Christmas Day is one of the biggest moviegoing days of the year. New holiday release always open by then, and often do so the Friday before. But not the day after.
“The Exorcist” opened on December 26, 1973.
Director William Friedkin, interviewed by Peter Biskind in 1996, was still angry about it, arguing that the studio’s release strategy hurt his film. But “The Exorcist” was a huge hit — it’s the ninth all-time highest domestic grossing sound film, adjusted for inflation — and second only to “Titanic” among Christmas period releases in the past 50 year.
But Friedkin apparently believes it could have been bigger.
Some context: “The Exorcist” was a blockbuster typical of its time, sharing some elements with “The Godfather,” which was released almost two years earlier. They were both based on bestselling novels. Neither cast had stars who could guarantee success. An R rating meant cutting off younger audiences and those who shunned more adult content. They both had troubled production histories, with studio doubts about direction, cost overruns, and delays.
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
But while “The Godfather” was released in March, “The Exorcist” was shunted to a rarely-used date at the end of the year. Warners didn’t follow the template that Paramount set to great success with Coppola’s film.
Why? My best guess is the one-day delay was related to sensitivities about a film with strong religious overtones including satanic presence and the portrayal of exorcisms by a Roman Catholic priest. It’s not standard fare to open on one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar.
And it’s likely that Friedkin, naturally competitive with Coppola and his other younger peers, cried foul as a result. But in retrospect, there was a method to Warners’ strategy — and one also has to acknowledge the gamble Paramount took with “The Godfather.” “The Godfather” debuted in five theaters in Manhattan, then following week expanded to nearly every state in just under 300 theaters. That was radical for a prestige release at the time, and it worked, with the film ultimately ending up with a massive $739 million adjusted domestic gross.
Warners did it differently. That Dec. 26 was a Wednesday, at that time the most frequent opening day for top movies playing limited initial big city runs. With New Year’s Day the following Tuesday, effectively it provided a full week where the moviegoing public was usually off work and could see the film.
“The Exorcist” opened the same day in 24 theaters in 21 metro areas in the U.S. and Canada. The studio created a sense of scarcity by adding new theaters slowly over the course of the following months. The results were an immediate success — every single one of these initial theaters set a single week record for best gross. They averaged around $70,000 per theater, which at today’s ticket prices would be more than $300,000 each, with at least 100,000 tickets sold at most of them for the week.
That was incredible, but more so was that it happened in the theaters that it did. All cities in 1973 had a hierarchy, and a glance at Variety from then shows that Warners had another first-run film — “Magnum Force,” the “Dirty Harry” sequel — in many more top-level theaters in key cities.
This led to some odd choices for “The Exorcist.” In New York it had only one theater — the prestigious Cinema I on the Upper East Side, with only 700 seats. This theater served normally as an upper scale art house for a high-end cinephile crowd (“Z” and “A Clockwork Orange” were past Christmas bookings). Los Angeles only had The National, a larger, 1,100 seat theater in Westwood.
In Chicago, it played two theaters — and neither was anywhere close to the city center. The UA I in suburban Oak Brook was one, and it grossed $69,323. The other was the Gateway, on the city’s northwest side, where it took in $121,118, the second highest amount anywhere, and more than any other gross for a movie in Chicago that Christmas.
The Gateway had some logic because of its 1,890 seats, but also its location in the most Polish Catholic part of a very Catholic city. It became ground zero for a clash that caused major press. Located just off of an expressway and rapid transit, the film drew a large Black audience. This was testimony to its huge initial appeal, but between lack of parking on city streets and the clear discomfort of locals, there was immediate pressure to add a downtown run.
The press coverage in Chicago was only one example of a nationwide phenomenon that came from visceral responses to the films from audience members. Viewers became ill, sometimes hysterical, and there was religious protest from some quarters. All got attention, and all built up interest.
This was at a time when a film could sustain interest for months or more — and that’s what happened. Throw in the 10 Oscar nominations the film received in February 1974, and the film was among the top three releases deep into the spring, even before it had a wide release. “The Exorcist,” even more than “Psycho,” is the film that elevated horror/violence oriented genre titles to legitimacy beyond the drive-in and B-movie niche they mostly inhabited.
Warner’s strategy paid off, but it likely went counter to Friedkin’s preference to follow “The Godfather” mold. In the end, only 11 films since 1930 have grossed $1 billion or more in adjusted grosses — only three since 1980 – “E.T.,” “Titanic,” and “The Force Awakens.” At $1,036,000,000, “The Exorcist” topped “The Godfather” by almost $300 million. In the end, it’s hard to argue the plan.