices", especially if the film ran longer than two hours. Sometimes this was done to a successful film, such as South Pacific, but more often to one that had been a notable flop, in an effort to make it a success on its second run. As a result, some of these films have not been seen in their entirety since their first release, as the original edited footage is either missing or no longer exists. With the work of film preservationists and restoration, such roadshow flops as A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), Joan of Arc (1948), A Star Is Born (1954) and Fantasia (1940), along with the hugely successful films For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia and Around the World in 80 Days, all of which had significant footage missing, have been restored in recent years to match the filmmakers' original intent. However, several extremely popular long films, such as Gone With the Wind and The Ten Commandments, have never been released in edited form, and were nearly always shown on a two performance-a-day basis.
In Old Chicago, which despite its roadshow presentation ran only 110 minutes, was edited down to 95 minutes for general release, but restored to its full length on DVD.
Frequently, unless the film was exceptionally long, the intermission, along with the overture, ent'racte music, and exit music would be eliminated when it went into general release, in order to save twenty minutes and possibly squeeze in more showings, and the film would be shown just like any other motion picture. Often too, the souvenir programs that were a part of the roadshow release of the films were no longer given out during the wide release.
Rise of the limited release
The practice of roadshow presentation began dying out in the 1970s, partly due to a string of costly box-office flops, and partly due to the rise of the multiplex. As multiplexes began to increase in number, and as more and more skyscraper hotels and office buildings took the place of the oldtime movie palaces, theatre exhibitors began showing long films in a more informal format. Francis Ford Coppola's Oscar-winning epics The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), for instance, were made with mono sound, shown without intermissions, and were given more than two performances a day, despite their extreme length. Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) was shown more than twice a day; but did include an intermission.
Although some very long films such as Gone With the Wind would always be shown with an intermission, "reserved seat" showings of new films became extremely rare. The last film musical to officially receive a reserved seat engagement was Lost Horizon (1973), a financial and critical disaster.
In the late 1970s, only three films (two popular and one a legendary disaster) received a reserved seat engagement. Michael Cimino made the successful film The Deer Hunter, which was a commercial and critical success, winning the Oscar for Best Picture. In its initial run, it was enlarged to 70mm film and given a roadshow release. Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather, made Apocalypse Now, another three-hour epic which garnered some favorable reviews and is now considered one of his best. The film had a difficult production history, and after five years of production it premiered in a U.S. reserved seat engagement in 70mm. It became a great financial success, and made even more money years later when the director's cut was released. Cimino's next film in 1980 was Heaven's Gate, which is infamous for being one of the biggest box office bombs ever. It had a roadshow release and premiered in a 70mm version with an intermission. The roadshow engagement was the shortest in history, for only three theatres held the screenings. Its New York run lasted three days, the Toronto run was shown once, and the Los Angeles engagement was cancelled.
One development that diminished the novelty of the modern roadshow release was that, beginning with Star Wars (1977), stereophonic sound began to be used more and more in films, even films that were not really big-budget spectaculars. Most films, however, were at that time still released only with mono sound. Jaws, for example, made a mere two years before Star Wars, was originally released in this format.
Although as late as in 1982, the hugely successful Tootsie was also released with mono sound, as was the 1983 Best Picture winner Terms of Endearment, by about 1984 mono sound was abandoned completely in American films, and stereo (often the six-track variety) finally became the norm.
By 1984, the entire roadshow format had also largely been abandoned, as the rise of the multiplex and competition from cable TV and home video began forcing changes in the nature of film industry. For example, Carmen (1984), an uncut two-and-a-half hour film version of the popular Georges Bizet opera, was not released as a roadshow nor shown with an intermission, despite the fact that the film was so faithful to the opera that it kept the stage version's original division into four acts. The 1984 Carmen was also filmed in six-track stereo and on location, like many epics.
Today, a practice of first premiering a film in larger cities is more common, mainly towards the end of the year, in order to qualify for film award consideration, including the Academy Awards. Such recent films that have gone the limited release route include Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Aviator (2004), March of the Penguins (2005), and the Disney film The Princess and the Frog (2009); these and other such limited release films eventually opened wide. Sometimes this is done to allow a film to receive a wide release shortly after the first of the year, while qualifying for the previous year's Academy Awards. Often, smaller films (often art and independent) will receive an initial release in New York and Los Angeles, and later expand to other cities based on results; this is called "platforming" or a platform release.
Occasionally roadshow releases are done for special event films. In 2006, the film Dreamgirls, based on the Broadway stage musical, was given a three-theater road show release, with reserved seats and program guides. Tickets were significantly higher priced than normal, at $25. The film itself was not shown with an intermission.
Quentin Tarantino, who remembers the roadshow era fondly, released The Hateful Eight in selected theaters on Christmas Day before expanding into a wide release on December 30, 2015. Tarantino shot the film in anamorphic 70mm (specifically the Cinerama format) and managed to get the film booked in roughly 100 theaters worldwide that were in all but a few cases provided 70mm projectors and lenses to equip the theaters to cope with the Cinerama format by The Weinstein Company to screen the film as the director intended. Deadline.com referred to this release as a roadshow presentation, as it included all the hallmarks of a traditional roadshow release including programs, an overture, an intermission, and entré act and exit music.
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