Instead, it was a multi-tier process, at least where the major studios were concerned (especially those that owned theater chains). At first, a film would premiere in the elite palaces of the largest cities. A week or two later, those prints would be shipped to the big theaters in second-level markets or to smaller big-city venues. Next, the film would show up at "neighborhood houses" for those who either still hadn't seen it, didn't patronize the more expensive downtown palaces, or who simply wanted to see it again.
For example, consider Carole's Technicolor comedy, "Nothing Sacred":
Frederick W. Ott's book "The Films Of Carole Lombard" states it was released on Nov. 26, 1937; the Internet Movie Database says it premiered the day before. Under the current release format, once the new year rolled around, you might find it in the smaller screens of some multiplexes, hidden away while the venue shows the latest blockbuster on its largest screen, possibly multiple screens if it's something people really want to see.
But things didn't work that way when 1937 turned into 1938. "Nothing Sacred" may have received some good reviews in national magazines, but quite a few markets still hadn't had the opportunity to see it.
This is where promotion came in.
Local theater operators put on their thinking caps to come up with ways to market a movie. And the following is what one theater -- the Loew's Valentine in Toledo, Ohio -- did. (The 1,800-seat Valentine was founded as a live stage theater back in 1895. Loew's bought it in 1918 and soon converted it into a moviehouse. It was renovated in the 1990s and now serves as a performing arts center.) Here's what the Valentine looked like in 1930:
Manager Wally Caldwell (ironically, Fredric March's character in the film was named Wally) came up with a variety of ideas to promote the film, and those ideas were made public in the Jan. 15, 1938 issue of Boxoffice magazine.
As might be expected, the chief selling point was the fight between Lombard and March. Caldwell exploited it in several ways:
* Curbstone posters reading "This Way to the Big Fight," with playdate information.
* Bookmarks distributed at libraries or inserted in laundry bundles.
* Fake tickets, designed to resemble stubs from prizefights.
* And finally, a boxing match on the fight card at the civic Auditorium "between a woman of husky proportions and a young man in evening attire. Announcers read prepared copy explaining what it was all about...Heralds were distributed to spectators and posters were hung throughout the auditorium." Such as, perhaps...
Other ideas included:
* A four-foot cake of ice in front of the theater in which were painted oil portraits of Lombard's head. (As it was January in northwest Ohio, melting was presumably minimal.) Copy near the ice asked how long it would take Carole "to melt the heart of an icy city."
* A tie-in with a local ice cream chain for "Carole Lombard sundaes," in which miniature phots of Carole's head where placed atop toothpicks. (This begs the question: Did the sundaes have nuts?)
* A promotion done in conjunction with the News-Bee newspaper searching for a Lombard "double." Contestants were asked to submit photos "giving age, measurements, etc." Local merchants provided prizes.
Some fascinating ways to sell what advertising copy labeled "the tenderest, toughest love story ever told."