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.

The 1977 California Trip: Hello Anxiety, the Fox Tour

The 1977 California Trip Fox Hello Anxiety2

The day after our exciting day on the Paramount lot, we were looking forward to our next studio – 20th Century Fox.

We went through Westwood on the way to Century City and saw the Avco Center Cinemas owned by my first employer, GCC. They were playing Star Wars to blockbuster business. (The film was then in its third or fourth week, piling up record grosses all across the country). We were tempted to brave the crowds later, but held off. (We had seen it already).

The entrance to the studio back then was off Pico Blvd on a long side street that lead to the visitors’ parking area.  Lining that street was a three story standing exterior set that was immediately recognizable. We could not help but rubberneck to take in the location where a song and dance number was performed and shot for Hello Dolly.  [The facade must be gone now, as it is not visible on any of the satellite map sites I checked].

I do not recall where it was exactly that we reported to begin our tour, nor do I remember who it was that took us around. I have the distinct impression that we were on our own exploring the lot. But then again some one had to have been with us to tell us what we were looking at.

We made our way through the rest of the New York set that branched off of the street we came in on. Past that we came out on one of the studio streets that ran by a series of four stages on our left, and a rather odd looking building on our right. Some big rig trucks were parked parallel to it, sitting idle. The building looked like an exterior mock up of a train station, including a raised platform in front of it. (In fact it had been used as such, see the following article). It is probably the oldest building on the lot (and may have been moved from its original position). Tom Mix, the cowboy star who appeared in Fox westerns, kept his horses in this “barn.” He was the original owner of the ranch it sat upon. Fox purchased this property when their older studio lots in Hollywood proved too small. (You can find a series of pictures of the site over time in this article).

With the exception of one film, not much was going on in the studio that day. We took a right and walked by some more stages, up to the area of the Tennessee Avenue gate. The bungalows kept for stars working on the lot were situated there. It looked for all the world like a neighborhood street from the thirties. That’s probably because they date from that period. A larger one on the corner was then the medical clinic for the studio, but had been the bungalow for the pint-sized savior of Fox during the Depression – the singing and dancing, cute as a button dynamo, Shirley Temple. (Another article)

At this point of the tour, the lunch hour had crept up on us, for the next stop was the commissary (aka Cafe de Paris). I ran across a picture recently that was taken after a remodel in 1976, the year before our visit. It’s exactly as I remember it right down to those two big planters.  The studio heads Dennis Stanfill and Alan Ladd Jr. were nowhere in sight, so they must have been in the executive dining room.

As I mentioned above there was one film in production – Mel Books’ High Anxiety.  It just so happened that at the end of April they had been doing exterior work up in San Francisco and in the Hyatt Regency in particular, the very place we had visited just a few days prior. Now Brooks was set up in Stage 14 for interior work, which was on the other side of those NY standing sets.

I had located a history that put the lounge song number from the film on that stage (the scene in which Brooks sings the title tune to Madeline Kahn). That was not the setup we saw that day. It was very quiet as we walked down the alley to the open studio door. A quietness that whispered everyone was taking a siesta. As we looked through the door a simple setting of furniture was arranged against white walls – a glass topped coffee table in front of a sofa. Though there was probably no one within, I could not shake off the feeling that people were there in the shadows holding their collective breaths waiting for us to go away.

Come December when High Anxiety was released I finally understood what we had seen on Stage 14. It was the comic scene played out between Cloris Leachman (Nurse Diesel) and Harvey Korman (Dr. Charles Montague), in which the camera shooting up from under the coffee table attempts to follow the two as they converse, only to have its view blocked by their movement of the cups, saucers and plates across its glass top.

A little bit of film history. Alright, minuscule. But we didn’t need to see “stars.” Just being there was a thrill. (We did have a brief encounter when we returned to the lot in 1985, but that’s a blog post for another day).

So stay tuned and Watch This Space.

Viewing Star Wars

Just wanted to reblog this post to mark the 40th Anniversary #StarWars40

Viewing Star Wars

Star Wars opened to the public on May 25th 1977 – the Wednesday before Memorial weekend. But I saw it before the public did, because that was my job.

At that time I worked for the Saffle Theater Service in Seattle, WA, and had been for a year. Part of my job was to attend the screenings of upcoming films and report back whether in my judgment the film would “play” or “not play” in the venues we negotiated for. If it were an art film or a documentary more than likely it was not for us, unless the boss deemed it a candidate for our theaters in the Moscow, ID/Pullman, WA area (homes respectively for the University of Idaho and Washington State University). If it were a saturation booking like “Sky Riders” from Fox, and if it was slated to have a massive TV advertising campaign, then, of course the answer was a resounding yes. We had quite a few drive ins and tank towns that wanted to get in on that action.

When the screening for a sci-fi fantasy film from Fox was announced in May of 1977 there was no buzz, no excitement going around among the denizens of Seattle’s film row. In fact, I don’t think there was any interest at all. I, however, was very interested.

Around Christmas of 1976, Fox had put out a brochure for their upcoming titles for 1977. I perused it as I did for similar offerings from the other distributors. Here Fox was touting the likes of The Other Side of Midnight, Julia, The Turning Point, and High Anxiety. What riveted my attention was the spread on a sci-fi title called Star Wars. The graphic didn’t mean a thing (of course it didn’t, no one had seen the picture yet – it showed Luke and Leia from the shaft scene on the Death Star). But the “written and directed by” credit did. And that was why I was excited – for it cited a name that I recognized as the director of American Grafitti, George Lucas.

So, it was with great anticipation that I sat with my wife in the UA Cinema 150 to see it unspool for the first time in Seattle. And we were not disappointed. The Cinema 150 sits (or rather did sit) under a dome and has (had) a gigantic screen. That screen filled an 120 degree field of view to your front. The opening scroll and the electrifying score racheted up the anticipation. And I swear that when that Star Destroyer loomed into the scene in pursuit of the other space ship, you felt that it was directly on top of you (I think it had something to do with the sense of space imparted by that dome).

From that moment I knew that this film was going to do fantastic, light years ahead of American Grafitti, but even so I did not know just how epic the grosses were going to be.

[Aside – I did have problem trying to convince one of our clients to play it at their theater. The Olympic theater in Forks, WA., did not want to take a chance on playing it until it was available for their normal two day schedule. They were only open four days a week – with two changes, one bill on Friday and Saturday and the other on Sunday and Monday. I finally convinced him to play it all four days, resulting in a record gross for him. Not surprisingly, he held it over another weekend].

Viewing Star Wars

Viewing Star Wars

With “Star Wars the Force Awakens” everywhere in the news and on the brink of its opening this Friday, I thought I’d chime in with a post about my viewing of the first seminal film. It opened to the public on May 25th 1977 – the Wednesday before Memorial weekend. But I saw it before the public did, because that was my job.

At that time I worked for the Saffle Theater Service in Seattle, WA, and had been for a year. Part of my job was to attend the screenings of upcoming films and report back whether in my judgment the film would “play” or “not play” in the venues we negotiated for. If it were an art film or a documentary more than likely it was not for us, unless the boss deemed it a candidate for our theaters in the Moscow, ID/Pullman, WA area (homes respectively for the University of Idaho and Washington State University). If it were a saturation booking like “Sky Riders” from Fox, and if it was slated to have a massive TV advertising campaign, then, of course the answer was a resounding yes. We had quite a few drive ins and tank towns that wanted to get in on that action.

When the screening for a sci-fi fantasy film from Fox was announced in May of 1977 there was no buzz, no excitement going around among the denizens of Seattle’s film row. In fact, I don’t think there was any interest at all. I, however, was very interested.

Around Christmas of 1976, Fox had put out a brochure for their upcoming titles for 1977. I perused it as I did for similar offerings from the other distributors. Here Fox was touting the likes of The Other Side of Midnight, Julia, The Turning Point, and High Anxiety. What riveted my attention was the spread on a sci-fi title called Star Wars. The graphic didn’t mean a thing (of course it didn’t, no one had seen the picture yet – it showed Luke and Leia from the shaft scene on the Death Star). But the “written and directed by” credit did. And that was why I was excited – for it cited a name that I recognized as the director of American Grafitti, George Lucas.

So, it was with great anticipation that I sat with my wife in the UA Cinema 150 to see it unspool for the first time in Seattle. And we were not disappointed. The Cinema 150 sits (or rather did sit) under a dome and has (had) a gigantic screen. That screen filled an 120 degree field of view to your front. The opening scroll and the electrifying score racheted up the anticipation. And I swear that when that Star Destroyer loomed into the scene in pursuit of the other space ship, you felt that it was directly on top of you (I think it had something to do with the sense of space imparted by that dome).

From that moment I knew that this film was going to do fantastic, light years ahead of American Grafitti, but even so I did not know just how epic the grosses were going to be.

[Aside – I did have problem trying to convince one of our clients to play it at their theater. The Olympic theater in Forks, WA., did not want to take a chance on playing it until it was available for their normal two day schedule. They were only open four days a week – with two changes, one bill on Friday and Saturday and the other on Sunday and Monday. I finally convinced him to play it all four days, resulting in a record gross for him. Not surprisingly, he held it over another weekend].

Beyond Finian

With the curtain calls in for Finian’s Rainbow, Francis Ford Coppola was hot to get on the road for his next project, The Rain People. But Howard Kazanjian was faced with a dilemma as to what he would be doing next.

Francis had asked Howard to accompany him on The Rain People as his AD. They were going to be on the road traveling light, catching those places and situations that crossed their path, much as they had when up in the Bay area for Finian. So he only wanted one AD for this film. This restriction placed a stumbling block to Howard’s participation.  Howard was a 2d AD at the time, but this arrangement would require him to be a 1st AD. To remedy this problem, Coppola called the DGA to ask for a waiver, or perhaps get Howard “promoted” to 1st AD early, since he was so close to qualifying already. The DGA turned Coppola down on both counts. Coppola turned to Howard and gave him this advice – “Quit the Guild.” Howard had to tell Coppola “No.” He just felt he could not. It would be too difficult (nigh on impossible, not to mention expensive) to try to get back in afterwards.

[Aside – As I mentioned in an earlier post George Lucas did go along with Coppola for The Rain People, not as AD, but as a general factotum, a gopher. He shot a documentary about the making of the film. On the road, somewhere in Colorado, Francis and George took in Kubrick’s “2001 A Space Odyssey.” George told Francis that he wanted to do something in that vein. It was one of the seeds for what later would become “Star Wars.” In tribute to Kubrick, they painted an inscription on one of the vans in their caravan – “HAL 9000” in three inch letters].

Instead, Howard went on to work for Sam Peckinpah and his film The Wild Bunch, (which is covered in other posts on my blog).

Later, in 1971, Coppola wanted Howard to be his AD on The Godfather. Again, the DGA rules intervened. Back then a member of the West Coast DGA (of which Howard was one) could not work within the jurisdiction of the East Coast DGA, where the film was to be shot.