The Original First Wave Engagements Of ‘Alien’ — A 25th Anniversary Trip Through Time (And Space)
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The 70mm Newsletter
|Written by: Michael Coate (Copyright 2004)||Date: July 4, 2004|
|"Alien" at the Egyptian in Hollywood, USA|
[This is an expanded version of an article originally published in Widescreen Review’s 2004 DVD Movie Guide.]
"In space no one can hear you scream." — “Alien” promotional slogan
"’Alien’ is a corker, a walloper, a rouser, a screecher and a ton of fun... If all movies were as thrilling I would happily spend all of my life in the movies." — Gene Shalit, NBC-TV
"With only his second feature, Ridley Scott has emerged as a major film maker. What he has to say is still not clear, but he certainly knows how to say it effectively." — Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times
"You're going to be most appreciative of ‘Alien’ in its most technically advantageous circumstances" — Eric Gerber, The Houston Post
|Further in 70mm reading:|
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” 70mm openings
“The Empire Strikes Back” openings
The Original First-Week Engagements Of “Star Wars”
Part I: Anatomy Of A Release
|If released today, Ridley Scott's “Alien” would have opened on several thousand cinema screens across the country. Back on Memorial Day weekend of 1979 when the film was originally released, however, there were fewer than 100 engagements, 91 select-market engagements to be exact. That number may seem unusually low to a contemporary audience, but, in fact, it was selected as part of a calculated plan by the film's distributor, 20th Century-Fox. The film would open in selected cities and then take its time expanding to cinemas across the country depending on a variety of factors, including film critics' reviews, box office performance, and moviegoer word-of-mouth. Those days are long gone. (If that Memorial Day weekend release date seems familiar to “Star Wars” fans, it is no coincidence. Fox chose the same 25 May date to launch “Alien” hoping the good fortunes of their “Star Wars” release two years earlier could be duplicated.)|
Nearly all of the 91 original engagements of “Alien” were in the deluxe 70-millimeter wide gauge format, which amounted to a record number (at the time) of large format prints made available at a single distribution launch. Ashley Boone, Twentieth Century-Fox Senior Vice President for Domestic Marketing, described the initial release strategy as providing a “proper presentation”, offering moviegoers an “extraordinary” and “special event”. Fox had used a similar release pattern two years earlier with “Star Wars”, but for “Alien” the company amplified the scale of the initial launch, increasing the number of initial engagements and 70mm blow-up prints, and spending more money on promoting the movie. “So much for exhibitors who say the public doesn't care how a film is presented”, Boone told film industry trade publication Variety in May 1979 following the release of the film. “Our initial research shows that in cities where both 70mm and 35mm engagements were playing, customers went to the 70mm cinemas. They know the difference”. Considering the release strategy a success, Fox would use a similar approach — limiting initial engagements to key markets and emphasizing the presentation — in subsequent years with films such as “The Rose” (1979), “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), “Quest For Fire” (1982), “Die Hard” (1988), and “Edward Scissorhands” (1990).
|This presentation-oriented release strategy — reminiscent of the reserved seat engagement “roadshows” that were popular in the 1950s and ’60s — was based on providing moviegoers with the most impactful experience. Several film critics made mention of the 70mm presentation in their reviews urging moviegoers to consider choosing the 70mm presentation in cities offering both 70mm and 35mm presentations. Presentation comments in the film reviews ranged from, “’Alien’ is in 70mm and Dolby, both of which go far in completing the spookiness” to “you're going to be most appreciative of the film in its most technically advantageous circumstances”. The “70mm-Dolby Stereo” format logo was prominently featured in promotional materials: trailers, TV spots, theatre marquees, posters, newspaper ads, etc. Fox was very high on supporting “Alien” with the high-quality and expensive 70mm format. (At the time, a 70mm print cost about eight times that of a conventional 35mm print.) Even the film’s test screenings shown several weeks before release (in Dallas and St. Louis) were presented in 70mm. The few 35mm prints that rounded out the launch were essentially used for extra engagements in high-population markets to help combat turnaway business.|
“Alien” grossed an impressive (for the time) $3.5 million in its opening weekend (the four-day Memorial Day weekend period), resulting in a phenomenal $38,709 per screen average. Influenced by the mostly good reviews and capacity-filled screenings, Fox expanded the release of the film two weeks later on 8 June (sooner than originally planned), and, by 22 June the film was playing on over 500 screens throughout the U.S. and Canada, the majority of which at this time were 35mm presentations. Fox's 70mm print order was 110 prints, more than 75 of which were put into circulation in the 25 May first wave release. Of the remaining 70mm prints, they were put into circulation during the expansion waves in markets just beginning an engagement (such as Montreal) or as additional engagements in markets included in the first wave (like St. Louis and Los Angeles), and later, in a number of international markets (including London and Sydney). After several months in release, “Alien” concluded its North American release with a cumulative box office gross of over $75 million, $40.3 of which was considered the "rental" and returned to the distributor. Not bad for an R-rated film and 1979 ticket prices.
“Alien” spawned three follow-up films (a fourth is in production) and has had a successful after-life on home video and television. It was among the earliest films ever to be released as a “Special Edition” on the LaserDisc format, the type of treatment we now take for granted with DVDs. In autumn 2003 “Alien” was re-released as a “Director's Cut” (with some D-Cinema engagements), and is included in the nine-disc “Alien Quadrilogy” DVD set released in December 2003. “Alien” remains a sci-fi/horror classic, and it is doubtful those moviegoers who ventured into a cinema in 1979 have forgotten the experience.
Part II: The Original Engagements
|What follows is a list of the 91 original, 25 May 1979 "First Wave" engagements of “Alien” which illustrates the presentation and select-market distribution approach used for the film. For those of you who remember the original release, enjoy the flashback!|
* 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo
** 70mm Six-Track Stereo
(2) shown on two screens in complex
Engagements have been identified, as best as could be determined, based on the specific community or city in which the cinemas were located. But because the selected-market distribution strategy in which “Alien” was initially released is the subject of this article, the market city or metropolitan area is identified in parenthesis for clarification.
The cinema operators, including independents, have been identified in front of each cinema name. Those exhibitors commonly known under an acronym, such as UA (United Artists Theatre Corporation) or AMC (American Multi-Cinema), are listed as an acronym.
Toronto: [Famous Players] University *
Phoenix: [Plitt] Ciné Capri *
Little Rock: [UA] Cinema 150 *
Corte Madera (Marin Co.): [Marin] Cinema *
Fountain Valley (Orange Co.): [Pacific] Fountain Valley Drive-In ***
Fresno: [Festival Enterprises] Festival *
Hollywood (Los Angeles): [UA] Egyptian *
Newport Beach (Orange Co.): [Edwards] Newport *
Orange: [Plitt] City Center *
Sacramento: [Syufy] Century Complex *
San Diego: [AMC] Fashion Valley 4 *** (2)
San Francisco: [Plitt] Northpoint *
San Jose: [Syufy] Century 22 *
Van Nuys (Los Angeles): [Pacific] Sepulveda Drive-In ***
Westwood (Los Angeles): [GCC] Avco Center *
Denver: [Commonwealth] Cooper *
East Hartford: [Redstone] Showcase **
Orange (New Haven/Bridgeport): [Redstone] Showcase **
Claymont (Philadelphia, PA): [Eric] 3 Tri-State Mall **
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
[Washington Circle] Uptown *
North Miami Beach: [Wometco] 163rd St. **
South Miami: [Wometco] Dadeland Twin **
Honolulu: [Consolidated] Cinerama *
Calumet City (Chicago): [Plitt] River Oaks *
Chicago: [GCC] Ford City ***
Chicago: [Plitt] State-Lake **
Lombard (Chicago): [GCC] Yorktown ***
Milan (Quad-City, IA/IL): [Redstone] Showcase **
Niles (Chicago): [Fink] Golf Mill *
Norridge (Chicago): [M&R] Norridge *
Peoria: [Kerasotes] Beverly **
Schaumburg (Chicago): [Plitt] Woodfield *
Springfield: [Kerasotes] Esquire *
Fort Wayne: [Mallers-Spirou] Holiday **
Indianapolis: [Y&W] Eastwood **
Des Moines: [Dubinsky] River Hills **
Dubuque: [Dubuque] Cinema Center **
Florence (Cincinnati, OH): [Mid States] Florence *
Louisville: [Redstone] Showcase *
Boston: [Sack] Charles *
Seekonk (Providence, RI): [Redstone] Showcase **
West Springfield: [Redstone] Showcase **
Bloomfield Hills (Detroit): [Redstone] Showcase **
Grosse Pointe Woods (Detroit): [Nicholas George] Woods *
Livonia (Detroit): [Nicholas George] Mai Kai *
Southfield (Detroit): [Nicholas George] Americana Complex *
Southgate (Detroit): [Nicholas George] Southgate *
Sterling Heights (Detroit): [Redstone] Showcase **
Minneapolis: [Plitt] Skyway *
Creve Coeur (St. Louis): [Wehrenberg] Creve Coeur *
Kansas City: [AMC] Midland 3 *
Omaha: [Commonwealth] Indian Hills **
Edison (New York, NY): [GCC] Menlo Park *
Lawrenceville (Philadelphia, PA): [Eric] Twin Lawrenceville **
Paramus (New York, NY): [RKO] Paramus Quad *
Pennsauken (Philadelphia, PA): [Eric] 3 Pennsauken **
Cheektowaga (Buffalo): Holiday 2 *
Colonie (Albany): [Mann] Fox Colonie *
DeWitt (Syracuse): [Cinema National] Shoppingtown I **
Manhattan (New York): [B.S. Moss] Criterion *
Manhattan (New York): [Loews] New York 2 *
Manhattan (New York): [Loews] Orpheum *
Pittsford (Rochester): [Loews] Triplex in Pittsford *
Syosset (Long Island): [UA] Syosset *
Charlotte: [Plitt Southern] Park Terrace 1&2 **
Cincinnati: [Mid States] Carousel *
Columbus: [Mid States] Continent *
Dayton: [Chakeres] Dayton Mall Cinema 1 *
Toledo: [Redstone] Showcase **
Whitehall (Columbus): [Sugarman] Cinema East **
Oklahoma City: [Oklahoma] North Park Cinema 4 *
Beaverton (Portland): [Tom Moyer Luxury Theatres] Westgate *
Portland: [Tom Moyer Luxury Theatres] Eastgate *
Fairless Hills (Philadelphia): [Eric] Twin Fairless Hills **
King of Prussia (Philadelphia): [Eric] King Twin **
Monroeville (Pittsburgh): [Redstone] Showcase East **
Montgomeryville (Philadelphia): [Eric] 3 Montgomeryville **
Philadelphia: [Sameric] Eric's Place **
Pittsburgh: [Cinemette] Warner *
Robinson Township (Pittsburgh): [Redstone] Showcase West **
Dallas: [Plitt Southern] Medallion *
Fort Worth: [Plitt Southern] Ridglea *
Houston: [Plitt Southern] Alabama *
Houston: [AMC] Almeda 9 East *** (2)
Houston: [AMC] Northoaks *** (2)
Houston: [AMC] Westchase *
Richardson (Dallas): [Plitt Southern] Promenade I ***
Riverdale (Ogden): Cinedome 70 *
Salt Lake City: [Plitt] Centre *
Seattle: [UA] Cinema 150 *
Tacoma: [SRO] Tacoma Mall *
Part III: Summary/Conclusion
|Observing the list, readers can get a sense of what the major markets were in North America circa 1979. Those moviegoers who saw “Alien” in a theatre in 1979 may feel a touch of nostalgia looking over the engagement list, particularly if the cinema in which they recall attending a screening is represented. As well, moviegoers with an appreciation or fondness for classic or hometown cinemas may be saddened by the realization that most of the cinemas included in the engagement list are no longer in business, victims of what some in the exhibition industry would consider progress: the megaplex.|
The important role “Alien” played in film exhibition history is that the movie was the first of the post-roadshow era 70mm releases to get W-I-D-E distribution, meaning that cities other than the very largest could get prints if the studio chose to make them available. (Even in the roadshow days, where 70mm prints were plentiful, the distribution typically would be staggered over a several-month span.) Though the introduction of Dolby Stereo and the one-two punch of “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” largely fueled the 70mm comeback two years prior, it was the release of “Alien”, with its large 70mm print run, that was the forerunner of a trend that continued throughout the 1980s: the release of major motion pictures in 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo. This practice thrived for over a decade as each year more and more newly-built and existing cinemas were having the requisite equipment installed, and every year the studios would release more and more films in 70mm, and with more and more prints (sometimes exceeding 200). For many years, the 70mm exhibition format was the top-class manner in which a film could be experienced. With the introduction and eventual widespread adoption of digital sound on 35mm in the 1990s, the use of the 70mm format came to an abrupt end. (Whether the industry's lack of support today of 70mm is justified is a topic worthy of a separate article.)
Part IV: Additional 70mm Engagements of “Alien” (Work-In-Progress)
Sydney: Hoyts (opened 6 Dec 1979)
Montreal: [Famous Players] York (opened 22 June 1979)
Mexico City: Hollywood Cinerama (opened 21 Dec 1979)
Wellington: Kings (opened ???)
Spain (opened 25 Sep 1979)
Barcelona: Florida Cinerama
London: [Rank] Odeon Leicester Square (opened 6 Sep 1979)
Lakewood: [Pacific] Lakewood Center (opened 8 June 1979)
Montclair: [SRO] Montclair (opened 22 June 1979)
Pasadena: United Artists (opened 8 June 1979)
Woodland Hills: [UA] Warner Center (opened 8 June 1979)
Belleville: B.A.C. Cinema (opened 22 June 1979)
Jackson: [Plitt] DeVille (opened 22 June 1979)
Cedar Grove: Cinema 23 (move-over; 27 July 1979)
Part V: REFERENCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
“Alien” advertisements between 20 May - 22 June, 1979 from dozens of daily newspapers archived on microfilm (too numerous to list; available upon request), plus the following:
“’Alien’ Alters Fresno Theater”, The Fresno Bee, 25 May 1979.
“’Alien’ Grosses $3.5 Million In First Four Days”, The Hollywood Reporter, 30 May 1979.
“Alien Starts May 25 in 70mm Dolby Stereo”. Dolby Laboratories, Inc. Advertisement, Variety, 16 May 1979.
"Alien Quadrilogy". 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD 2009847, 2003.
Champlin, Charles. “The Horror Of 'Alien:' Scary-City Of Another Kind”, Los Angeles Times, 20 May 1979.
“Dolby Stereo Equipped Theatres”. Dolby Laboratories, Inc. Selected issues between November 1978 - June 1980.
Fraser, Peter. “70mm Film Presentations in Sydney, Australia”, www.in70mm.com
Gerber, Eric. “Alien” film review, The Houston Post, 25 May 1979.
Janusonis, Michael. “Alien Will Scare You Out Of Your Wits”, The Providence Journal, 25 May 1979.
Pollack, Dale. “Alien Cracks Open 3-Day B.O. Egg For Smash $2.6 Mil Holiday Flight At 91 Houses”, Variety, 29 May 1979.
Sackett, Susan. “The Hollywood Reporter Book Of Box Office Hits”, New York: Billboard, 1996.
Schreger, Charles. “Accountants Put The Bite On 'Alien'”, Los Angeles Times, 27 April 1980.
Schreger, Charles. “Hatching 'Alien': High Hopes At 20th-Century Fox”, Los Angeles Times, 28 May 1979.
Schreger, Charles. “Invasion Of A Box-Office Smash”, Los Angeles Times, 30 May 1979.
Sharp, John. “70mm Film Presentations in London, England 1958 – 1998”, The 70mm Newsletter, Issue 55, December 1998.
“'The Alien' Rocketing Past 'Star Wars' In 91 Theatres”, The Hollywood Reporter, 29 May 1979.
If you wish to provide feedback or contribute to this list, please contact Michael Coate or Thomas Hauerslev.
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