The Second Time Around: Tracking the Most Successful Movie Re-releases

An email came in after the publication of my earlier article on double features. The letter asked about films which were re-released in theaters. I had mentioned in the article that reissuing films in a number of screens was a common practice in the good ol’ days before video and 3-D reconfigurations; as a for instance, the James Bond films were commonly teamed up and usually received a warm box-office reception from 007-worshipping audiences.

But how do I figure out what the most popular revivals have been over the years?

I turned my attention to my good friend David Bleiler, who keeps track of such things. Dave has an unusual but fascinating hobby; he keeps track of the popularity of films through ticket sales, and says that this is the one true way to tell how the true success of films. Dave is an old pro, having written about films for several magazines and authoring a few books as well.

I had mentioned the predicament to him: How can you tell the most popular films that were re-released in theaters? And, sure enough, he went to his stats and formulas and ticket counting charts and sure enough, he offered me an extensive chart of “the most popular re-released films in history.”

Some of the things I discovered:

Gone With the Wind is easily the most successful film ever reissued. Not only was it in theaters several times since its 1939 debut; the biggest reissue for the classic was 1967, where the film sold 58 million tickets, accounting for an astonishing estimate of $440 million in 2011 dollars at the box-office. Other lucrative theater visits for GWTW occurred in 1954 and 1961.

Star Wars has done quite well on the reissue circuit, boasting ticket sales of 36 million in 1978 and 33 million in its 20th anniversary edition complete with extra scenes and reconfigured special effects. A few weeks later, The Empire Strikes Back struck gold for 18 million in ticket sales, and a few weeks after that, Return of the Jedi returned to the big screen for less lucre.

Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack was originally released in theaters in 1971, and fared well in theaters with 6.5 million tickets sold. But Laughlin, the writer/producer/director/star of the film, decided to take over distribution with an inventive campaign. In 1974, Laughlin four-walled Billy Jack (rented out theaters) amid a heavy advertising campaign. The result was an astonishing 35 million in ticket sales, totaling $270 million at 2011 box-office prices.

The Outlaw, Howard Hughes’ sagebrush showcase for buxom Jane Russell, was completed in 1941, but censorship problems played a part in the film being held up until its 1943 premiere in San Francisco. But it wasn’t until 1946 when the film caught on, Hughes-designed bra on Russell and all, for 23.5 million in ticket sales for United Artists.  The film was also brought out again in 1950 to showcase Ms. Russell’s physique and garnered another 12 million in ticket sales. Who knows how much this longtime public domain title has made on home video over the years?

D.W. Griffith’s silent The Birth of a Nation remains reviled (for its racist images and heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan) and respected (for its groundbreaking narrative filmmaking techniques) at the same time. While it was quite the sensation during its 1915 release with protests, controversy and a screening in Woodrow Wilson’s White House, the 1921 re-release proved very popular, selling 23 million tickets, as did a 1930 revisit to the Civil War epic with 17 million tickets sold.

Disney films have always had an impressive shelf life over the decades and, as witnessed by the current hit reissue of The Lion King, they continue to do so on occasion. Several Disney films, both animated and live action, have fared great on the re-release circuit with 1967’s The Jungle Book leading the way, capturing 17.5 million in tickets in its 1978 theater booking. 1961’s 101 Dalmatians (in 1991), 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (in 1944, 1987, 1975, 1993, 1967,  and 1958), 1960’s Swiss Family Robinson, 1942’s Bambi, 1964’s Mary Poppins, 1950’s Cinderella, 1946’s Song of the South, 1940’s Pinocchio and 1955’s Lady and the Tramp  all had boffo success in return engagements.

The Disney reissue notion, of course, makes perfect sense: Re-release the family films as new generations of children are born.

There are several films that have been met with enthusiastic response the second time around for different reasons. For example, Mike Todd’s all-star 1956 adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days landed back in theaters on a reserved seat basis in 1968 after being out of circulation for a while. It sold 16 million tickets. The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson’s 1927 early talkie, got relaunched in ’31 after sound movies took hold, and garnered an impressive 15 million in ticket admissions. Silents other than the aforementioned Birth of a Nation were affectionately welcomed in the era of sound. Among them: Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), Modern Times (1936) and City Lights (1931), and Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) with Lillian Gish.

Interestingly, Ingrid Bergman’s 1941 Rage in Heaven was brought back to theaters in 1946 after the Swedish actress became an international star in such American films as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Casablanca, Gaslight, Spellbound, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Saratoga Trunk, The Bells of St. Mary’s and Notorious. Rage in Heaven, involving a romantic triangle between Robert Montgomery, George Sanders and Bergman, sold an impressive 10.5 million tickets. Ironically, four years later—after her pregnancy by married Italian director Roberto Rossellini was made public—Ms. Bergman was practically blacklisted in America for six years.

What were some of the films you recall seeing in the theater when they were reissued? We’d love to know.