1/25/2007

Vintage: Ballyhoo, Part 2

Posted in Vintage at 5:00 am by Sam

It’s time for the next batch of marketing hijinks, actually used by exhibitors to market films in the 1920s. At the time, not only was the culture different, but the industry was young and untrodden. Some of the stunts they pulled are absolutely hilarious. Others — and we’ll see an example of that this week — make us cringe. Either way, it wasn’t as boring as the familiar patterns practiced by movie marketing today.

If you missed the first installment in this series, you can catch up on it here.

Ballyhoo

This page (and most of the next) continue the section on marketing pictures for children and teenagers. Just the fact that children and teenagers are lumped together tells us something about the culture. Today, children’s films and teenagers’ films are very different things, handled in very different ways. But teenagers didn’t assume the reins of pop culture until the baby boomers wooed the entertainment industry by the sheer force of numbers.

As always, I’ve marked in red the marketing stunts that interest me most — but these pages are worth reading in their entirety, and I was exceptionally pleased last time, when reader Aaron posted an interesting observation about a stunt I’d missed the significance of.

The “Caged Bear” stunt speaks for itself. I love that the significance of the bear is in the pun only; the film doesn’t even have to have anything to do with bears. It seriously makes me want to drive a caged bear around with a sign saying, “All Movie Talk: A Bear of a Podcast.”

The stunt following that, though, is less amusing. I’m not big on political correctness, but the then common use of blackface isn’t just politically incorrect. It speaks of a casual disregard for racial harmony. To be perfectly honest, I’d love to live in a world where blackface and other forms of racial humor are ok, because we’re all secure enough in our own identities and so broadly accepting of other races and cultures that to mock them would never be confused for animosity or thoughtlessness and would never hurt. Racial humor like this is only bad because of the actual racism out there. But let’s face it. No matter how important it is to strive for perfect racial harmony, we’re not going to get there. And that means that derogatory humor like this will always have a hurtful edge to it.

All the more reason to remember history. What particularly strikes me is that, here, blackface is used as a marketing tool. If it were contained in an artistic work, that would be less shocking. The goal of art isn’t necessarily to have mass appeal. The purpose of art may be to entertain only a few, or not to entertain at all but to startle, shock, scare, or provoke thought. But the purpose of marketing is to persuade as many people as possible to buy your product or service. An exhibitor using this marketing stunt to sell tickets to a movie clearly believes that a gimmick involving blackface has a chance of stirring general interest. And that’s an unnerving thought.

But, moving on. The Newsboys Parade stunt is another of these great gimmicks that work by causing a scene in a public place. What I want to know is, why newsboys?

The Boy Artist stunt is yet another that would just never work now that it’s the distributors and not the exhibitors in charge of marketing movies. On the other hand, can you imagine the flurry of press Warner Bros. would get if they announced that they’d be hiring 6000 child prodigies to draw pictures of Spider-Man at theaters everywhere?

As for the Aeroplane Contest…well, last week, we had a tracing contest and a ukulele contest, so why not?

Ballyhoo

The Juvenile Club stunt is a great example of something that still works today, although marketers have correctly figured out that there’s no reason to limit the club to kids. The idea must have seemed novel at the time, and I wonder how many exhibitors read this very passage in 1929, scoffed at it, and moved on.

Ah, how I longed for the Dude, Where’s My Car? spelling bee. But I don’t even think there was an Akeelah and the Bee spelling bee.

The Booster Club is an absolute masterpiece of underhandedness. What’s better than signing people up for spam? Bribing little kids to sign people up for spam!

And what bastion of surrealism is the Baby Parade and Show? Do people still do things like this in some weird parts of the country? It puts me in the mind of country fairs, where each year proud farmers nurture prize goats or gourds or something and compete against each other in the annual fair. Only here, you get pregnant around January, so that by November you’ve got a prime entry in the annual Baby Parade and Show. Curse that Mrs. Kensington, taking home Chubbiest Baby three years running!

The Children’s Hour, on the other hand, is a marvelously primitive incarnation of two staples of movie exhibition. It’s probably counterintuitive for an exhibitor to cut prices too dramatically, so it makes sense that they’d have to be comfortable with this idea before separating children’s discounts and matinee prices into separate standard things.

My favorite stunt of the week, however, is the Potato Matinee, clearly the most brilliant idea imaginable. I should call up our local theaters and ask if they host any potato matinees I don’t know about.

5 Comments »

  1. WarpNacelle (48) said,

    January 25, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    So what was the frequency of movie releases back then? I’m sure a lot of the reason marketing had to go to a standard formula is just due to the amount of movie released now. They don’t have the time or money to creatively market it all. They just have to choose the few blockbusters.

    However, I think we could stand to resurrect a few of these ideas!

  2. Sam (405) said,

    January 25, 2007 at 12:19 pm

    There were actually more films released then than now. Sound and modern special effects really slow down production. Before either, you could crank them out pretty fast. These days, we get about 300 films per year; in 1928, there were 820.

    Everything was different, though. Distribution patterns were radically different — you never saw “wide releases,” for example. Films rolled out to theaters gradually. I suspect this was a lot of the reason that the onus of marketing fell on the theaters rather than the studios. Most of all, the cash flow between the studios and theaters was different, so the incentive to advertise was in a different place. It’s a pretty complicated picture, and one I don’t completely understand, so it’s tough to track. But these days, studios have a much stronger vested interest in total ticket sales. In 1928, the focus of the studios was more on theater coverage, and so the focus of their own advertising was more to exhibitors than individual patrons.

    But certainly the fact that it’s the theaters, not the studios, doing so much of the advertising explains why so many of these marketing stunts have such a local feel to them. A studio can’t market a film to theaters by holding chubby baby parades all over the place. But the proprietor of some town’s single movie theater could reach its entire patronage just by marching up and down main street.

  3. Grishny (156) said,

    January 25, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    I read a term that I didn’t recognize two or three times on those pages. “Tie up.” From the context, it sounds like they’re talking about the theaters arranging some kind of cooperative promotion with whoever it is that they’re to “tie up” with.

    One of the funniest things about reading these is just seeing how much the language of advertising and marketing has changed over the last 8 decades. If I went to a marketing meeting nowadays and suggested that we “tie up” with another organization on something, I’d be met with a room full of blank stares.

  4. wintermute (157) said,

    January 25, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    All the more reason to remember history. What particularly strikes me is that, here, blackface is used as a marketing tool. If it were contained in an artistic work, that would be less shocking. The goal of art isn’t necessarily to have mass appeal. The purpose of art may be to entertain only a few, or not to entertain at all but to startle, shock, scare, or provoke thought. But the purpose of marketing is to persuade as many people as possible to buy your product or service. An exhibitor using this marketing stunt to sell tickets to a movie clearly believes that a gimmick involving blackface has a chance of stirring general interest. And that’s an unnerving thought.

    Dave Neiwert at Orcinus has recently been writing a 10-part (well, currently 8-part) history of racism in America. I’m finding it an excellent read, and seems very well researched, though I (of course) can’t swear that it’s 100% accurate. Part 6: Strange Fruit, and Part 7: After Sundown deal with the treatment of blacks in America after emancipation, and the picture they paint of the 20’s and 30’s is not a pretty one, but does go some way to explaining why casual use of blackface might be reasonable acceptable.

    There were actually more films released then than now. Sound and modern special effects really slow down production. Before either, you could crank them out pretty fast. These days, we get about 300 films per year; in 1928, there were 820.

    A better question in this context might be: what was the frequency of releases in an average cinema? This works out as 6 new movies released per week now (which seems doable, if tight, in a 10-screen multiplex), compared to 16 a week in 1928 (which seems, frankly, impossible for a single-screen cinema to handle).

    Now I have it written down, I wonder if this question is even answerable…

  5. Sam (405) said,

    January 26, 2007 at 12:19 pm

    wim: The missing factor that makes the question tough is, what percentage of movies did theaters ever screen at all? Again, a huge difference between then and now. Today, most multiplexes get pretty good coverage of wide releases, but even they don’t quite get them all.

    But in the 20s, it’s a more complicated picture, one I would love to cover in a future Vintage post, but I don’t quite understand it well enough. Suffice it to say that it was common for theaters to only screen movies from one particular studio at a time. The “wide release,” as we think of it today, just didn’t exist. A better analogy is the world of live theater, where towns all have their own local playhouses with their own programming, and sometimes a theater group makes a road show tour of playhouses. It’s still not quite analogous, but it’s closer to the mark.

    I do have some pages of revenue reports by theater, which list what titles were playing where, in several major cities. Next week we should talk about sound again, but maybe the week after, I’ll post some of these pages and talk about the distribution patterns, and maybe that will help explore the issue.

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