This actually happened when we ran the “director’s cut” of The Exorcist, and, surprising everyone including ourselves, managed to fill all 2,672 seats in our single-screen auditorium for several halcyon nights. We were under contract to pay them the usual one-third of the house, but, seeing the numbers we honestly reported, they immediately tore up the contract and demanded a higher percentage. There was, of course, no taking Fox, Warner, MGM, RKO, Paramount or UA to court: they had the product, and we didn’t. Truth be told, lowly exhibitors like us weren’t the only ones who were running in the red. Despite having slashed their budgets and jettisoned their stables of under-contract actors (the studio system), distributors were struggling too, after a fashion. During the so-called “golden era,” they’d owned their own chains of theaters, back when the board game Monopoly was still being played with hand-carved pieces. Then a monopoly-busting piece of legislation, United States v. Paramount Pictures 334 U.S. 13 (aka The Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948) put an end to all that, and set distributors and exhibitors on opposing sides of a new game board of the U.S. Supreme Court’s making.
As a theater exhibitor, it seemed odd to be in an adversarial relationship with the MGM Lion, not to mention Columbia’s lady with a torch, or 20th Century Fox’s marvelous searchlight-lit stone letters. These and other logos had helped us settle in our childhood seats, popcorn cradled between our knees, since anyone could remember. The logos seemed like friendly presences, like the Warner cartoons that preceded them. But there’s nothing free — or friendly — about free enterprise; you can get a sense of how cut-throat it actually is, by rolling the dice and advancing your token to Boardwalk, when your Monopoly opponent has cluttered the place with hotels. The thing about Monopoly is that everybody starts out a small guy; and though that isn’t generally true of entrepreneurs, it happens to have been so for many of the distributors.
At its inception, United Artists was owned by actual artists! — Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks. The stories behind the big guys are little-guy scenarios, back when film was in its infancy. Something about the acorn and the oak applies here. I’d like to dedicate the rest of this post to the evolution of 20th Century Fox (I’m not interested in 21st Century Fox, currently the 4th-largest media conglomerate in the U.S. Media conglomerates are not my beat). Anyhow, how tiny was Fox — once?
William Fox was, like so many of the original film moguls and other denizens of showbiz, an immigrant — in his case, from Hungary. Like Roxy Rothafel, he got his start in a tiny storefront, a nickelodeon on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Movies were hand-cranked, the new and startling imagery appearing on a simple painted wall across the room. That was 1904; just eleven years later, Fox was still charging five cents a head, but had a chain of storefront theaters to show for all his hard work. Now think about it. How did a bunch of seedy storefronts grow into the logo with the searchlights whose stock is traded on Nasdaq as a class-A? I know, I know — I wasn’t going to mention media conglomeration; but, like many Americans, “free” enterprise fascinates me, because every once in a while somebody goes from rags to riches, and William Fox was one of those somebodies — for a while, at any rate.
By 1913, he was arguably the most successful of the new independent exhibitors, leading a revolt against something called the Motion Picture Patents Company, aka The Movie Trust, a brief monopoly that included elements as various as Edison and the Méliès brothers. The Trust refused equipment to anybody they didn’t like, limiting film length to 20 minutes, refusing to allow actors to be identified, and allying themselves with the up and coming giant, Kodak. But thanks to the Progressive Era, antitrust law was all the rage. Congress established the Federal Trade Commission in 1915, and, in 1917, the Movie Trust was dissolved. Since it had flourished on the East Coast — largely in New York — its death created Hollywood, where independents and creative types, including William Fox, fled to get as far away as they could from all that rampant greed. With Fox Film Corporation. William had already introduced organ accompaniment to film, had begun building movie palaces, and promoting stars, the first of which, Theda Bara, became a notable vamp, and the first real movie star.
Fox’s greatest contribution may have been (1927) the news series Movietone News,the first commercially successful sound film. It had evolved from a silent series, Fox News — a far cry from the jewel of the Murdoch empire that uses that moniker today. Now here’s the sad part: converting 1,100 theaters to sound cost a lot of money. That, combined with an anti-trust action initiated by disgruntled competitors, an auto accident he barely survived, and the stock market crash of 1929, ruined William Fox.
He lost control of his company in a hostile takeover, and declared bankruptcy in 1936. After attempting to bribe the judge, he was convicted for obstruction of justice and did time in prison, emerging in 1942. He retired quietly to Long Island, and died in 1952. No one from his Hollywood days bothered to come to the funeral. As for his company, it had been gobbled up by National Theatres Corporation, back in 1933, which then became National General and was sold to Mann Theatres in 1973. Of course, by then, antitrust laws had further separated the chaff of theater exhibition from the grain of distribution, so you could say the original Fox Film was gonzo in every sense. The boneyard of free enterprise is filled with such stories.
What’s left of William Fox? His name lives on, in some notable theaters, among them The fabled (mosquel-like) Atlanta Fox, the Detroit Fox, the Redwood City Fox, The Oakland Fox, reminiscent, it is said, of a Buddhist temple, and I could go on. Out of a list of better than a hundred theaters which once bore the Fox imprimatur, roughly forty are standing, and still a theater of some kind, whether or not Fox’s name is on the marquee. In my hometown, Cincinnati, the Twentieth Century Theatre made me think of Fox, which is what counts. That theater is still in operation, with its signature sweeping vertical Deco signage. These days it’s a nightclub, (not, I’m happy to say, a church or a drug store, like so many former palaces).
What’s in a name? Well nothing, really. William Fox, whose only legacy, his name, lives on in conglomerates and movie marquees, was actually born Wilhelm Fried. That’s showbiz.
Afterthought: Since I mentioned MGM’s lion logo, don’t miss this, whatever you do.