When Moviegoers Started Watching Films From the Beginning (Guest Column)

Poster Art featuring director Alfred Hitchcock Psycho 1960
Paramount Pictures/Photofest

On Oct. 11-12, Turner Classic Movies, in partnership with Fathom Events, gave a theatrical re-release to Alfred Hitchcock's epochal serial killer film Psycho. It is billed as a "special event," but it won't replicate the special-event-ness of the original screenings in 1960, when couples in packed theaters screamed their lungs out and leaped into each other's arms. Nor can a re-release recapture the thrill of the gimmick linked to the screenings, a departure from convention as jarring as the jagged montage that dispatched its star in the first act: the request — actually, as Hitch said in the trailer, the demand — that exhibitors shut their doors to tardy moviegoers: "No one ... BUT NO ONE … will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance of PSYCHO." One-sheet posters featured the auteur pointing to his watch as if admonishing students not to arrive late for class. Of the many cinematic "firsts" credited to Psycho, the change it brought to the ritual of American moviegoing may be the most consequential.

The patterns of the ritual are conjured in a once common catchphrase now unknown to moviegoers of a certain age: "This is where we came in." Throughout the classical Hollywood era, moviegoers dropped in on a film screening whenever they felt like it, heedless of the progress of the narrative. In the usual formulation, a couple go to the movies, enter midway into the feature film, sit through to the end of the movie, watch the newsreel, cartoon, and comedy short at the top of the program, and then sit through the feature film until they recognize the scene they walked in on. At this point, one moviegoer whispers to their partner, "This is where we came in," and they exit the theater.

Encouraging the behavior was the "grind" policy by which movies were exhibited in most theaters at the time. Basically, the motion picture program was unspooled as an endless loop (newsreel/cartoon/short/feature film/repeat) that spectators merged into whenever they showed up. Variety even headlined a 1941 piece, "'This Is Where We Came In' Principle of Film Grind." Of course, some moviegoers stayed put and double-dipped. Warner Bros. knew the Bette Davis vehicle Jezebel (1938) would be a hit when a reporter at Radio City Music Hall overheard the fidgety husband behind him say, in the middle of the picture, "This is where we came in," and his wife reply, "Yes, but I want to see the rest of it again!"

Though moviegoers figured the price of the ticket was an open-access pass, many exhibitors (who wanted reliable crowd control) and filmmakers (who wanted a captive audience from opening credits to sign-off) disapproved. Having labored to orchestrate a finely calibrated mood of suspense or romance, directors hated for moviegoers to barge in and break — or never experience — the spell they were casting. Cecil B. DeMille especially resented the fact that moviegoers, and not he, decided how to experience his movies.

Theater managers also disliked the haphazard comings and goings. In 1937, a fed-up exhibitor wrote Motion Picture Herald to complain about the lackadaisical habits of his customers. Citing a slate of recent pictures — After the Thin Man, Camille, The Plainsman and The General Died at Dawn — that "depended on audiences seeing them from the beginning to fully enjoy them," he pleaded with his colleagues to band together to discourage patrons from waltzing into the theater whenever they pleased. He proposed a nationwide "Go-to-the-Show-on-Time" campaign that would, "once and for all, get people in the habit of arriving in the theaters near the starting time of the feature." A series of educational ad-mattes for newspapers could admonish customers, "To fully enjoy any show, always come at the beginning!" The campaign went nowhere.

Occasionally, the publicity for a film would threaten the unpunctual with stern measures, but everyone knew it was a fake-out. "Due to the sensational surprise twist in the ending of MILDRED PIERCE positively no patron will be seated in the theatre during the last eight minutes of this picture!" screamed a newspaper ad, though presumably patrons would be seated at any time during the preceding 103 minutes.

In 1950, Twentieth Century-Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz learned how difficult it was to change the time clock of American moviegoers. Knowing they had something special on their hands, the pair required exhibitors who wanted to book All About Eve to sign a contract whereby "no patron is to be seated after the picture starts" and "at the conclusion of each performance the theater is to be cleared." The Fox publicity team assured moviegoers that the "utter fascination and charm" of All About Eve "were immeasurably due to the fact that we were seeing it the only way it should be seen — from the beginning."

The venue chosen for the experiment was the legendary 6,000-seat Roxy Theatre, where All About Eve premiered on Oct. 13, 1950. None other than Spyros P. Skouros, president of 20th Century Fox, was enrolled to encourage compliance. "Because the beginning of this picture is the ending, it would spoil any audience's enjoyment of it not to see it from the beginning," he said, guilelessly spoiling the narrative device.

All About Eve drew big crowds and initial public reaction was said to be positive: People enjoyed seeing the flashed-back story from the beginning without having latecomers crawling over them to get a seat.

But after only four days Fox pulled the plug. Located just off the busy Times Square thoroughfare, the Roxy usually drew a huge "drop-in trade" of pedestrians attracted by the lobby displays. The impulse moviegoers simply refused to wait around for the next show and went instead to nearby movie houses, which obligingly let them in when they showed up. A sorrowful Fox statement conceded that "you can’t break with one engagement the half-century-old habit of patrons going to the movies when they like, or on the impulse of the moment."

Not, at least, until the one engagement was Psycho — and the idea to upend the half-century-old habit came not from Hitchcock but from Jerry Pickman, Paramount vice president for advertising and publicity. In a rare convergence of service to both ad-pub hype and full-immersion art, he wanted "to protect the story twist and ending" and to create the best atmosphere for Hitchcock to scare the bejesus out of people. "The enjoyment of the film would be diminished unless patrons see it from the beginning," declared Pickman.

Hitch, who was always his own best publicity shill, ran with the Pickman plan. "Psycho is most enjoyable when viewed at the beginning and proceeding to the end," he drawled. "I realize this is a revolutionary concept, but we have discovered that Psycho is unlike most motion pictures. It does not improve when run backwards." The trade press marveled at the audacity of the on-time, closed-door policy, which it described as "revolutionary."

On June 16, 1960, after a saturation campaign giving fair warning, the DeMille and Baronet theaters in New York premiered Psycho with the see-it-from-the-beginning edict in place. In a practice later to be known as "fill and spill," exhibitors hustled audiences in and out with military efficiency (the staggered showtimes — every two-hours for the 109-minute film — made for a tight squeeze). Uniformed Pinkerton guards were on hand to enforce the policy.

The guards were not just for show. William Braden, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, figured the Pickman plan was just the usual Hollywood ballyhoo and set out to expose the con. He bought a ticket to Psycho at the Woods Theatre in Chicago's Loop and demanded he be seated midway into the screening. Nothing doing, said the theater manager — and a Pinkerton guard blocked his entrance.

Variety mentioned the revolution in moviegoing in the making. "The public has been spoiled by the convenience of continuous run and 'come at any time,'" it lectured. "Too many pictures lose impact when caught after opening curtain." The Hollywood Reporter's film reviewer noted, "Paramount won't let anyone enter theatres where Psycho is playing after the picture starts. No one will want to leave before it is over."

Once whipped into line by Alfred Hitchcock, audiences knew that the middle of the picture was no longer where to come in. Sixty years after Psycho, guards need not block the entrances to motion picture theaters. Few moviegoers today would think of walking into a film midway through and staying into the next screening, even if the management did not hustle them out after the lights went up. These days, any patron with a ticket — and a mask — will be able to enter the theater any time they please.

Thomas P. Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of numerous books about the media and entertainment industries, the most recent of which, is Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century.