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Posted October 12, 2005

 

Hurricane Katrina And Film Distribution

By

Rick Mitchell

While it admittedly is insignificant when compared to the overall tragedy, there is a film industry sideline to the recent Gulf hurricane disaster that has been overlooked, except possibly in the exhibitor publication Boxoffice. While the prints in theaters that were totally submerged are obviously now unusable, New Orleans was the distribution center for prints for that area, and depending on where that depot was, ALL prints stored therein are possibly lost.

Few people not directly involved have probably ever wondered how prints get to their local theaters. Those with some knowledge of industry practices may assume that the prints are shipped from either the studio or the laboratory. Actually, the prints are originally shipped from the laboratory on cores to depots around the country where they are mounted on reels and put into the familiar Goldberg shipping cases. They are then sent out to fulfill booking dates, usually being left in the theater lobby the day the booking is set to begin, exchanged for the print(s) finishing their runs that had been left there by the projectionist following the last show the previous night. These prints are returned to the depot where, theoretically, they are inspected, repaired if necessary, and warehoused until they are needed to fulfill another booking. This process repeats throughout the period in which the distribution company accepts bookings on the film, nowadays roughly about six months as the title cycles downward from first run to bargain theater bookings.

As far as the United States was concerned, film depots were in or outside a number of major to mid-level cities around the country, supplying prints to specific areas. The New Orleans depot serviced not only Louisiana, but East Texas, the southern parts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, and parts of the Florida panhandle. There are also depots in Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta, and Jacksonville and there may be some overlapping of service territories. Originally the major distributors had booking offices in each of these cities, as did local "States Rights" distributors who handled independent films in those specific areas, but since the Seventies, the actual bookings have increasingly been made from either Los Angeles or New York offices.

What makes the hurricane potentially tragic is that prior to about 1990, not only were prints of films currently in circulation stored in such regional depots, but also surviving prints of older films, especially those of independents. Theodore Gluck of the Walt Disney Company told me that his first job for Buena Vista distribution in the mid-Eighties was to go around to such depots and catalog the prints of Disney films he found. In the course of doing so he saw numerous 70mm prints of "Around The World In 80 Days" from the original release as well as the 1968 re-release. Any such prints in the New Orleans depot would have been lost and if there are no prints in any other depot and no one knows the fate of the original negative or any other preprint material, the film itself may be lost!

Another possible loss would be prints struck for special one-time-only exhibition situations on which there may not have been official studio or laboratory records and which often ended up in depots, strangely often outlying ones, where they were forgotten. Joseph A. Capporicio has claimed that special stereo prints made by Warner Bros. in the late Fifties and early Sixties exclusively for certain films' New York first runs ended up in the Albany depot, from which they were frequently booked by an area exhibitor who had the equipment to run them; unfortunately, this has not been corroborated by subsequent searches for these prints. However, similar prints of other films from this period that WERE known to have been shown in stereo only in New York and maybe Los Angeles and Chicago have been found in such depots; in instances where their stereo dubmasters had either been lost or degaussed, such as the Warner Bros. films, restoration of their stereo tracks has been done using either those prints or those which had managed to get from depots into the hands of private collectors. A rare original 4-track magnetic stereo print of "Master Of The World" (AIP; 1961) was found in such a depot and the late Ron Haver claimed to have found the uncut roadshow print of "The Diary Of Anne Frank" in a New Jersey depot in the early Seventies, though Fox still had an uncut fine grain and the 4-track dub master on that film.

Around 1990, Gilboy, Inc., the company operating most film depots around the United States, got out of the business and supposedly junked any prints not picked up by their rights owners, who themselves supposedly junked most of them, though the Charlotte, NC depot's holdings were reportedly donated to the University of North Carolina. This includes 35mm prints of RKO and Republic pictures struck for reissue in the Fifties when they were handled by local States Rights distributors as well as surviving 35mm prints of American International films from that period; AIP prided itself on never taking any of its films out of distribution, cobbling together complete prints from projectable reels of other prints so that until the company was sold to Filmways in 1980, one could still book its first release, "The Fast And The Furious" (1954), if you could find a print. (A printout of an annual AIP distribution report from 1969 given to me by former AIP production head Norman T. Herman shows bookings for that film out of their Miami office that year.)

Currently, print distribution is handled either by a company owned by Technicolor or Entertainment Transportation Specialists (ETS), a company owned by rival De Luxe Laboratories. After Katrina, ETS was servicing those still operating theaters in the New Orleans zone from Dallas; it's not known what effect Rita had on this.

Since distribution is the least documented area of film history, it is interesting to recount how this system came about. Originally, with the rise in popularity of motion pictures projected before audiences onto a screen, exhibitors bought films outright from the various producers, either by the subject or even by the foot. Of course, once these films were seen by their audiences, and exhibitors in fixed situations like vaudeville houses and the few established theaters devoted exclusively to films changed their programs every DAY, they were useless. They soon began exchanging their films with other exhibitors for fresh ones. Around 1900, an exhibitor (according to some sources it was Thomas L. Talley), who'd set up the first theater exclusively for films in Los Angeles (there's a plaque on a building on Main St. in downtown L.A. commemorating this, if the building still exists), set aside a room in his building just for this purpose, the source of the term FILM EXCHANGE.

Around 1902, an exhibitor named Harry Miles came up with the idea of buying prints from the producing company and RENTING them to exhibitors, the real foundation on which the motion picture industry was built. On the heels of the success of "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) and the introduction of the nickelodeon, specific production companies began evolving and they would grant franchises to distributors in major cities around the country to handle their films in the areas those franchisees serviced. In 1908, the major production companies were formed into a Trust by Edison based around a pool of their various camera and projector patents. One of this Trust's first moves was to force the distribution franchisees to sell their exchanges to it or be put out of business by being denied access to product. This led to Carl Laemmle and others going into production, and because the Trust didn't offer William Fox what he felt his exchanges were worth, his initiating the anti-Trust suit that would ultimately break it.

These independent producers also set up independent exchanges or made deals with struggling distributors who hadn't sold to the Trust, such as the Warner Brothers. In 1912, Carl Laemmle and a number of other independent producers formed the Universal Film Manufacturing Company as an umbrella national and later international distribution outlet for their product. Cut negatives would be shipped to corporate offices in New York where release prints would be struck and shipped to the regional depots, a practice that most companies would continue after production shifted to Southern California.

(Only MGM and Columbia are known to have done release printing at their West Coast labs, as did only Technicolor and CineColor of the independent labs; Fox's East Coast corporate offices would be in the same building as its De Luxe Laboratories. Otherwise, though the West Coast studios' on-the-lot labs would handle dailies and answer prints, negatives would be sent eastward for release printing, a practice also followed by labs servicing the independents like Consolidated and Pathe. California's inventory tax law was a factor in this as studios would be taxed on negatives and prints on site on March 15 of every year. As a result, negatives and related materials were usually stored in vaults in New Jersey after printing. One of Ronald Reagan's first moves when he was elected governor was having this tax rescinded as it applied to the film industry, though it still hasn't significantly changed the policy of essentially shutting down production in March.

Where special regional versions of a film was necessitated for censorship reasons, as in Chicago and the South, those deletions, or the insertion of specially prepared sections would be done at the regional exchanges. One of the standards established by the Trust was the 1,000 ft. reel for exhibition, and printing machines were set up to handle negatives of up-to this length. In the Thirties, projectionists began splicing two of these together to reduce changeovers and by 1936, the 2,000 ft. reel had become a new standard, but because printing machines and sound recorders were still set up to handle a maximum of 1,000 ft., picture and sound negatives would be cut, printed, and shipped to exchanges in those lengths. There the odd and even reels would be spliced together and mounted and shipped on 2,000 ft. reels. The Bell & Howell panel printers introduced in the Sixties could handle 2,000 negatives and reels of that length began to be printed and became standard after 1968 when it became practical to do very high speed printing from internegatives, such as at today's 2,000+ ft. per minute. )

In 1914, a Utah distributor named W.W. Hodkinson formed Paramount Pictures along the same lines as Universal. Two of his franchisees were Adolph Zukor's Famous Players In Famous Plays and the Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company. Two years later, Zukor merged with Lasky, took over Paramount, kicked Hodkinson out, and set up the vertically integrated production-distribution-exhibition business model that the motion picture industry would operate under for the next thirty years, and still does to varying degrees.

Originally both film booking and shipping operations were handled in each company's regional exchange. The nitrate prints were shipped in special fireproof trucks and railway cars, a practice that continued for a decade or so after the use of safety film was mandated by law. In 1950, the shipping operations of most companies were pooled into depots where prints were supposedly examined, repaired, and stored between bookings, the exception being Universal. I say supposedly because when working in my neighborhood theater in Lexington, KY in 1962-63, we regularly got prints of Allied Artists, American International, and films being handled by States Rights companies without leaders and spliced by previous projectionists with Scotch tape and other strange materials. It's possible that the employees of these joint operations did not care as much about the prints as employees of a given company might, which also explains the inaccurate or incomplete record keeping that resulted in prints being forgotten in such exchanges. Perhaps the most tragic instance occurred in the Eighties, in which the only surviving 70mm blow-up prints made in the early Seventies by Warner Bros. for select first run engagements were ruined when they were left on a loading dock at a San Jose depot during a rainstorm.

And one of the more bizarre stories about film depots: in the mid-Sixties, when the Los Angeles depot was on Washington Blvd. near the city's old Film Row at Washington and Vermont, a group of USC film students are rumored to have rented the house next door, tunneled under the fence, and would nightly go under to steal prints, though there wasn't that much of a market for 35mm prints in those days.

 



The author would like to thank Marc Bovee, NBC-Universal; Herbert E. Farmer, USC School of Cinema; Theodore Gluck, Walt Disney Co.; Norman T. Herman; Jeff Joseph, Sabucat Productions; Scott MacQueen; Richard P. May, Warner Bros.; Michael Schlesinger, Sony Repertory; the late Sidney P. Solow; and Karl Thiede, 20th Century Fox for information included in this article.

 


Rick Mitchell is a film editor, film director, and film historian.  He lives in Los Angeles.

2005 Rick Mitchell.  All rights reserved

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