The selling of movies: Shtick turns slick, bucks replace shucks

January 31, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Everybody agrees: They're not making them the way they used to.

But nobody's noticed: They're not selling them the way they used to, either.

There was a period in American film history when movie marketing, particularly at the lower echelons of the business, used to be one degree removed from carny barking, a bodacious brand of sucker's hustle more akin to the midways of state fairs than the sleek environs of an advertising firm. Now, of course, there's much too much at stake for anybody to have any dirty fun selling movies.

What calls this to mind is the arrival this week of "Matinee," an affectionate tribute to the good old, bad old ways of selling movies, which is being sold in the good new, bad new ways -- that is, via television. "Matinee," directed by the ever-clever Joe Dante of "The Howling" and "Gremlins," appears to be a kind of roman a clef based on the career of the indefatigably vulgar and energetic showman William Castle, who dominated the late '50s and the early '60s with his gimmicky promotions. But there were others of the same ilk, on scales only slightly reduced, who attempted and sometimes succeeded at the same schlocky game.

Movies, of course, actually began as a sideshow event sometime before the turn of the century, and for many, many years occupied that lowest stratum of show biz culture. But even before the '20s, the studio system, having moved west from the inhospitable climes of Fort Lee, N.J., to Los Angeles, had established itself. The key to the studio system wasn't the star system, however, or the creative accounting system or even the mogul system; it was the theater system, as all the major studios owned exhaustive chains of theaters. They made the movies; the theaters showed the movies; and everything ticked along happy-happy for the longest time.

In those days there virtually was no independent film industry: You were studio or you weren't in the ballgame. Movie advertising and promotion gimmickry were likewise studio products, and crude but quite effective in a literal, straight-on kind of way. The style might be described as breathlessness crossed with urgency as inflated by inane hyperbole.

Here's a typical studio ad copy from a late '30s B movie, "Moon Over Burma": "JUNGLE LOVE TEASE! Bob Preston tears the heart out of Preston Foster by making jungle love to exciting Dorothy Lamour beneath that burning Burma moon!"

The tropes seem so quaint now -- the bold use of exclamation points, the trippingly poignant alliteration ("that burning Burma moon"). The image under this titanic copy shows the rather placid principals enmeshed in nothing so torrid as a spin-the-bottle party, but the subheads add yet another dimension of thrills and chills: "IT'S HOT! IT'S DANGEROUS! IT'S THRILLING!" And my favorite: "Killer with a gun battles blind man with a whip!" And, as an added, almost illicit pleasure, my favorite stunt of all, the pun set off in quote marks: "Just a few of the thousand thrills in a 'Typhoon' of Jungle Adventure . . . Jungle Love." Somehow you get the im-pression that the copywriters in the Paramount ad department really enjoyed their work.

At the top end of the product line, things were more sedate: In a 1939 ad for a movie based on a book of vaunted "high literature," Lloyd C. Douglas' "Disputed Passage," the copy is almost minimalist, a single line: "Is there room for love in a doctor's life?" Underneath there's the stern figure of a doctor rising out of the pages of the Douglas masterpiece, and another bit of copy states categorically: "Love . . . marriage . . . give them up! They're not for we men of science!"

No genre busting

The point, however, is that high or low, the promotions, in the normal course of business, almost never exceeded the framework. There was no genre busting: the theatrical preview (or trailer), the poster art and the media buy were the extent of the advertising campaign. The studios controlled many of the subsidiary outlets, such as the screen magazines and the gossip columnists. It was a tame and well-ordered world. Perhaps because there was so much product coming out of the studio pipelines, no one film got the full mega-media treatment, with the possible exception of "Gone With the Wind," whose making and selling had become the great national drama of 1939.

What changed all this, surprisingly, wasn't television so much as the 1948 Supreme Court ruling that studio ownership of theaters constituted an illegal monopoly. As a consequence the studios were required to divest themselves of theater ownership. It was like the coming of free agency to baseball; suddenly, competition for product became intense, the old system collapsed almost overnight, and for a bit there was an unstable period of creative anarchy.

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