Columbia Strikes Back

Columbia Strikes Back

The Close Encounters story continues (and another brief hiatus for #1939TheMiracleYear)

When “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind” was set by bid for Tom Moyer’s Westgate theater in Beaverton it was months before it was to open in December of 1977. They offered their largest theater in that complex, and there should have been no problem with opening the film in the normal course of business.

But that exact same house was the exclusive venue for a film that opened in Portland in May – Star Wars (aka Star Wars IV – A New Hope). Most films exhaust the available audience within a month or six weeks. Not so with this juggernaut. Yet there would not have been any problem if Star Wars could have been moved into a smaller house at the same complex. The contract, however, that Tom Moyer Theaters had with Fox for this film precluded such an arrangement. It possessed a provision that almost never kicks in – a ”hold over” clause. According to this provision, if the three day (Fri-Sat-Sun) gross exceeded a set amount, then it automatically held over for another week. When it became apparent that Star Wars was not losing steam, but actually picking up force six months after its opening, they contacted Columbia (the distributor of CE3K) to ask to move the opening of their film onto another (smaller) screen in the same complex.

That was not acceptable to Columbia – either CE3K went into the contracted theater on schedule or they would sue TMT for breach of contract. In any event TMT was going to be sued for breach of contract, for Fox would insist on suing if Star Wars was taken off while still doing holdover business.

Columbia took CE3K away from TMT and gave it to their competitor Larry Moyer (Tom’s estranged brother) and brought a breach of contract suit against TMT. When Tom brought a restraining order against Columbia, the distributor went another step further, by removing TMT from the bid list in Portland, effectively giving all of their upcoming films to Larry. This led Tom to claim that Columbia’s actions were in essence a group boycott and hence a breach of antitrust law.

The District Court ruling went against Columbia on their breach of contract claim, but against Tom on his antitrust claims. As these things go, appeals dragged the suits on well after the life of the films in the theaters. In fact, Star Wars V – The Empire Strikes Back came out in Tom’s theaters before the decision from the appellate court came down.

When it did come, the 9th District Appellate Court upheld the District Court’s judgement against TMT’s antitrust claims.

Per the Entertainment Law Reporter 4:19:5
“Columbia had sound justification for its refusal to deal with Tom Moyer on the basis of the ‘Close Encounters’ episode. In Columbia’s view, Larry Moyer had the next best available facilities in the area. And, even assuming that there was some type of ‘conspiracy’ between Columbia and Larry Moyer, there was no showing of any anticompetitive purpose or effect.”
(Evidently the records I dug up for the lawyers to analyse were the basis for the following section of the report):
“Tom Moyer was the only party likely to suffer from any conspiracy, and his system-wide grosses and profits had increased each year; the profits from the Portland market declined only four per cent from July 1979 to February 1980.”

I would like to close this out with a comment as to what happened afterwards, but I don’t recall how long Columbia locked TMT out of their product.  (A project for another day, when I can access some newspapers from the time period to check the ads).  I can’t help but think that Columbia got the worst of the bargain.

Close Encounters across the Street and of Another Sort

Close Encounters across the street

[Taking a brief recess from #1939TheMiracle Year]

I’ve written before about attending film screenings as part of my job. Both those in film industry screening rooms and those scheduled in theaters for press and word of mouth purposes. All of which I gained entree via my position as a film booker.

[The screening of “Star Wars” was one example of the latter kind, see this post]

Less than seven months later, my wife and I attended another film that was destined to be a ground breaking bit of cinema and another blockbuster. Our invitation was to the King Theater in Seattle on December 8, 1977 for Steven Spielberg’s latest picture “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

It was a familiar theater. It set right across the street from my former place of employment, the UA 150 and 70 (the site of our Star Wars viewing).

Dazzle – Din – Drive. A 3D trifecta in 2D, of sight and sound and emotion.

Eye-popping special effects.  That moved you between suspense and wonder.

A sound track and score that surrounded and carried you along.

And a story with characters that swept you up in their struggle and longing.

It was clear that Columbia had a hit on their hands. Both from the evidence of my own eyes, and from the reaction of the crowd.

I had an encounter of another kind with CE3K after our move to Portland for a booking position with Tom Moyer Theaters.

But first, there was another switch to be mentioned.  Within a year of moving down, my position was changed from that of a film booker to one in the accounting department. I was now responsible for paying the film rentals due to the studios – the biggest outlay of monies from the company.

Besides the normal activities of drawing up estimate and final payments, there was a whole lot of record keeping involved. And it was these records that were the point of my limited involvement with CE3K soon after this switch. Records that I myself had not created, for they hailed back a couple of years prior to my time at TMT. But now I was responsible for curating them. And it was in this new capacity that I was called upon to pull up the pertinent records needed by the lawyers in one of the lawsuits the company was embroiled in, which just happened to involve two blockbuster film titles.

It was then that I learned the curious details of this matter – when CE3K and Star Wars collided.

But more of that story next time.