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Stanley Kubrick: The Unknown Father of the Box-Office Report

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood January 15, 2012 at 10:15AM

Stanley Kubrick's place in the Hollywood pantheon as an innovator is already secured--take a look at almost any post-"2001: A Space Odyssey" sci fi flick and you'll see it was Kubrick's foundation that changed the genre for good.
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Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick's place in the Hollywood pantheon as an innovator is already secured--take a look at almost any post-"2001: A Space Odyssey" sci fi flick and you'll see it was Kubrick's foundation that changed the genre for good.  What's less known about Kubrick is that he was apparently not only a master manipulator as a director, but as a distributor as well.  In an article written for Moviefone and the Huffington Post, director and poster designer Mike Kaplan reveals that Stanley Kubrick is in fact responsible for inventing the modern box-office report--an invention, Kaplan asserts, that happened by accident.

At the beginning of the 70s, Kaplan worked with Kubrick on the marketing of "2001" during its 70-mm relaunch, and then joined the director in England to oversee the release of "A Clockwork Orange."  As Kaplan relates, "2001," which had been the most expensive film MGM had ever bankrolled, was received by critics and audiences as a failure--partially, he argues, due to a "misconceived" promotional campaign.

When it came to "A Clockwork Orange," however, Kubrick's marketing genius came to fruition--the film broke house records across the country and garnered critical praise as well.  One of the secrets to its success was the selection of theaters to screen the film, a choice usually made by studio executives but which Kubrick and Kaplan oversaw for "Clockwork."

Kaplan wanted the film to play in the best theaters in every town; Kubrick wanted to know which theaters sold the most tickets and would help "Clockwork" be a success.  The problem was that there was no publicly available box-office information, and only the studios knew what each film was making.  So Kaplan came up with a solution.  Variety published weekly grosses for theaters in many major markets, so if he and Kubrick could get their hands on enough back issues of the trade magazine, they could analyze how theaters in specific cities had been performing over the long run.

And so the plan was hatched.  Six weeks of research led to a sacred data base which Kaplan and Kubrick used to direct Warner Bros. as to which theaters would get to screen "A Clockwork Orange."  After the film had opened, Kubrick received a call from Abel Green, the editor of Variety, asking if he could adapt the computer system he assumed Kubrick had set up to match his decisions for use at the magazine.  Amused, Kubrick told him what had actually happened.  Green applied the idea with the help of computers, and Variety issued its first gross chart for national box-office figures a few months later.  And so, thanks to Stanley Kubrick and Mike Kaplan, the entertainment industry got its own horse race of charts and numbers that it could follow diligently from week to week, and which it still does today.

This article is related to: Stanley Kubrick, Box Office, Box Office


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.