As it turned out, we needn’t have worried. The Exorcist was made to play the St. George, a theater gothic enough to match its story of spiritual possession. Details of that night will appear in Starts Wednesday, the book this blog heralds, but meanwhile, I’m thinking about an issue that haunts (pun very much intended) the Exorcist chapter of my forthcoming book: how independent movie theater “operators” — as we were called — are helpless in the face of the big bad boys, the “distributors” —Warner, Fox, MGM, and the like.
Warner, which owned The Exorcist, initially wanted thirty percent of our box office receipts. These were great terms for that or any era, outlined in the usual distributor’s contract. What was wrong with this set up? Distributors are never known for their generosity. Truth be told, nobody but nobody expected our faded palace to do good numbers. That list of nobodies included our booking agent who — how could we have trusted him? — also worked for a major theater chain. As a matter of fact, he’d already booked Exorcist at a strip mall theater on the other side of Staten Island, while assuring us we had “an exclusive.”
An historic weekend. We sold out the house twice, raking in enough soda-soaked dollar bills to pay the rent and a lot else. Whew! That sweet intake of breath and relief lasted around 24 hours, until Monday, when Warner told our agent to inform us they were changing the terms of the contract. We considered calling our ancient toothless lawyer with a threadbare office next door, but our agent asked us to consider two things: first, whether we might ever want to book another Warner title; second, that Warner, MGM, “...an all da rest...sorta hang togetha.”
So the old contract found its sad place in the circular file, and a new one arrived shortly, stating that Warner was entitled to 60%, retroactive. For 24 hours we’d known what it was like to run at a profit. That we were honestly reporting our box office receipts — when it was assumed by agent and distributors alike that, like most theater operators of the time, we were cheating by palming tickets —is another related story.
On December 31, 2011 at a site called Quora, Paul Turner, owner of the Darkside Cinema in Corvalis Oregon, wrote, “Being an independent cinema we are the lowest on the exhibition food chain, which means studios can treat us any way they please.... To a few studios we are nothing but an annoyance and they hope we will all die out when 35mm prints are no longer available and we cannot afford to go over to their brand of digital. That way they only have to deal with the bookers of the large theaters — making their lives much easier.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. And yet I was pleased to observe that — since digital is now almost universal — the Darkside is still in operation, with Paul Turner at the helm. This guy is quite a writer, BTW, author of Prancing Lavender Bunnies and Other Stuff from the Darkside of Independent Cinema, which I will read as soon as it arrives. Here are some choice additional words Turner offers on the Quora site, to sum up the pleasures and perils of theater operation:
“Owning a cinema feels like having the honor of being the one who lights the modern cultural bonfire that everyone gathers around to hear stories. It is the job of a theater owner to make sure the story is on time, in focus and can be heard. This is how it feels on the good days. On the bad days it feels like getting a gasoline enema in a fireworks factory while smoking an exploding cigar.”
I think sometimes I remember the exploding cigar too much, but the cultural bonfire was very real for me, while it lasted.