I attended the 7 p.m. show of the digitally restored epic at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, one of the best-attended movie houses in the United States. Fearing a sell-out – I was shut out of two different theaters for anniversary screenings of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) last fall – I bought my tickets days in advance; I even showed up thirty minutes early to insure a good seat. But all of this advance planning was as unnecessary as the film’s bloated, four-hour running time.
Because there were eleven audience members present at the start of the screening, in an auditorium that seats 173.
By intermission the count had jumped to a whopping seventeen. How many of the latecomers were actually paying ticket holders and how many had wandered in after other screenings concluded? I couldn’t say. One of the charms of multiplexes with more auditoria than staff members is the ability to see multiple films for one price without fear of retribution (not that I ever do that myself, cough cough).
Assuming that everyone in attendance paid the usurious New York City ticket price of $14.50, CLEOPATRA grossed $246.50 at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square’s only primetime screening. The theater probably earned more on Milk Duds sales for the neighboring IRON MAN 3 screening (which was bass-bleeding through the wall like an unseen Roman thunderstorm).
For the record, I have no particular agenda when it comes to CLEOPATRA. I’ve seen it twice, once at the first TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood (with co-star Martin Landau in attendance) and again in 2010 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (both in 70mm, and both with enthusiastic, capacity crowds). While the film is visually stunning, I also find it, as film critic Carrie Rickey once said, “soporific.” (Google it.) In general, CLEOPATRA is a confounding mishmash of Shakespearean tragedy and daytime drama, with Elizabeth Taylor demonstrating why her casting on General Hospital two decades later was so apropos. It’s a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess.
Still, I was stunned by the sparse attendance. So stunned, in fact, that I walked out at intermission, hailed a cab at Broadway and 67th Street, and raced down to the Regal Union Square Stadium 14 to check out the crowd at their 7 p.m. show.
I will grant you that this is not the way a normal person goes to see a movie. But CLEOPATRA is not just any movie. This is one of the most infamous pictures of all time, a film that took more than two years to shoot at a then-unheard-of cost of nearly $60 million – the equivalent of approximately $440 million today. It launched one of the most famous love affairs in Hollywood history and nearly bankrupted a major studio. And half a century later, that same studio – 20th Century Fox – has just spent more than nine months on a meticulous digital restoration of the 248-minute “roadshow” edition of the film (including overture and entr’acte music), rescanned from the original 65mm negative at 2K resolution. This newly polished crown jewel of Studio Era excess premiered with great fanfare at the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday, with Elizabeth Taylor’s son Christopher Wilding and Richard Burton’s daughter Kate Burton in attendance, and Oscar-nominee Jessica Chastain bedecked in Taylor’s Bulgari diamond and sapphire necklace.
My point is, CLEOPATRA is what Joe Biden might call a big fucking deal. Flawed though it may be, it’s of major historic importance to any film fan. And half a century later, it still casts a long shadow. In November, Lifetime scored big buzz (and 3.5 million viewers) with an original movie about Taylor and Burton, much of which takes place during CLEOPATRA’s protracted shooting schedule. Are you telling me that only 17 New Yorkers who watched LIZ AND DICK were interested in seeing the source material in all its glory on the big screen? Nonsense.
“Maybe this is a Downtown thing,” I thought, as the cab sped south on Broadway like a valiant steed galloping toward battle (sorry, I got carried away there). “Maybe Union Square will get a bigger gay audience, for the camp factor.”
I’m not sure why I took this so personally. Perhaps because I’ve invested so much of my time and creative energies into classic movies, I take their success or failure (particularly in mainstream venues) to heart. When others don’t acknowledge these films with the same reverence I do, it can sometimes feel like a personal rebuke, even though I had absolutely nothing to do with CLEOPATRA or anyone remotely involved with its creation. But enough head shrinking. In the words of Agrippa (Andrew Kier), “Nothing bores me so much as an intellectual!” The point is, I was rooting for my Lower Manhattan neighbors to do me and my fellow classic film lovers proud. But first I would have to get in to the second venue, which was far more challenging than I had expected.
“What auditorium is CLEOPATRA playing in?” I asked the young ticket clerk at the Regal.
“Sir, that screening has already let out,” she replied.
“No it hasn’t,” I snapped. “It’s four hours long.”
“But you can’t go in,” she said. “It’s disturbing to other customers.”
“I’m just going to meet my girlfriend,” I lied. “I have to give her…her, um, her medication.”
I have no idea why I said medication, of all things. And the young woman seemed just as confused as I was. Clearly, my plan was failing worse than Mark Antony’s entreaties for an honorable death in the heat of battle, and the clerk wasn’t buying any of it. So I changed my strategy.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m going to see STAR TREK.”
“Sir, if your ticket says STAR TREK you have to see STAR TREK,” she scolded. “You can’t go into another theater.”
“Oh, I won’t,” I lied, again.
She looked like she might call the manager on me, so I jumped on the escalator to the third floor where STAR TREK was playing. Once there, I ducked into the restroom, pulled on the hoodie that was stuffed in my backpack, and sprinted down the staircase, back to the second floor. That way, if the intrepid ticket taker had reported me to security, their efforts to find a bald guy in a polo shirt would be thwarted by my deft disguise!
I quietly snuck into auditorium seven, hoping for the best. But my heart sank as I looked up at the tiny crowd, which was even smaller than it was uptown. There were maybe 14 people in an auditorium that seated around 150.
And the worst part of this? The restored CLEOPATRA looked stunning on the big screen (actually, both big screens). I’ve attended a number of technically imprecise, nationwide screenings of “restored” classic films, co-sponsored by TCM and and Fathom Events and distributed via satellite: CASABLANCA (twice), SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, THE BIRDS, FRANKENSTEIN, and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. All of these were well attended and, in a few instances, sold out far in advance. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN was so well attended that the AMC Empire 25 In Times Square added a second auditorium for a weekday matinee, which also filled to capacity.
But with CLEOPATRA, two of the three primetime screenings in New York City attracted a grand total of 31 audience members. And unlike those Fathom screenings, CLEOPATRA was screened in professionally mastered, industry standard DCP, on a drive provided by the distributor. The colors were rich, the grain was visible, and, perhaps most importantly, the image didn’t pop off the screen like a video game. It looked like a film, a beautiful film for which D.P. Leon Shamroy won a Best Cinematography Oscar.
I wanted to get on Twitter, sound the social media trumpets, and summon all the classic film fans in America to their local theaters. I may not love CLEOPATRA, but I love the fact that a classic film is getting a national theatrical release in more more than 200 theaters. And I want that to happen again, but I want it to be done correctly.
Speaking of Twitter, a search after the screening suggested that the small audiences were not just limited to the shows I attended. @JordanLage tweeted that there were only seven attendees at the 1 p.m. show at Union Square, disproving my notion that matinee screenings might have drawn better due to the film’s epic length. @Cinephile82 attended the evening show at a Regal in Raleigh, North Carolina with only one other audience member. @TMDoyle2 reported that there were three people in her theater in Washington, D.C. @Journeys_Film told me that there were a “handful” of people at her screening in Sacramento. And @Violasmoustache tweeted, “Went to see Cleopatra. Intermission. I’m the only one here.”
While it may sound cool to have a movie theater all to yourself, the real point of seeing a classic on the big screen (at least for me) is sharing the experience with others who respect and appreciate these movies like I do. If I’m going to watch it alone, I may as well do it at home in my pajamas. Or my toga.
After the movie I Facebook chatted with Joseph Walsh, editor of the Nitrate Stock blog, my favorite resource for classic film screenings in the Big Apple.
“I’m usually on top of this stuff. The fact that I couldn’t find any info about it says a lot,” Walsh said. “Why re-release if you’re not gonna tell anyone?”
Why, indeed. In a market saturated with ads for mega-budget blockbusters, how can a one-day only screening of a classic compete? More to the point, how can it compete without any discernable advertising? CLEOPATRA was highlighted on dedicated pages on the Regal and AMC websites, but you had to know it was happening to find those pages. The Plano, Texas-based CineMark chain, the third largest in the U.S., is sponsoring a CLEOPATRA Sweepstakes to promote the presentation, which will also screen on Sunday, May 26 at 2 p.m. local time (hopefully, to larger crowds). But, as far as I can tell, none of the theaters presenting the 50th anniversary screening of CLEOPATRA had even a single poster to herald the event. I only found out about it thanks to a column by New York Post movie critic Lou Lumenick, the great god of classic film here in New York.
So why did CASABLANCA, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and other recent retro releases draw so well, while CLEOPATRA was mummified on arrival? The difference appears to be TCM’s involvement (or lack thereof). For the Fathom Events screenings, announcements – we can’t call them ads, because TCM doesn’t air commercials – aired almost constantly on the network. Even events that TCM did not co-brand, like Fathom’s excellent LAWRENCE OF ARABIA screenings (also in DCP, not satellite), were mentioned extensively on air. I’m pretty sure the LAWRENCE screenings were highlighted in the TCM Classic Movie News interstitial segments that promote screenings, events, books, DVD and Blu-ray releases of interest to old movie buffs. I watch the channel daily, and saw no mention of CLEOPATRA.
It’s possible that Fox chose not to incur the cost of a paid placement on the Classic Movie News segment, if such an opportunity even existed. (The segment this month focused on the Warner Bros.’ 3-D epic THE GREAT GATSBY, which already has a giant advertising budget and is of far less interest to TCM viewers than CLEOPATRA.) Had they partnered with TCM in some form, attendance would have undoubtedly been far greater.
In addition, if Fox didn’t want to incur the cost of traditional advertising or involve TCM, there are still routes to reach classic film fans. Fathom usually offers ticket giveaways to bloggers to promote their screenings via Pure Brand Communications. There are also numerous on-line communities of old movie buffs, such as the #TCMParty on Twitter, that can be discovered with some simple searching. With niche programming, it’s all about targeting and outreach. If you’re not going to be traditional, you have to at least be entrepreneurial. It appears that Fox (or whomever was tasked with handling/promoting this release) was neither. And their biggest failure was in ignoring the active and highly creative community of classic film fans on-line. We will work tirelessly to promote that which we love, but we can’t do it if we don’t know it exists.
Fox will release their Blu-ray on Tuesday, and I expect it will sell well. They’ll be able to chalk up any minor financial loss they may have incurred on these embarrassingly empty screenings as a promotional expense, and that will be that. But this was an opportunity missed. Reports of the theatrical failure of the 50th anniversary re-release of CLEOPATRA may make distributors of the next high-profile restoration skip theatrical distribution entirely, and it may also deter theater owners from experimenting with classics again.
And that’s too bad. Because while I don’t expect a four-hour-long melodrama from 50 years ago to outdraw IRON MAN 3 in IMAX, I do expect it to be better attended than a movie theater men’s room. Ironically, when I visited the gentleman’s lounge at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square I noticed framed photos of Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly, Sidney Poitier, Errol Flynn and other classic film stars hanging on the wall. Maybe they should have hung a poster next to those pictures that said, “If you know who any of these guys are, you might want to come see CLEOPATRA on Wednesday.”
“The ultimate desertion!” Mark Antony laments, as he plunges the dagger into his stomach. “I…from myself.”
At the 50th anniversary screenings of CLEOPATRA, the only deserters were the audience members – a cast of thousands who never heard their cue.