How film exhibition has changed in the past 50 years: an interview with George Mansour.
People writing about film in the Boston area consider Mansour to be one of their most treasured resources. Although he had no formal education after high school, Mansour's knowledge of foreign, independent, and other "specialty" films is both vast and freely shared. It is a rite of passage for Boston writers to make the trek to Mansour's comfortable Beacon Hill apartment, there to tap into the movie experience so generously and volubly offered, and try to translate this flow of information and memory into an article like this one.
Boston-area writers are not the only people to recognize the unique quality of Mansour's experience and expertise. In his book, Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, John Pierson calls Mansour "just about the savviest specialized film buyer anywhere." And in October, 1999 Mansour received the 4th Annual Salles Achievement in Exhibition Award at Show East in Atlantic City.
Mansour grew up in West Roxbury, an overweight Lebanese gay kid who developed an early passion for movies. He saw two or three a week, and also kept scrapbooks (in big ledgers which his mother gave him after they had been filled up with figures from her grocery business) that held glossy magazine advertisements for 1930s and '40s films.
Not content with these mementos of happy movie experiences, he would make movies in his mind based on books he read, and cast them with stars of the day, like Montgomery Cliff and Patricia Neal starring in Reflections in a Golden Eye. All of these movies appear in the scrapbooks, with hand-drawn illustrations, billed as "presented by Sir George Mansour."
Mansour showed me these scrapbooks one afternoon in November, 1999 as a prelude to talking about the changes in film exhibition he has witnessed. Asked how he got into the film exhibition business, Mansour replied, "Sometime around 1969 I stopped working for Warner Brothers and went to work as a booker for Esquire Theaters. I had been in distribution for about 7 or 8 years." Esquire owned a lot of different kinds of theaters, first run and repertory, as well as drive-ins and exploitation houses, including several that showed mostly sex movies.
"There was a number of first-run houses in Boston in those days," Mansour recalled, "but lots more neighborhood theaters and independent movie houses. New England was particularly noted for having so many `mom and pop' movie houses. The one that Joe [Santamaria, Mansour's lover and partner for more than 40 years] and I bought and operated for awhile in Williamstown, [in western Massachusetts] was typical of that kind of theater."
Mansour remembered that "it held the auditorium for the theater, as well as two stores. Above the theater and the lobby was an apartment, which was intended for the owners. There was a door leading from the dining room into the booth. Whoever was living there was also the projectionist and everything else. The `wife,' might be selling popcorn while the `husband' was busy changing reels."
Theaters like the one in Williamstown "were mostly second run houses, but some of them were first run. The one in Williamstown was the only movie house in town. There were many, many more second run houses than repertory in those days. Today Dorchester has no movie house at all, but there were 5 back then. There were also houses in Roxbury and the Fenway, none of which are around any more. [Dorchester, Roxbury, and the Fenway are all neighborhoods of Boston.]
"There was the Fine Arts in the Fenway, an upstairs theater that was mostly repertory. There were also first run art houses, like the Exeter Street and the Orson Welles. The Harvard Square was one, but it changed to repertory, having a different double bill every day. We had a vibrant theater community. In those days, even the Cheri [which now mostly books big action movies] would play something like Cries and Whispers."
In 1947 a Supreme Court ruling had broken up the vertical monopolies which allowed major Hollywood studios to exert control in exhibition as well as production and distribution. But there were still echoes of that old system around in the 1960s. "Regular first run movie houses mostly belonged to chains," Mansour remembered. "MGM's films mostly played at Loew's movie houses, and Paramount mostly used ATM [American Theater Management] theaters, like the Music Hall in downtown Boston.
"And there were a lot more movies coming out then. Also, since we didn't have video in those days, lots of re-releases happened. Films lasted a lot longer, as far as being in circulation. But the prints were also better. I remember when I was working for Warner Brothers they had a room where old ladies with thick glasses would go over the prints after they came back from theaters and repair any damage they found. Nowadays a film runs for a couple of months and then they just throw it away."
Talking about the typically longer runs for films in those days, Mansour analyzed the differences between then and now. "The movies lasted longer, but they didn't necessarily play as long in one house as they can now. Since there were 5 or 6 titles coming along, all from the same company, the movies would move into the neighborhood houses much faster. They had what they called a 14-day and a 21-day release pattern.
"Basically, although it didn't always adhere exactly to that, the first tier of sub-run houses got their movies in two weeks after it opened in Boston, and the next tier would get it in three weeks. It was a little like an assembly line. Stuff just went right through, and it didn't matter how much it grossed. Some movie houses now sometimes keep a popular movie until it comes out on video, and that's why there are so few sub-run movie houses any more. They can't get the best titles."
Another change has happened in distribution patterns over the past three decades. "Most films didn't open wide in the 60s and early 70s, going to every city all at once. They would go to the first run movie houses in the big markets and then gradually go down the line. You didn't see a film playing in 9 or 12 different theaters in the same city when it first opened. Something like End of Days would have played at the Metropolitan, and that would be its only site in Boston, until it moved into the second-run houses. Of course those were huge movie palaces, but even so, films didn't play simultaneously in the suburbs, and there weren't any malls, outside the city. So if you wanted to see a first-run movie you had to come into the city."
Mansour still feels lucky to have been able to work in Boston. "Boston was a very important movie market then. A very few movies might only open at the Music Hall in New York City, and maybe in Grauman's Chinese in Los Angeles, and then gradually go out, but that was the exception. We also had some hard-ticket movies from time to time, where you had assigned seats. Something like Bridge on the River Kwai would play like that before it went into general release.
"But, generally speaking, films opened in Boston the same time they opened in New York and the other major cities, and all the big movie companies had distribution offices in Boston. There was a street in Bay Village where most of these companies had their offices -- it was called Film Row -- they had their offices, and screening rooms, and also shipping facilities, and that was when the films were inspected. They cleaned the prints, tried to make sure that they had the right running time, and see than nothing had been cut out of the film by some projectionist. And that was where critics came for press screenings."
Talking about the great variety of theaters and films he got to work with, Mansour described his Esquire days fondly. "At Esquire I booked over a hundred screens. We had straight porn and gay porn houses to book, we had exploitation theaters, we had drive-ins, art houses, first run commercial houses, sub-run houses. I would go in on Saturdays and Sundays, get the figures, sit around and wait for the owners to come in to go over the bookings. It was fun for me, definitely not a chore.
"The Esquire people were primarily exhibitors, but they also branched out a little bit into distribution. That took me to Europe a couple of times, where I bought films, already made, like Mark of the Devil, which we would then distribute to other exhibitors. And then we branched out even further and started to produce films, like Last House on the Left. That was a movie that was basically made because we had made a lot of money on a sex movie called Together, made by a young man in New Jersey named Sean Cunningham.
"He came up to Boston and showed us the film, which starred Marilyn Chambers. I thought it was exploitable, so I recommended it to my bosses. But instead of just showing the movie, they bought the distribution rights, which was a little unusual then. They made a lot of money on it, and so did Cunningham, but he didn't do as well as Esquire did. So to pacify him they gave him some money to make a movie to be called Sex Crime of the Century. He became a producer and hired a director to film it, and the director was of course Wes Craven. So without me, there might not have been a Scream today."
Esquire also worked with Cunningham on his most successful series. "We were also involved in Cunningham's Friday the 13th series, having set up a distribution company named Hallmark Films after the success of Last House ... I believe that after the first three Friday the 13ths we sold the title to Paramount. So every time they made a new movie in the series they would send Esquire a check."
This variety of theaters provided a fertile ground for the development of gay and lesbian filmmaking. "Some of the art theaters would also play some of the new gay movies that were coming out in the 1970s. Not porn, but maybe with a little soft core action. I booked the Garden Theater on Arlington Street, and we played some of Artie Bressan's films there. [Arthur Bressan, Jr. made several distinctive porn films in the 70s and 80s, including Pleasure Beach (1984), which helped him to fund the shooting of three non-porn features, including Buddies (1985), the first fiction film about AIDS.]
"We even had a benefit for that old newspaper, Gay Community News, there, with A Very Natural Thing [Christopher Larkin (1973), the first gay-themed film by a gay director to get commercial distribution in the U.S.A.]. We were able to raise $1000 for them, which was quite a lot in those days. I remember talking with the manager of the theater at the time -- he was the nephew of one of the owners and never wanted to work. So I called up after the benefit started running and said how did we do? He was very upset. He said `we filled up -- all your people are down here.'"
Mansour was also the first booker to commercially screen a film that has become one of the most beloved and notorious of the American independent movement. "Pink Flamingos was sent to me and I decided to play it in one of the gay porno houses, the South Station Cinema. So the first commercial run of the movie was in a gay porno house. John Waters was never very happy with that, and I can't blame him. Then we did play it in an art house, but only after it had played in New York and acquired a certain cachet."
Asked how he developed his independent booking business, Mansour recalled, "I had been at Esquire about 8 or 9 years, when I was approached by a couple of young men on Cape Cod who had an idea that they wanted to build a movie house where they would show old movies, and call it the Nickelodeon. I had been recommended to them as someone who knew a lot about old movies, so they asked me if I would book it. My bosses at Esquire said it was OK for me to start booking this house on my own, using Esquire's facilities, but being paid separately by these people.
"The Nickelodeons started expanding, and even bought a theater over by Boston University that had been closed for two or three years, called the Abbey. That was their first big jump. The Abbey had initially been a very successful art house, independently owned by a group that's still around, but just as a real estate company now. The Nickelodeon people also bought theaters in Maynard [central Massachusetts] and Williamstown [which they eventually sold to Mansour and Santamaria], and opened new theaters in Portland, Maine, and Burlington, Vermont. So they were the nucleus of my little booking empire.
Asked how the owners of a small theater on Cape Cod could manage to acquire one of the more successful of Boston's art houses, Mansour spelled out a story of corporate mismanagement that provides a faint echo of what was to come in the Boston theater business in the 1970s and 80s. "Loew's wanted to have a base in Boston so they bought the Abbey from its original owners.
"But, unfortunately, they really didn't know how to run an art house after they bought it, so it went down the tubes. They closed it, and left it closed for about three years, even though they had a lease and were still paying rent. There were several people who wanted it, including Alan Freedburg of Sack Theaters [which hadn't yet been bought by Loew's]. But neither Sack nor Alan would put their name on the line personally, so the Nickelodeon people were able to move in, rename the theater, and make a success of it.
One of Mansour's fondest memories from his Nickelodeon booking days is his contribution to making Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1983) into a cult film. "Universal had opened it in Chicago, but it didn't do any business, so they decided to dump it. I had seen the film and loved it, so decided to try booking it into the Nickelodeon. Universal, being a major studio, did not ordinarily get its films booked into houses like this, so it took a little negotiation. By the time we had arranged for the run, the film had also gotten booked in New York City, and got great reviews. It ran at the Nickelodeon for a long time after all that.
"I had fun booking that theater," Mansour reminisces, "but it was a tremendous battle in those days. I had to fight the Sack chain, and the Exeter, and the Harvard Square theater, not to mention the Orson Welles. These were all independent entities that competed against each other for the best films. Eventually Loew's started buying up all these independent houses, which was ultimately bad for the movie business here, and bad for the distributors too."
This brought Mansour to the place where he began to think about the decline of movie and theater culture in Boston and the rest of the country. "We would bid on movies, and sometimes put up a great deal of money to get a particular movie. I remember that for Kurosawa's Ran we put up either $75 or $100 thousand, just for the rights to play it in Boston.
"A distributor could see a movie in a festival and figure that they could get money like that from Boston and San Francisco and a few other markets, so they could afford to buy the movie and bring it over. They could recoup their expenses just from those towns, and then go on from there. They can't do that any more, so this consolidation of ownership has really strangled the ability to distribute a lot of specialized movies. Particularly foreign language movies. But maybe that would have happened anyway. People can't seem to read anymore.
"Fewer foreign films are brought into the country because there aren't the same kinds of guarantees any more," Mansour reiterated with some force. "I don't think there's any place where bidding happens any more. It's all negotiated. You form relationships with distributors and make deals. It isn't so much an open auction as it used to be. In many ways you're at a terrible disadvantage working as an independent booker in competition with all these theater chains, but this business is still one that has a kind of personal relationship basis. I've known some of these distributors for years, and they've known me, so it isn't as cut and dried as a lot of other businesses have become.
This decline in audience for foreign language films is one of Mansour's greatest sorrows when he looks back over his career. "A Rosetta for instance, will be OK for some of the houses I book, but it probably won't make its distributors any money. In the old days we could play something like Herzog's Every Man for Himself and make $40,000 on its first run. And that's in the dollars of 15 or 20 years ago. Today it would be lucky to play for two days at the Museum of Fine Arts. We also didn't have the American independent films in those days, or the resurgence of British costume dramas, like we do now.
"But now even if we had a Fassbinder or a Godard making tremendously original, interesting, and commercially viable movies, they probably wouldn't be brought here any more because it's not commercially feasible. Kieslowski was maybe the last big art director, but you can't even compare his grosses to what a Fellini or a Truffaut would have done. But they are all gone. The only one we can hope for now is Almodere any All About My Mother is doing tremendous business, but on average only one foreign art movie really succeeds in any given year."
Trying to discern the shifting patterns of film exhibition from then to now, Mansour grew almost polemical. "So we started off the 70s with all different kinds of movie houses to show things in, and all different kinds of movies. I mean there's a lot of difference between a Truffaut and a Fassbinder. But now we have sort of a homogenization of art films. And this matches the homogenization of the theaters. Back then the Sack theaters were the biggest chain in Boston, then it became USA Cinema, then it was bought by Loew's, then it became Sony, and now we're back to Loew's again. Meanwhile they were buying up theaters all over the place, and closing many of them. And the repertory theaters started also being crunched by the video revolution.
"Harold and Maude and King of Hearts used to be brought back any number of times," Mansour remembered, "and people would always come to see them. It was guaranteed income. But when they could get them from a video store, or even own them, that was the end of a lot of the repertory theaters. And it also killed the sex houses too. There was a really vibrant sex house culture here in Boston, and we would compete over certain titles much the same way we did over art films.
"A new film by Radley Metzger would set off a lot of bidding, and some of these movies were even reviewed in the New York Times. Newspapers also accepted advertising for sex movies in those days. There were soft core houses and hard core. Radley Metzger mostly made soft core movies; when he wanted to do hard core he changed his name to Henry Parris. There were also recognizable actors who went back and forth. There was a guy named Casey Donovan in gay pornos who became Cal Culver when he would do straight pornos. And Long Johnny Holmes went back and forth without bothering to change his name."
The growing popularity of video in time manifested itself in film production. "When video came in, the sex filmmakers eventually switched over to shooting on video. At first they still shot on film and transferred, but soon enough they found out, just as the majors eventually did, how much more money there was in selling cassettes than in theatrical release. Certainly the porno business became more quickly aware than the mainstream, because they were smaller. So they started shooting pretty exclusively on video, and the theaters had to adopt video projection systems, which don't look nearly as good as projected film. This helped to kill those houses."
Mansour's shift to independent booking overlapped this change in exhibition practices. "At that point, Esquire was having a lot of financial problems -- they were always up and down. Always very generous but also very lax in paying their bills and such things. My paychecks started bouncing, and I was living on what I got from the Nickelodeon. Gradually I came to a point where I decided to quit working for Esquire, and I added some other movie houses, like the Avon in Providence, Rhode Island (which I still book) and struck out on my own in the early 70s."
"My independent business was so successful for awhile that I had an office and two or three employees. But that was while I still had the Nickelodeon, which was my best account. We were bidding successfully on first run films. Then when Alan Freedburg bought out the Nickelodeon, I went to work for him briefly, to keep the theater on track, but that relationship ended in a year or two when Loew's took over, because Loew's wasn't as interested in keeping the art house identity of the theater as Freedburg had been.
"Overall now," Mansour summed up, "there are fewer venues, fewer films, and fewer types of films, and that's a shame. But, fortunately, we do have places like Landmark [for which he works as a consultant] that have several screens and offer a comfortable environment, and can take a few chances with some of the riskier films. One of the things that have helped this, believe it or not, are gay non-porn movies. That is one of the last specified audiences, and these movies have taken the place of black exploitation and all the kinds of movies that certain selected audiences would always go and see. Strand Releasing, for instance, has built their whole distribution schedule around gay movies."
Thinking about the increase of multi-theater complexes, particularly in shopping malls, Mansour compared the potential to the actual practice. "The megaplex isn't a bad idea. In theory you would think they would make more movies more widely available to wider audiences. And it's true that things like Being John Malkovich will play in Randolph, or Life Is Beautiful will play in Danvers, [Randolph and Danvers are towns about 20 miles from Boston] and that would never have happened before. They do recognize that there is an audience out there, and they do have screens to fill.
"Unfortunately, what happens is that they devote 3 screens to Pokemon, 2 screens to the latest Bond film, and 2 screens to Sleepy Hollow. So they aren't actually providing greater variety, they're just burning up successful films faster. In a way though, this has helped the smaller movie houses. Because these large complexes need so many prints in the beginning, there are more prints available two or three weeks later for what used to be the sub-run houses."
Mansour believes that one force counteracting the general trend towards homogenization of the types of movies now offered to audiences is the film festival. "Everybody has a festival now in New England we have them in Northampton, and Fall River, and Newport, and Provincetown and Providence. Some of them are fine. There is a wide range of quality. Some of them just take whatever movies are available and throw them on a screen and call it a festival.
"But others have a more specific personality. Telluride, in Colorado, is one of the best, one of my favorites. I've been going there for 25 years now. Northampton [in western Massachusetts] is one of the better ones locally. It focuses on American independents and only last 4 days. They show lots of locally produced films, and the town really supports this kind of thing."
Besides helping to book the Northampton festival, Mansour has had other specific festival experience. "I started the Boston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival 17 years ago, and that was a lot of fun. We realized that there were more movies about the gay experience that were beyond just porn, and it was also a very easy audience to tap into. Very committed to going to movies, and very aware and knowledgeable.
"Partly because of festivals like this, there is now a tremendous amount of gay and lesbian films being made, and a lot for the new art theater multiplexes to choose from. What Brigitte Bardot used to be to art houses in the 50s and 60s -- you could always count on good houses for things like And God Created Woman -- now the gay movie is for the multiplexes. It doesn't always work, but you can usually count on two or three good weeks from one of these movies in the art houses."
Mansour distinguished between these festival run mostly for film consumers and modeled on the New York Film Festival, and those like Cannes and Berlin and Toronto that are more geared to distributors and exhibitors. "Obviously Sundance was the big start of the American independent film becoming widespread. The majors got interested after the success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Just this past year Blair Witch Project made Harrison Ford and all these other people look like dummies.
"But American independent films don't always succeed. Some of the majors see these small companies picking up movies for peanuts and making a lot of money and try to get into the act. So, for instance, Columbia put up $10 million for The Spitfire Grill with Ellen Burstyn and took a bath. It was a disaster. Things that seem exciting at festivals aren't always so exciting in a commercial theater. At festivals," Mansour explained, "there are long lines, and things are crowded, and cell phones are going off all over the place -- it's a frenzy."
Summing up, Mansour talked about the present state of specialized film exhibition. "There has been more of a skewing towards independent and foreign English language movies. Not to mention the Masterpiece Theatre kind of thing. The most difficult kinds of movies now are the Rosettas and such. Many of the bookers have never seen `Rosetta,' and don't even know it exists. Films like that are very hard to get off the ground.
"And there are lots of them that we never even have a shot at. It took years for films like Lovers on the Bridge or Underground to come here. Those are films that there would have been a bidding war for in the old days, and now they can't even get screen time at the Harvard Film Archive."
One trend in film distribution still looming on the horizon has Mansour intrigued. "I do think the way film is delivered to theaters has to change pretty soon. To think that we are still schlepping film around in 50 pound metal containers -- it's pretty stupid. It's the same technology that we were using in the 1930s. The idea that films can be digitally beamed into theaters is very interesting.
"And presumably we will have higher quality images without the projection jams and tape breakage that plague us now. It's amazing how old fashioned, and low tech the movie biz has remained. Even with all this Surround Sound and stadium seating and everything, they still lug cans of film up to the booth. There can't be too many other industries that are still working in basically the same way they were in, say, 1920.
"Maybe bookers like me will have huge computer screens in our offices," Mansour dreamed, "and will be able to call up a movie to check it out whenever we want. And we'll get out of the house even less. Over the past few years more and more small distributors just send me videos instead of setting up exhibitors' screenings, so who knows? Why not have high resolution, wall sized screens at home?"
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|Date:||Feb 1, 2000|
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