Box office and distribution
You might think I was investigating obscure Egyptian hieroglyphics and not a slasher movie made barely 30 years ago that is still relatively well known. Trying to find reliable statistics on the financial success – or otherwise – of THE BURNING is problematic to say the least.
According to Tony Maylam, the film got a very good response at test screenings. In February 1981, Filmways Pictures picked up the rights to distribute the film from the Weinsteins for an undisclosed sum after viewing it at the L.A. Market. According to Variety, Filmways was in financial difficulties and probably saw an opportunity to make some easy money during the slasher boom. The company had already produced Brian De Palma's DRESSED TO KILL (1980) (which had made some serious money the previous year with a slasher/thriller mashup) and proto-slasher THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976) – as well as distributing WITHOUT WARNING (1980) and THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)). At the time of the pick-up by Filmways, there was talk of renaming the film TALES AROUND THE CAMPFIRE. The film was subsequently sold to foreign territories, such as Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Japan at that year's Cannes Festival.
In April 1981, Variety reported that THE BURNING would premiere (keeping its name) on May 8 in Florida on 110 screens – with a regional roll out to follow. According to Variety, the film did especially well in Buffalo, near where it had lensed. In June 1981, Variety described its performance as “sizzling”, saying “[it] … lit up Buffalo area screens this weekend”. The film played three theatres plus two drive-ins, bringing in an impressive $33,000. Variety went on to say, “Locally produced and filmed, the movie benefitted from a lot of TV and print publicity plus fairly decent notices. It had the fright market almost all to itself, as some seven other horror flicks moved out on Thursday”. Quite where those positive notices are remains a mystery, as you'll see later on! Regardless, local opening interest soon fizzled, and the film suffered a more than 50% drop off the following week.
Despite this brief bright spot, overall box office for THE BURNING was initially pretty dismal. It lasted in the top 50 for only four weeks, with a take of just $270,508. Variety reported it received a “chilly reception” in San Francisco (it also played Chicago). Even FINAL EXAM made more money! This may have had something to do with the fact that unlike in Buffalo it opened elsewhere to stiff competition: it debuted at number 23 behind HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (at number 1) and FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II (at Number 2). However, the somewhat mitigating circumstance is that it opened on far fewer screens than those wider releases.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II and THE BURNING were, obviously, thematically very similar and would have appealed to the same audience demographic (not to mention the glut of other slasher films on release at the same time, which included – as already mentioned - not only HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME and FINAL EXAM, but also THE FAN, GRADUATION DAY and even a re-release of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE). The success of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II, especially, could have helped the film’s success – or hampered it if audiences were already satiated for summer camp thrills (and preferred to go with a known property) – which appears to be the case.
No online resource I have ever seen has given box office figures for THE BURNING, so I have had to resort to piecing together what I can through Variety's archives. To further complicate matters, as was the norm then for many low budget films before the wide advent of video – films were re-released time and time again to theatres, especially regionally. This happened with THE BURNING, which was re-released to American theatres with new poster artwork (showing the face with a fire reflected in an eye) in November 1982 (a full year and a half after its original release). In fact, Janet Maslin’s scathing review in The New York Times originates from this later date. Orion Pictures, who had recently merged with Filmways, were the distributor by this point.
It appears that Orion put the film into wider release than Filmways had done previously. An ad in Variety from 17 November 1982 emphasises the comparative success: "The Burning scorches New York! $401,258 in just 7 days." Co-incidentally, the same ad boasts that 8,800 video cassettes of the film have been sold by EMI in the UK (and we all know how that turned out!). Its last week on the chart was December 8 1982, where it had slipped from 78 screens the previous week to just 8 that week with a total take of $707,770.
Promotional press artwork also exists under the title CROPSY, but it is unclear when it played theatres under that title (it was a common practice to give films multiple names, perhaps in an effort to trick audiences into seeing it twice!) – but it looks like it might have played under that title in late 1981 in at least Memphis. According to the MPAA site it may have also played under the title CAMPFIRE TALES. These releases and re-releases make if difficult – if not nigh on impossible – to find a definitive box office tally for the film.
To confuse matters further is the way that Variety collected box office data at the time. A case in point is HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME. The June 10 1981 issue lists that film as making a total of $3,491,592 after 3 weeks in release in the box office chart. However, the same issue carries an ad from Columbia Pictures boasting that the film had actually grossed $10,609,514 in 3 weeks and 3 days. Confused? You should be. It appears that back then Variety only collated the film rentals, meaning the percentage the distributors collected – and not the total box office tally like it does today. Therefore, if we take HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME as a benchmark, then we can double or triple the figures for these films to give an approximation of true box office. Hardly an exact science, but with lack of anything else more concrete it will have to do. Therefore, it is fair to surmise that THE BURNING made around $2-3 million on a $1.5 million budget. According to Tony Maylam the film sold well around the world (and with cable and video sales to boot) it at least made back its budget – and then some. However, in no way could it be described as a box office smash.
It seems widely accepted that THE SECRET POLICEMAN’S OTHER BALL (1982) was the first bone-fide box office success for the Weinsteins, which might indicate that THE BURNING was not considered a success for them. However, considering that this was a relatively low budget film (as were pretty much all slashers of the time), it is likely that even modest success would have been enough for the film to glide into profit – if not with the kind of profit someone who had been eyeing the box office bonanza of FRIDAY THE 13TH might have hoped for.
Incidentally, the film did very well in Japan when it was released there in September 1981 (in what may well have been an uncut print according to Cohl). Variety reported it “... set fire to the box office” in Tokyo, making a total of $283,477 in a week at just four cinemas. It had legs, staying in one cinema for at least six weeks there. Eventually, it grossed over $1 million.
A humorous end note is that the film was released to British screens on 5 November 1981 by Handmade Films. Of course, the 5th November is Guy Fawkes’ night – when Brits burn effigies of Fawkes’ in memory of his plot to blow up Parliament. Handmade Films were also behind the Monty Python films, so maybe that explains it. However, the film didn't exactly set British cinemas alight, with Variety describing its performance as “drab”. Within a couple of weeks it was already on a double-bill with WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979), which didn't boost its fortunes as Variety said it soon “hit the skids” with “pathetic” results.
Still, the film would eventual find fame – if not exactly fortune – of a completely unexpected kind in Britain the following year ...
Lobby cards (click on each one to see a larger version)
Promotional Pictures and Artwork (click on each one to see a larger version)
Filmways Promotional Guide (click on each one to see a larger version)