Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ups and Downs of the Rollercoaster, Part 6

There's just no getting around the fact that Stanley Warner's management of Cinerama was a disaster from the word go. To be fair, the limits imposed by the court gave SW little incentive to think beyond the short term: They could have no more than 24 Cinerama theaters, and they had to be out of Cinerama by the end of 1958 (SW did get a court-approved extension to that deadline). Still, with the purchase of International Latex, Stanley Warner behaved like a kid with a new toy. Cinerama became the old toy.

SW never operated more than 22 Cinerama theaters at one time, and they never produced enough pictures to keep even those busy (and nowhere near the court-imposed limit of 15 pictures). When they did produce a new Cinerama picture, all they could think to do was produce yet another travelogue, the only real change being where the picture traveled to. Even then, as we have seen, SW would delay release until they had wrung the current release dry; they insisted every picture had to premiere in New York, yet they wouldn't open a second New York theater. Nor would they even consider beginning a new picture while they had one waiting in the wings; the idea of creating a backlog of pictures ready to go appears never to have been considered.

In 1957, when the foreign-rights agreement with Robin International expired, Stanley Warner ventured into that area themselves. They learned a lesson, though, from Nicolas Reisini's practice of sub-licensing Cinerama to local exhibitors, who would pay to convert a theater, then lease rather than purchase the equipment from Cinerama Inc. Essentially, what Reisini had done, and what SW did now, was to sell Cinerama "franchises". It was a policy that might have served Cinerama well from the outset -- and indeed Reisini would employ it with some success after he took the driver's seat -- but it seems not to have occurred to anyone before Reisini came along.

In the end, Stanley Warner's program of opening new Cinerama theaters was no more vigorous or aggressive than their production of Cinerama pictures. By the time SW's management was drawing to a close, most of the theaters they'd opened had failed and been closed; only six remained in the U.S., with another 13 in other countries.

Part of the problem all along was Cinerama's Byzantine corporate structure, which hampered any attempt to strategize Cinerama for the long run. Instead of one central corporation, Cinerama was first three, then four, all severely undercapitalized and with complicated financial relations. A serious simplification of the arrangement was called for, but Stanley Warner never made any effort in that direction.

Hazard Reeves, on the other hand, did, and he started as early as 1955. In that year, through Cinerama Inc., he absorbed the Vitarama Corp. by buying out the heirs of the late Fred Waller. It was about that time, too, that he initiated his futile breach-of-contract action against Stanley Warner, which may have been simply a negotiating ploy to prod SW into more decisive action. (If that was the intention, it didn't work.)

As the clock ran out on Stanley Warner Cinerama, Reeves stepped up his efforts to consolidate things. I won't go into all the arcane details, but the process entailed enlisting the participation of the Wall Street brokerage firm of Kidder, Peabody and Co. There was a flurry of stock sales, purchases and swaps as Buz Reeves gradually consolidated his control, and with his proven management expertise he was able in May 1959 to float a huge $12 million expansion loan from the Prudential Life Insurance Co., three-to-four million of which was used to buy out Stanley Warner once and for all. When the dust finally settled, Vitarama Corp. and Cinerama Productions Corp. were no more, absorbed into Cinerama Inc. And Hazard E. Reeves was in complete control of every facet of the process -- something that had not been the case since Fred Waller formed Vitarama 21 years before. 

Reeves's proven management skills might have turned Cinerama around even then if he had taken the reins in a firm hand, but evidently that was never his intention. With hindsight, it appears that Reeves was simply tired of dealing with Cinerama; his concerted efforts to streamline Cinerama's corporate structure may have been just a way of getting it in good order -- like a real-estate speculator fixing up and flipping a rundown house -- so he could sell it and roll the capital into his own company, Reeves Soundcraft. In any event, Reeves had control of Cinerama for less than a year before he put it on the market -- negotiating first with Walter Reade Jr. of Reade Theatres, then with Nicolas Reisini of Robin International. In the end Reisini bought Reeves out, becoming president and CEO of Cinerama Inc. (In his history of Cinerama, Thomas Erffmeyer mentions that in 1947 Reisini had purchased a California asbestos mine for $350,000 -- which now, in 1959, he sold for $4 million. Dr. Erffmeyer doesn't say if it was this windfall which enabled Reisini to buy Cinerama Inc., but it strikes me as a logical inference.)

Nicolas Reisini was, if nothing else, an energetic and ambitious entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer, and he hit the ground running. Even before assuming the presidency of Cinerama in May 1960, he accomplished something nobody before him had been able to do: He established a co-production agreement with a major studio. The studio was MGM (then flush with the critical and box-office success of Ben-Hur), and the agreement was announced on December 11, 1959: They would produce at least two and as many as six features; MGM production chief Sol C. Siegel would supervise them, with Cinerama having script, director and cast approval; Cinerama would distribute and exhibit the pictures in their theaters, and MGM would handle distribution of 35mm general release versions after the Cinerama roadshow engagements.

A top priority for Reisini was to bring Cinerama to the widest possible audience -- to increase its fan base, if you will. To that end he followed through on an idea Stanley Warner had flirted with in the mid-'50s but (typically) abandoned before doing much with it: portable Cinerama. A caravan of trucks criss-crossed France and other countries in Europe, visiting towns and villages like a 19th century travelling circus. The caravan would set up an enormous inflatable rubber tent -- inflatable so it would be self-supporting with no internal columns or poles to block the view of the screen -- that could seat up to 3,000 spectators on folding chairs. (Reisini had always been adept at thinking outside the box. In 1954, when Robin International undertook to open theaters overseas, he had tried to interest the United States Information Agency in mounting a travelling Cinerama theater on a retired aircraft carrier. USIA was game, and even President Eisenhower liked the idea, but Congress nipped it in the bud.)

Reisini's touring "Cinerama Europe" was well-received everywhere it went; anyone who wasn't working or in school would flock to the field where Cinerama was setting up to watch the battery of huge fans, each the size of a Volkswagen, blowing up the big blue tent. Local dignitaries turned out to walk the red carpet at every screening. Even Abel Gance showed up one night to see this successor to "Polyvision" from his 1927 Napoleon.

The tent had an Achilles' heel, though, and it was the anchoring system, which was inadequate to a building of its size. One night in France a terrible storm struck. It huffed and it puffed and it blew the house down; the collapsing screen wiped out the first ten rows of seats. A genuine catastrophe was averted only because nobody was in the tent at the time.

Undaunted, Reisini had the tent design revamped, strengthened and improved. This new version went on to tour England, Scotland and Wales as "Itinerama".

At the same time, Reisini set out to expand the paltry stable of standing Cinerama theaters that Stanley Warner had left behind. Within nine months, by selling franchises to local exhibitors, Reisini had nearly doubled that number by opening 17 new theaters. Among them, opening in March 1961, was the first theater built expressly to show Cinerama, the Cooper "Super-Cinerama" outside Denver, Colo. By 1964, Reisini's expansion efforts had been perhaps his most striking success: 70 theaters in the U.S. and 116 overseas -- nine times as many theaters as Stanley Warner had been able to open on their own.

Now let's review. By the end of 1962, Nicolas Reisini had inked a co-production deal with a major Hollywood studio; he was well on his way to establishing over 180 Cinerama theaters worldwide; and -- another thing nobody else had been able to do -- he had come out with two Cinerama movies in the same year

The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm -- the second picture to go into production but the first one released -- opened in August 1962. It got novelty points as the first "story" Cinerama picture, but reviews were not great, and neither was the box office. How the West Was Won, however, was another story. It premiered at London's Casino in December '62 (the U.S. premiere was at L.A.'s Warner Theatre in February '63) and was an immediate smash hit. It got rave reviews from all but the snootiest critics and played to sold-out houses for over a year.

We can only speculate how the Cinerama saga would have shaken out if Nicolas Reisini -- or someone else with his energy and ingenuity -- had taken the process in hand back in 1953. Things might have been very different. On the other hand, Cinerama might have died in its cradle; the process's astronomical operating costs might have undone Nicolas Reisini in the mid-'50s -- because they were what undid him now. 

How the West Was Won -- which went on to snag eight Oscar nominations, including best picture, and to win three -- was universally acknowledged in 1963 as the best movie ever made in Cinerama. And it's still the best -- because it was the last. While the movie cleaned up at the box office, the problem was the same old bugaboo: as much as 80-90 percent of the take went to the overhead expenses of running the theaters. Reisini had wagered $13.5 milllion on Brothers Grimm and HTWWW (Cinerama's share of the production costs), and when all was said and done, the profits didn't begin to cover his bet.

Not all of HTWWW had been shot with the three-lens Cinerama camera. There were some stock shots inserted from MGM's Raintree County (1957), which had been shot in MGM Camera 65 (actually a variety of Panavision), and John Wayne's The Alamo ('60), which had been in Todd-AO. In both cases, the original one-frame negative had been split optically into thirds to run through the three Cinerama projectors. Also, a number of risky shots -- Karl Malden and Carroll Baker battling the river rapids on their raft, for example, or Eli Wallach clinging to the undercarriage of a runaway train -- were done using back-projections, which couldn't be shot in true Cinerama; instead, they were shot in UltraPanavision (which combined 70mm film stock with a slight anamorphic squeeze) and, again, split optically. This was the penultimate nail in the coffin of three-frame Cinerama. Look [the word went], we used Panavision in all these shots in HTWWW and nobody noticed the difference. (That wasn't true, by the way; there was a sharp degradation of photographic quality. It's just that the scenes were so exciting nobody minded.)  Still, with cash-flow problems hammering at the door, Reisini saw no choice but to trim overhead by abandoning three-screen exhibition. He ordered a stop to all research into perfecting Cinerama (I'll get into that next time) and announced that henceforth all "Cinerama" pictures would be shot in UltraPanavision.

It wasn't enough to save his job. Enter William Forman of Pacific Theatres. Several of his theaters had installed Cinerama equipment, and Forman jumped in with both feet in February '63: for $15 million he bought up the note Prudential Insurance Co. held from their 1959 loan of $12 million, and with it he acquired a series of stock options, all of which he excercised, to the point where he replaced Nicolas Reisini as president and CEO in December '63. Reisini remained as chairman of the board for the time being, but in September '64, with Cinerama Inc. teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, he resigned even from that, effective immediately.

William Forman was now in charge, and Pacific Theatres retains control of Cinerama to this day. Forman ratified Reisini's abandonment of the three-screen Cinerama process, and from that point on Cinerama became a releasing rather than a producing corporation. There has never been another feature produced in Cinerama; pictures bearing the name -- It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; Khartoum; Grand Prix; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Ice Station Zebra; etc. -- were actually in UltraPanavision, using the familiar accordion-fold logo to evoke the magic of Fred Waller's process that was no more, to an audience that had heard of but never seen the real thing.

Next time: The technology of Cinerama...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ups and Downs of the Rollercoaster, Part 5

In his 1977 memoir So Long Until Tomorrow, the 85-year-old Lowell Thomas -- with nearly a quarter-century of frustrated hindsight -- remembered the Stanley Warner deal thus:
Our original group of founders had dwindled -- Fred Waller, the gentle, bespectacled genius who started it all, had died before he even knew of his triumph; Mike Todd was busily hustling and working with American Optical on the process to be called Todd A-O ... Arrayed against [Frank Smith], Merian Cooper and me were men of wealth who had gone into Cinerama solely for the investment possibilities, and at this critical juncture, either unwilling to go looking for the additional cash or simply ready to take their already large profits, they opted to sell out.
The buyer was the Stanley-Warner company, and from a purely practical viewpoint, maybe the decision was not all wrong. In making it we all made a lot of money. But the bells began tolling for Cinerama then and there. Stanley-Warner was a brassiere manufacturing corporation, plus owners of a major theater chain. But they were not film producers ... They didn't really know what Cinerama was all about.
Thomas's memory wasn't flawless. "Stanley Warner" wasn't hyphenated, and "Todd-AO" was. Fred Waller lived long enough to know his triumph and collect an Oscar for it; he died in May 1954, nine months after the Stanley Warner deal was approved by the court.  And Stanley Warner wasn't "a brassiere manufacturing company". Not yet. They didn't purchase the International Latex Corporation (maker of, among other things, the Playtex Living Bra) until April 1954, a year after buying their six-year control of Cinerama Productions Corp. (This expansion from theater operation to ladies' undies and baby pants was an early example of the kind of diversification that ultimately led to the entertainment conglomerates of today.)

But Thomas's basic point was well taken. The folks at Stanley Warner were not film producers. And despite S.H. Fabian's advocacy of alternate entertainment technologies -- he was an early proponent of drive-in theaters, 3-D, and closed-circuit theatrical television -- he really didn't know what Cinerama was all about. Even if nobody heard it at the time, the bells were definitely tolling.

Thomas can be forgiven a certain amount of bitterness. By May 1954, Stanley Warner had managed to open only seven new Cinerama theaters and had yet to complete a follow-up feature to This Is Cinerama; yet they had managed to scrape up $15 million to buy International Latex. Moreover, in the next four years SW would lavish far more care and resources on International Latex, where profit margins were high and they were not under the thumb of the U.S. Justice Dept. Small wonder that, decades later, Thomas remembered SW being already in the brassiere business when Cinerama came along.

Stanley Warner was contractually obligated to produce a picture within the first year, and their original plan was the same as Cinerama's before them: to involve one of the major studios in making pictures in the process. In early August, even before the court approved the buyout, talks were held with Columbia, Paramount and Warner Bros. All came to nothing, including a proposed picture about the Lewis and Clark expedition to star Gregory Peck and Clark Gable as the great explorers (excellent casting, that).

With the success of The Robe, studios began stampeding to CinemaScope in preference to the more expensive Cinerama, and any chance of a deal in that direction evaporated. SW negotiated with Merian Cooper, who was thinking of molding Paul Mantz's 200,000 feet of aerial footage into a picture to be called Seven Wonders of the World, but talks broke down when they couldn't agree on a completion schedule.

So Stanley Warner turned to producer Louis de Rochemont, who had experience in both documentary (We Are the Marines, the March of Time newsreel shorts) and fiction filmmaking (The House on 92nd Street, Boomerang!). De Rochemont had an idea that combined the two: follow one pair of American newlyweds as they honeymooned in Europe, and another European pair as they honeymooned across America. The Thrill of Your Life began shooting in December 1953 with John and Betty Marsh of Kansas City, Mo. and Fred and Beatrice Troller of Zurich, Switzerland touring the Cineramic stops on their respective honeymoon tours. Production wrapped in June '54 and, with the title changed to Cinerama Holiday, the picture was ready for release by the August deadline.

But Stanley Warner held off on releasing Holiday. By this time there were 11 Cinerama theaters in operation, and This Is Cinerama was still playing to sold-out houses everywhere -- even in New York, where it was nearly two years old. Why cut a thriving box office short when there was still a lot of money to be made?

And here's where Cinerama's can of corporate worms came home to roost -- if you'll forgive a mixed metaphor. At one end of the corporate arrangement was Vitarama and Cinerama Inc.; at the other end was Cinerama Productions -- now a mere holding company for Stanley Warner Cinerama, but with its own stockholders. And in between was Stanley Warner. 

Cinerama Inc. made most of its money from the equipping of Cinerama theaters -- the sale or lease of equipment and supplying of replacement parts -- and was annoyed that Stanley Warner wasn't opening theaters at a quicker pace. The remaining investors in Cinerama Productions were annoyed that SW wasn't opening more theaters and producing a steadier stream of pictures to show in them. And Stanley Warner, who had to put up all the money for both the theaters and the pictures but had to share almost half of any profits (when operating costs alone could eat up as much of 90 percent of gross ticket sales), was beginning to wonder if investing in the process had been such a good idea in the first place. The cracks among the partners in Cinerama were beginning to show, and were the subject of chatter in the trade press. 

The general public, however, saw none of this. All they
knew, if they hadn't seen This Is Cinerama yet, was
that Cinerama was the miraculous more-than-a-movie
that everybody was talking about. If they had seen it,
all they knew was that the theater was jam-packed, at
top-dollar prices; if they saw it more than once, showing
that their own enthusiasm hadn't dimmed, they saw that
nobody else's had either. And when Cinerama Holiday
finally opened in February 1955, the box office didn't
fall off a dime. Movie houses in towns or neighborhoods
may bring in picture after picture in CinemaScope, but
to the public Cinerama was the gold standard. More
than a movie, indeed -- it was a tourist attraction.

There had been talk of plans to expand Cinerama into foreign countries almost from the first opening in September 1952, but nothing had ever come of that idea. In the spring of 1954, Stanley Warner sought to farm out the foreign exhibition rights -- find somebody who would foot the bill for overseas expansion and pay SW for the privilege. After three months of negotiations, S.H. Fabian hammered out a deal with Nicolas Reisini, president of Robin International.

Neither Robin International nor the Greek-born Reisini had any experience in the movie business. Robin International was reportedly an import/export company, although exactly what it imported and exported wasn't clear. Nothing shady, mind you, it's just that Reisini seems to have had his fingers in a bewildering number of pies -- none of them having anything to do with the movie industry.

But there was another factor. According to his son Andrew (interviewed for David Strohmaier's 2002 documentary Cinerama Adventure), Nicolas Reisini as a young man had seen the Paris premiere of Abel Gance's Napoleon in 1927 and been spellbound -- especially by Gance's three-screen "Polyvision" triptych that climaxed the picture. When Reisini saw This Is Cinerama in New York in late '52 or early '53, it revived that youthful excitement and seemed to be the fulfillment of Gance's earlier vision. Son Andrew says Reisini decided on the spot that he wanted to get in on Cinerama one way or another, and when Stanley Warner went looking for someone to buy foreign rights, Reisini was ready.

Reisini's deal, announced in July 1954, licensed him to establish Cinerama theaters in any five cities (later amended to six) outside the western hemisphere. He ponied up a deposit of $500,000, to be refunded $100,000 at a time for each new theater as it opened. Robin International was responsible for all the expenses of converting and operating the theaters. And with this agreement, yet another corporation was added to the cluster of those already in place, each straining for its share of the trickle of profits that remained after Cinerama's sky-high operating costs.

As things turned out, the first foreign showing of Cinerama -- outside North America, that is; theaters in Toronto, Montreal and later Vancouver were considered "domestic" -- wasn't a permanent installation. It was in September '54 at an international trade show in Damascus, Syria. This Is Cinerama was a huge success there, and again later that year at another fair in Bangkok, Thailand -- where it was such a hit that it was held over an additional two weeks after the fair closed. (It was the Soviet Union's fury at being upstaged in Damascus that led them to pirate their own three-screen process, which they called Kinopanorama. They couldn't even come up with an original name for it.)

Robin International's first "permanent" theater was the Casino in London, opening October 1, 1954. Reisini reduced his own expenses by sub-licensing to local exhibitor companies in each country, letting them shoulder the cost of converting and equipping the theater (more corporations, more straining for ever-thinning profits). That's how it went when theaters opened in Japan (Tokyo and Osaka, January '55), Italy (Milan, April '55; and Rome, in May) and France (Paris, May '55).

Meanwhile, back home, Stanley Warner and Louis de Rochemont had fallen out over money -- and SW's reluctance to invest in perfecting the Cinerama process. De Rochemont stalked off to produce Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich in CineMiracle (a competing process just different enough to avoid infringing Cinerama's patents). SW had enticed Lowell Thomas back to produce Seven Wonders of the World (revived after the departure of Merian Cooper). Shooting wrapped in June '55, but as with This Is Cinerama before it, Cinerama Holiday was drawing so strongly that SW was in no hurry to release Seven Wonders (it finally opened in April 1956).

Buz Reeves at Cinerama Inc. finally lost patience with Stanley Warner's dilatory production schedule. He charged SW with breach of contract and announced that Cinerama Inc. would produce its own picture, a documentary about the peaceful uses of atomic energy to be called The Eighth Day. But Reeves didn't really have any leverage; any production would still be dependent on SW for theaters to show it in. The Eighth Day staggered along for over three years at a cost of $439,688 before being written off. (The Cinerama camera reportedly filmed the last above-ground nuclear test during this period, but the footage has mysteriously disappeared. Wouldn't that be a sight to see!)

In the interim, Stanley Warner had produced two more travelogues, another one with Lowell Thomas (Search for Paradise, about India and the Himalayas), September '57; and South Seas Adventure with producer Carl Dudley, narrated by Orson Welles, July '58. 

And with that the Stanley Warner era at Cinerama came to a close, after four pictures in five years. (For the record, in that same time 20th Century Fox and the other Hollywood studios had produced 291 pictures in CinemaScope.) When the dust from the transition settled, the new big cheese at Cinerama Inc. was none other than our starry-eyed friend Nicolas Reisini. He was an adroit wheeler-dealer who loved Cinerama and had a genuine vision for the process, and he would accomplish things that nobody before him had been able to do. But he would also fall victim to Cinerama's chronic cash-flow problems, and in the end he presided over the process's march into oblivion. 

I'll get into that next time, then I'll add a brief coda about the mechanics of Cinerama, and efforts to perfect Fred Waller's revolutionary invention.

To be concluded...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ups and Downs of the Rollercoaster, Part 4

Remember all those movie-industry honchos trekking out to Oyster Bay to see Cinerama? One of them was Joseph M. Schenck, chairman of the board of 20th Century Fox. Like everybody else, Schenck passed on Cinerama, but as he did so he added ruefully: "I'll be buying this process someday, and it will cost me ten times as much."

Fox president Spyros Skouras spared him the embarrassment of that. Skouras had gone out to Oyster Bay too, and been impressed, but he allowed Fox's research department to talk him out of buying into Cinerama. Now, as This Is Cinerama's sensational debut woke Hollywood from its slumber, Skouras turned to his research department, saying in effect: You blew this one, boys; you'd better make it good.

They did. Digging back, they came up with a process a French professor named Henri Chretien had tried unsuccessfully to peddle in Hollywood back in the '20s. He called it Anamorphoscope, and it involved using what Chretien called a "hypergonar" lens on the camera to squash a wide angle of view onto standard 35mm film, then a compensating lens on the projector to stretch it back out again. The good news was that Chretien's patent had expired in 1951 and Anamorphoscope was now in the public domain; the bad news was that Chretien had the only set of lenses. Long story short, Skouras tracked Prof. Chretien to his home in Nice, reached an agreement for the use of his lenses (which were later refined and reproduced by Bausch & Lomb back in the States), and in February 1953 Skouras announced the process under a new name, CinemaScope (whoever came up with that replacement for "Anamorphoscope" surely earned his pay for the week!). 

The first CinemaScope picture was to be Fox's Biblical epic The Robe (pre-production was already underway, but suspended to retool for the new process), and henceforth every 20th Century Fox picture would be shot in CinemaScope. Skouras and studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck encouraged other studios to sign on with their "new" process. MGM and Walt Disney took the bait at once; other studios hung back, exploring their own wide screen options.

Early ads for CinemaScope, like the one I've reproduced here, emphasized a resemblance to both Cinerama and 3-D ("It's the miracle you see without glasses!") that didn't really exist. While CinemaScope did originally call for a curved screen, most theaters didn't bother with that. Even in The Robe's first-run engagements, the curve was much shallower than in this ad, and nowhere near as deep as Cinerama's. (A good thing, too: you have to feel sorry for that poor sucker on the left end of the seventh row -- what kind of view could he have had?) Anybody who compared Cinerama and CinemaScope side-by-side (so to speak) could see there was no real comparison. But in truth, most moviegoers couldn't do that. Among Hollywood professionals, CinemaScope didn't have to be as good as Cinerama, as long as they could sell it that way to the millions who hadn't yet seen the real McCoy. Besides, it was still a huge change from movies-as-usual, and something folks couldn't get on those newfangled television sets.

And it was relatively cheap. While the Cinerama people did their best to low-ball the estimated cost of converting a theater, the truth was it could run as high as $200,000. Moreover, hundreds of seats could be lost either to make room for the three projection booths or because of unacceptable viewing angles, thus limiting potential revenue. Conversely, CinemaScope (Fox promised) could be installed with no loss of seats, and for the mere cost of a set of lenses, a new screen, and a three-channel magnetic sound system -- a sizeable investment, yes, but nothing like the fortune needed for Cinerama. (This is a good time to remind you that we're talking about Eisenhower dollars here; to get a sense of 2012 equivalents, you should add at least a zero, and maybe multiply by two or three.)

Fox mounted an aggressive and well-organized campaign to promote CinemaScope (Skouras was battling a hostile takeover, so 'Scope had to succeed), and in the end it would effectively sink Cinerama Productions Corp.'s hopes of partnering with one of the major studios. Even as early as March and April '53, when Fox began holding nationwide demonstrations of CinemaScope for industry and press, Cinerama was feeling the pinch. Not only were leads on new investment drying up, but some contractually committed investors were backing out, citing a "changed circumstances" escape clause in their contracts. Cinerama still had only three venues in the world (a fourth, the Palace in Chicago, wouldn't open until July due to a protracted haggle with the local projectionists' union). Cinerama Productions Corp. had to find funding to supplement their high-overhead box-office take if they were going to open more theaters and maintain a foothold in the market they had created, to say nothing of producing follow-up features to This Is Cinerama.

They considered their options. A public stock offering was one, but sales of Cinerama Inc. stock had already been less than expected. Another possibility was to seek financial participation from a theater circuit rather than a studio, and they decided on that. A logical choice for such an arrangement was the Stanley Warner Corporation, since Cinerama had already been dealing with them: the newly Cineramified Warner Theatre in Los Angeles was theirs, and This Is Cinerama was slated to move from the Broadway Theatre to New York's Warner in June 1953 (the Shubert brothers wanted their house back).

Before we go on, a clarification: "Stanley Warner" wasn't a person. How the name came about (as simple as I can make it) was this: Stanley Warner's president was S.H. Fabian, who had gotten into the theater business in his father's small circuit of houses in New Jersey in the 1920s. In 1926 Fabian Theatres merged with another chain, Stanley Company of America. Two years later that circuit was acquired by Warner Bros. for the exhibition of their pictures, and Fabian partnered with one Samuel Rosen to rebuild his own chain in New York State, Fabian Enterprises. In the early 1950s, when federal antitrust action compelled the studios to divest themselves of their theater chains, Fabian went to Harry, Albert and Jack Warner to (essentially) buy his old theaters back. The corporation he formed for this might have been called Fabian Rosen, or Warner Fabian, but instead it was Stanley Warner.

As the corporate heir (as it were) to Warner Bros. Theatres, Stanley Warner became a party to the federal suit's consent decree, and needed approval from federal court (and by extension the U.S. Dept. of Justice) for any venture into movie production, distribution or exhibition. That included any agreement with Cinerama Productions Corp., so it added yet another layer of negotiation. A tentative agreement for Stanley Warner to take over Cinerama theater operations was announced in May 1953, but there were a multitude of details to work out. Cinerama Productions' licensing agreement with Cinerama Inc. ran only through 1956, so Stanley Warner wanted a two-year extension of that to help recoup their investment. They also wanted control of production and distribution as well as exhibition, to ensure a steady flow of pictures for the theaters. Meanwhile, Cinerama Productions was behind in payments to Cinerama Inc. for equipment, so Cinerama Inc. wanted at least something towards that before any talk about extending the license. And the Dept. of Justice had their own demands before they'd recommend court approval.

It took three months of intense dickering to sort this all out, with the clock ticking -- if court approval wasn't received by August 15, the whole deal was off. They finally made it with four days to spare, and the deal was this: For a little over $2.5 million, Stanley Warner essentially bought control of Cinerama Productions Corp. through 1958, adding yet another layer to the corporate tangle with its wholly-owned subsidiary Stanley Warner Cinerama. They would produce at least five Cinerama pictures but (the feds insisted) no more than 15. For each feature they could also produce a conventional 35mm version, but (again, per the feds) could not exhibit the 35mm versions in any of the Cinerama theaters. And -- yet again, here was the hand of the U.S. Dept. of Justice -- Stanley Warner could open no more than 24 Cinerama theaters in the United States. (So much for Dudley Roberts's dream of a hundred theaters getting six to eight pictures a year.)

A month later, on September 16, 1953,
The Robe premiered to respectful reviews
and boffo box office. 20th Century Fox
had three more CinemaScope pictures
ready to go (MGM had one), and dozens
more were in various states of production
at one studio or another. Spyros Skouras's
gamble had paid off in a big way. 

After that, things got complicated.

To be continued...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Ups and Downs of the Rollercoaster, Part 3

Lowell Thomas decided right off the bat -- and Merian Cooper, when he came aboard, concurred -- that the star of the first Cinerama picture would be Cinerama itself. "If Charlie Chaplin had offered to do Hamlet for us," Thomas remembered, "I'd have turned him down. I didn't want people judging Chaplin or rediscovering Shakespeare...The advent of something as new and important as Cinerama was a major event in the history of entertainment and I was determined to let nothing upstage it." In other words, This Is Cinerama wasn't a movie, it was a demonstration, just like Waller and Reeves's screenings at their tennis court command post in Oyster Bay. The difference this time was that the presentation was more organized and formal, with tuxedo-clad personnel escorting the audience to their seats -- and it was in Technicolor. (Mostly, anyhow; when opening night loomed and the feature was still a little short, Thomas and Cooper decided to splice in Waller's black-and-white clip of the Long Island Choral Society singing Handel's Hallelujah Chorus -- it made a good demo of the sound system, with an invisible choir marching down the aisles of the theater before coming into view on the screen.) So in a sense, Cinerama was exactly where it was before the opening -- only now the whole world was watching.

The first new development, barely three weeks after the premiere, was the appointment of Louis B. Mayer as chairman of the board of Cinerama Productions Corp. (with Lowell Thomas stepping down to vice-chairman). There was a certain irony in this; Mayer was one of the movie industry figures who trooped out to Long Island for those demonstrations, only to take a pass on investing. Back then, Mayer had been probably the most powerful man in Hollywood, but this was now. In the interim had come the ugly power struggle at MGM between Mayer and Dore Schary, and the humiliating palace coup that had sent Mayer packing in July 1951. By October '52, Mayer was restless in forced retirement, and Cinerama looked like his passport back into the business. For Cinerama it was a windfall in both money (Mayer's personal investment reportedly amounted to over $1 million) and prestige: Mayer's status as a pioneer and longtime chief of the Tiffany of Hollywood studios gave an aura of solidity to Cinerama, and his reputation for showbiz acumen was expected to reassure and attract investors. He brought along some possible material, too: Mayer personally held the screen rights to several properties. One of them, Blossom Time, a moldy Viennese operetta of the sort Mayer had once so lovingly dusted off for Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, would never do. But others might work very nicely, like the Lerner and Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon and the Biblical epic Joseph and His Brethren.

There was a flurry of announcements in trade papers. Dudley Roberts, president of Cinerama Productions, said Cinerama would open theaters in 100 cities, to be supplied with six to eight full-length features a year. Merian Cooper, now head of production, promised that Cinerama would either buy or build its own studio in Hollywood. (Might Cooper have had his eye on RKO? The studio was then in the process of being run into the ground by Howard Hughes, and ripe for the picking. If so, it didn't happen; when RKO finally sold it went first to General Tire and Rubber Co., then to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who renamed it Desilu.)

The first dramatic Cinerama picture, Cooper said, would begin shooting within two months with himself producing and directing, followed within a year by a second feature, probably directed by Cooper's Argosy Films partner John Ford. (Ford didn't work in Cinerama until almost ten years later, and he wasn't happy with it or well suited, contributing the shortest and weakest episode of How the West Was Won.)

An array of productions were considered, and some even announced. Paint Your Wagon. Tolstoy's War and Peace. A remake of King Kong. Lawrence of Arabia (this would have been a much different picture from the one we eventually got; Lowell Thomas didn't much care for David Lean's 1962 take on his old friend). Paul Mantz climbed back in the cockpit of his converted B-25 and shot another 200,000 feet, at a cost of $500,000, without anybody knowing when or how it would be used.

Some of Mantz's footage eventually wound up in Seven Wonders of the World ('56). But as for these other ambitious plans, none of them ever came to pass.

Part of the reason was L.B. Mayer himself. Biographer Scott Eyman speculates that Mayer's enthusiasm for Cinerama was never that great in the first place; he may have been clinging to the forlorn hope that his exile from MGM was only temporary, intending Cinerama as a base from which to stage a return to Culver City. Whatever his intentions, the battle with Dore Schary had left him, in Lowell Thomas's words, "aging, tired [and] unable to make up his mind about anything." (Eyman memorably quotes writer Gavin Lambert, who covered Mayer at the time, in almost the same words: "He was an aging, tired man in a dark suit, who looked like a businessman but was actually an exiled emperor.") Mayer eventually left Cinerama, though sources vary on exactly when. Eyman dates Mayer's departure to November 1954; Thomas Erffmeyer's history implies (and an article in the Winter 1992 issue of The Perfect Vision says outright) that it may have been as early as May '53. In any event, Cinerama Productions Corp. produced nothing under Mayer's chairmanship, and frittered away much of its early momentum.

Another major factor was the Byzantine corporate structure under which Cinerama operated. It was in fact three separate but complexly interrelated entities: 

Vitarama Corporation. This was the original corporation set up by Fred Waller and Ralph Walker in 1938, when Waller designed that petroleum industry exhibit for the 1939 World's Fair (which was never used, and which morphed into the Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer). A private corporation owned by Waller (43 percent), Walker (14 percent) and Laurance Rockefeller (43 percent, an interest Rockefeller retained when he sold his interest in Cinerama to Buz Reeves in 1950), Vitarama owned all the basic Cinerama patents and received a percentage of the box office take.

Cinerama Inc. This corporation, created in the wake of the dissolution of Cinerama Corp. in August 1950, manufactured the equipment for Cinerama -- cameras, projectors, screens, sound systems, etc. This was the only publicly-traded of the three Cinerama corporations, but only about 16 percent of stock was available to the general public. The controlling stockholder was Buz Reeves, through his personal stock and stock belonging to Reeves Soundcraft. Cinerama Inc. received an initial 25 percent share of theatrical profits from the process, to decline over (presumably prosperous) time to a flat 10 percent. Cinerama Inc. also held the production and exhibition rights to the process, which it sub-licensed to --

Cinerama Productions Corporation. Privately owned like Vitarama Corp., this was the successor corporation created when Mike Todd was squeezed out of Thomas-Todd Productions. Lowell Thomas was originally chairman of the board; president was Dudley M. Roberts, a Wall Street broker who joined the crew -- and brought along a cadre of other investors willing to buy in -- once the loose cannon Todd was out of the picture. This was the corporation that enlisted, and later regretted, Louis B. Mayer.

The financial arrangements among these corporations were a real can of worms: Cinerama Productions Corp. paid profit royalties to Cinerama Inc., which paid a percentage of those to Vitarama Corp., which licensed the manufacture and use of its equipment to Cinerama Inc., which sub-licensed production and exhibition to Cinerama Productions, which bought the equipment for its theaters from Cinerama Inc. 

In the flurry of excitement after the premiere of This Is Cinerama, the price of Cinerama Inc. stock had soared from $4.00 to $8.00 a share. But when investors, who thought they were buying into "Cinerama", realized they were buying stock in the manufacturing company while most profits would go to the production company, the price fell back to $5.25. Some brokerage houses cautioned against Cinerama Inc. as a "speculation", and stock-sale income dropped off accordingly.

Besides which, Cinerama was a high-overhead operation -- requiring, for example, 12 to 16 projectionists, plus a technician to channel the six soundtracks into the appropriate surround speakers, and a "theater engineer" manning a master-board overseeing the synchronization of the whole operation. While the box-office take was huge, profits were minimal, and it was the profits that trickled over to Cinerama Inc. and Vitarama Corp. Moreover, it was profits from which Cinerama Productions Corp. needed to buy the equipment to convert additional theaters to the process.

All these factors contributed to cash-flow problems for the three Cinerama companies, and it made Cinerama Productions, which was both taking in and spending most of the cash, ripe for a takeover. And that's just what happened in the spring of 1953, even as two new Cinerama theaters held triumphant openings in Detroit (the Music Hall on March 23) and Los Angeles (the Warner, April 29). I'll get into that takeover next time. 

Two other players entered the game about this time, and they put some new wrinkles on the playing surface. One was 3-D, which actually came along (with the surprise hit Bwana Devil) before This Is Cinerama opened; in the sudden interest in movies-with-a-difference, 3-D began to look like a cheaper alternative to Cinerama, and a number of studios grasped at it. As things turned out, 3-D fizzled within the year and wouldn't make a real comeback for another half-century. 

The other player, though, dealt a serious blow to Cinerama's plans for development and expansion. It was something the Cinerama boys (especially Waller, with his background in photography) might have seen coming, but they didn't:

To be continued...

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