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Original program from the road-show released Birth of a Nation in 1915. Such programs were provided by the producer-distributor (in this case: Epoch Producing Corporation, H. E. Aitken) to theater patrons. Today, road show programs are a collectable, though not entirely rare, movie item.

The Early Film Business

Distribution: States Rights or Road Show

by J.A. Aberdeen


During the pre-studio era (before the fall of the Edison Trust in 1915), movie releases were generally handled in one of two ways—either by states rights or by road show.

States Rights

In the states rights method, producers sold their films on a territorial basis to a local salesperson who extracted as much money as possible from the movie until the worn and scratched film print literally fell apart from sheer use. States rights had been the most logical way for a producer to tackle a nationwide release. Copyright holders sold the actual copies of their movies; films were sold by their length, usually ten cents per linear foot of film. This method was ideal for short films that had brief stays in the nickelodeons. But for feature film distribution, states rights proved ineffective. The producer made money on the initial sale of the film print, but the states rights salesperson reaped the largest rewards. Producers had slim profit margins while many films failed to return their costs.

D. W. Griffith, photo taken while operating as an independent producer for the Mutual Film Corp. (Aberdeen Collection). To purchase Aberdeen photos for reprint purposes click here.

Road Show

For a road show release, the film was treated as a special theatrical engagement. The producer would contract directly with a movie theater—usually at the largest and most prestigious of theaters—to show the film with reserved seating and inflated admission prices. With only a couple of showings per day to emphasize the film's prestige attraction, the road show method was one of the most profitable ways to debut a feature. Road show box office went straight to the producer, but by its very nature, a road show could only be performed only on a regional basis.

Many silent films utilized a combination of road show and states rights. For instance, The Birth of a Nation road show engagements allowed D. W. Griffith and Harry Aitken to skim the cream from the most lucrative urban markets, and helped generate mass appeal that would interest more states-rights salesmen to handle the film. This made actual box office figures impossible to determine, and gave rise to the exaggerated gross estimates for The Birth of a Nation that kept Griffith's film on the all-time box office champion list for more than 50 years.

The road show method never really went away during the studio era. But states rights was completely displaced by the Hodkinson distribution method developed by William Wadsworth Hodkinson which gave studios control over distribution.

MORE:

The Birth of a Nation advertisement, 10 September 1915. "D. W. Griffith's 8th Wonder of the World." Limited to two showings per day; note that the ticket prices ranged from 25 cents up to an astronomical $1.50 for evening box seats.

 

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