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The roadshow theatrical release (also commonly known as reserved seat engagement) is a practice in which a film opens in a special limited number of theaters in large cities like Los Angelesmarker, New Yorkmarker, Chicagomarker and San Franciscomarker for a specific period of time before it spreads to nationwide release (also known as general release and wide release), and is shown only once or twice a day, usually with an intermission halfway or two-thirds of the way through the picture.

Unlike the common modern-day limited release, roadshow films were shown to audiences who had had to reserve their seats and were given or able to purchase souvenir programs, as they did with live theater productions. Most films shown in this format were movies that were two-and-a-half hours or longer in length, and admission prices were more expensive than those films shown as regular attractions. Many of the films given roadshow releases were subsequently distributed to regular movie theatres. This was called a general release, and was akin to the modern day wide release of a film. However, there are two important differences:

1) A roadshow release is usually shown with an intermission during the film. Today even a film in limited release will almost never have an intermission halfway through, even one that runs three hours.

2) A film shown in roadshow format is nearly always shown only once or twice a day. Almost no films today are, whether shown in limited or general release, unless they are sharing the same screen with another film in a multiplex.


Road shows from the Golden Age of Hollywood

The road show format has been used since the days of silent films, but it especially took hold between 1953 and 1972. Films shown in road show format before 1953 included the silent film Chicago (1927) (based on the play that later inspired the Kander and Ebb Broadway musical), Show Boat (1929) (a part-talkie based not on the stage musical but on Edna Ferber's original novel), The Desert Song (1929), Rio Rita (also 1929), Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932), the classic films Gone with the Wind (1939), Fantasia (1940), and The Song of Bernadette (1943), the wartime tear-jerker Since You Went Away (1944), and the flamboyant Western Duel in the Sun (1946). Art-house films that were shown as roadshow attractions included the Olivier Shakespeare adaptations Henry V and Hamlet, and the famous ballet film The Red Shoes. The 1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream, another screen version of Shakespeare, was also given a roadshow release.

Large-scale epic films would open in larger cities in an engagement much like a theatrical play or musical, often with components such as an Overture, the First Act, the Intermission, the Entr'acte, the Second Act, and the Exit Music. (The Overture should not be confused with the Main Title Music. The Overture was always played before the beginning of the film, while the lights were still up and the curtains were still closed. As the lights dimmed, the Overture ended, the curtains opened, and the film began with its Main Title Music and opening credits.)

An early example of this was 1939's Gone with the Wind . Running almost four hours in length, the film was divided into the above components, so that the film patron can experience the film as if they were seeing an actual play in a theater.

The original theatrical release of Walt Disney's Fantasia, presented in Fantasound in selected large cities in the U.S., never did contain an Overture, Intermission Music, or Exit Music (though it did contain an intermission). Fantasia was first released in roadshow format, and was originally presented without on-screen credits to perpetuate a concert-going experience -- the printed souvenir program, given out to patrons as they entered the theater, presented the film's credits.

The original New York run of the 1950 film Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Jose Ferrer and based on Edmond Rostand's 1897 play, was likewise presented in a roadshow format (that is, two performances a day), although the film is only two hours long, was not produced on a large budget, and does not contain an intermission.

Road shows from the 1950s to the 1970s

With the rise of television, beginning in 1952 and continuing through the 1970s, studios came up with ways to bring movie audiences back to theatres by making widescreen epics, again using the "roadshow" formula. As a result, there was an avalanche of roadshow films during those decades, among them This is Cinerama (1952), The Robe (1953), Oklahoma! (1955), the Olivier Richard III (1955), the Audrey Hepburn - Henry Fonda War and Peace (1956), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), The Ten Commandments (1956), The Bridge on the River Kwaimarker (1957), South Pacific (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959), Ben-Hur (1959), The Alamo (1960), El Cid (1961), King of Kings (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Longest Day (1962), Cleopatra (1963), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), the Olivier Othello (1965), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Hawaii (1966), Camelot (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Oliver! (1968), Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), Where Eagles Dare (1968), Star! (1968), Funny Girl (1968), Paint Your Wagon (1969), Ryan's Daughter (1970), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), and many others. Nearly all of these newer roadshow releases were shown in six-track stereophonic sound, a then non-standard feature of motion pictures. Many films made in the various widescreen processes, such as Todd AO, MGM Camera 65, and Super Panavision 70, were given road show presentations. Films made in three-camera Cinerama always received roadshow releases. The special requirements needed to show films in Cinerama - a theatre with a huge, ultra-curved screen, three projectors running simultaneously, and seven-track stereophonic sound - made it impossible to show its films in wide release unless the picture was converted to standard one camera format (i.e. Panavision).

A notable exception to the epic form that these films were made in was the 1965 Othello, which was, essentially, a filmed record of the already famous Laurence Olivier 1964 London stage production, shot in a movie studio, but on enlarged stage settings. The nearly three-hour color film, made in Panavision and shown in 35mm and mono sound in many areas, was shown in 70mm and six-track stereophonic sound in only one engagement in London in 1966 , and, being a film that lay somewhere between a stage production and a true motion picture, did not make use of the spectacular vistas that 1960's widescreen epics usually boasted. It was shown on a two performance-a-day basis with an intermission, as nearly all roadshow releases were, but it (quite deliberately) was shown in U.S. cinemas for only two days, in contrast to the lengthy engagements which most roadshow films were granted.

Another exception was Franco Zeffirelli's hugely successful version of Romeo and Juliet, which, although photographed in beautiful settings and certainly having the look of an epic, was shown in most areas in monaural sound (although its three soundtrack albums were all made in stereo), and at a screen aspect ratio of 1.66: 1; that is, roughly the screen width of today's average movie screen or HDTV screen, not the very wide screens required for films made in Ultra Panavision, Cinemascope, Todd-AO or any of the other processes invented in the 1950's. (The Mexican release of the film, however, did use six-track stereo and was shown in 70mm.)

Edited versions and restoration

It was common practice, unfortunately, for studios to re-edit some of these epics for general release in order for theaters to book more showings a day and present the film at reduced "popular prices", especially if the film ran longer than two hours. Sometimes this was done to a successful film, such as South Pacific, but more often to one that had been a notable flop. As a result, some of these films have not been seen in their entirety since their first release, as the original edited footage is either missing or no longer exists. But with the work of film preservationists and restoration, such roadshow flops as the 1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream, Joan of Arc (1948), and Fantasia, along with the hugely successful For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Lawrence of Arabia, and Around the World in 80 Days, have been restored in recent years to match the filmmakers' original intent. However, several extremely popular long films, such as Gone With the Wind and The Ten Commandments, have never been released in edited form, and were nearly always shown on a two performances-a-day basis.

The rise of the limited release

The practice of roadshow presentation began dying out in the 1970s, partly due to the rise of the multiplex. As they began to increase in number, more and more movie palaces closed down. Francis Ford Coppola's Oscar-winning epics The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), for instance, were shown without intermissions and with more than two performances a day, despite their extreme length, as was Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975). The last film release to officially receive a reserved seat engagement was Man of La Mancha (1972), an adaptation of the stage musical, although it was made to be shown without an intermission. None of the three Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films, released between 2001 and 2003, received a roadshow release or had an intermission, despite the fact that each film in the trilogy lasted three hours or more.

By the 1980s the practice had largely been abandoned, as the rise of the multiplex and competition from cable TV and home video began forcing changes in the nature of film industry. The 1984 film Amadeus, for example, although nearly three hours long, was not shown in a road show format, while 1982's Gandhi was. Kenneth Branagh's four-hour Hamlet (1996) was not shown in a road-show format, but it did have an intermission two-and-a-half hours into the film. The latest film to be shown with an intermission (aside from most Hindi musicals, which generally have one) was Gods and Generals, but it was not shown in a strict road show format - performances were not limited to two per day, and seats were not reserved.

In 2006, the film Dreamgirls, based on the Broadway stage musical, was given a three-theater road show release, with reserved seats and program guides, unlike earlier roadshow releases, which would open at every large city in the United States before going on to their general release. Tickets were significantly higher priced than normal, at $25. The film itself was not shown with an intermission.

In 2008 and 2009, the four-hour biopic Che, starring Benicio del Toro as Che Guevara, was shown in a roadshow format for a limited time in a number of large cities.

Today, a similar theatrical release practice of first premiering a film in larger cities is more common, mainly towards the end of the year, in order to qualify for film award consideration, including the Academy Awards. In many cases, such releases will have a better chance at being nominated for the Oscar. Such recent films that have gone the limited release route include 2004's Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator, as well as 2005's March of the Penguins, which eventually opened wide. Sometimes this is done to allow a film to receive a wide release shortly after the 1st of the year, while qualifying for the previous year's Academy Awards. Often, smaller films (often art and independent) will receive an initial release in New York and Los Angeles, and later expand to other cities based on results; this is called "platforming" or a platform release.

However, it is important not to confuse releases such as March of the Penguins or Million Dollar Baby with the old-fashioned roadshow release. Neither of those films were shown with an intermission, or on a two performance-a-day basis.

See also


  8. McClintock, Pamela (Nov. 6, 2006). " D'Works takes 'Girls' on road." Daily Variety. Retrieved on November 11, 2006.

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