Long regarded as one of the best films of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has another more surprising legacy.
Psycho is widely regarded as one of the best films of all time. It was arguably the first film to explore psychology in horror, create sympathy for a killer and kill off its lead character in the first half of the story. But there’s one way it changed movies that’s not talked about enough. Psycho is the reason that cinemas have scheduled start times. It changed the way we watch films.
Before Psycho came out in 1960, cinemas screened films on a loop. This was usually as a double or even triple feature. Anyone could walk into a film at the beginning, middle or end, see the next feature and then watch the parts of the first film that they missed. Many members of the audience were disorderly and disruptive. They arrived late, left early, spat tobacco, stamped their feet and talked back to the actors. Some may argue there are a few modern multiplexes that feel the same.
Alfred Hitchcock wanted to change things. Psycho’s whole story is designed to shock and surprise, something that would be impossible if anyone could walk into the film whenever they wanted.
Initially, it seems as if Psycho is the story of real estate secretary Marian Crane and the difficult decision she makes to steal money from a client. It then leads to her making a connection with shy and diffident motel owner Norman Bates whilst on the run. Hitchcock even got Janet Leigh, a well known star of the time, to play the lead role. It’s quite a spoiler-y story if you’ve not had the considerable pleasure, so we’ll leave that bit there.
Hitchcock did everything in his power to make sure no spoilers emerged. He didn’t allow Janet Leigh and Antony Perkins (Norman Bates) to give any interviews. He banned critical pre-screenings and even got his assistant to buy as many copies of Robert Bloch’s Psycho novel as he could. But none of that would have made a difference if he didn’t get theatres to implement scheduled screen times.
Hitchcock told Motion Picture Herald that the idea came to him during the editing process. “I suddenly startled my fellow-workers with a noisy vow that my frontwards-sideways-and-inside-out labours on Psycho would not be in vain – that everyone else in the world would have to enjoy the fruits of my labours to the full by seeing the picture from beginning to end. This was the way the picture was conceived – and this was how it had to be seen.”
Theatres were initially reluctant about such a big change. But Hitchcock was insistent. He had Paramount’s backing to promote Psycho in the way he wanted since he funded most of the film himself.
At cinemas across the country loudspeakers broadcast Hitchcock declaring that no one could come in after the film started. Once the film began the cinema doors were locked. It was all part of Psycho’s marketing campaign.
Even the trailers highlighted this message. One trailer urged audiences to arrive at theatres on time, another underlined the need for secrecy and the third showed Hitchcock conducting a tour of Bates’ motel: the film’s main location. It hinted at some of the film’s secrets but has a lot of misdirection. At the end, Vera Miles who played Janet Leigh’s sister was misleadingly shown in the shower as a possible victim of the murderer. No trailer showed a single scene from the film itself.
Cinemas were instructed to put up life-sized cardboard cutouts of Hitchcock carrying a sign that memorably highlighted how strict their lateness policy would be.
“We won’t allow you to cheat yourself! You must see PSYCHO from the beginning to enjoy it fully. Therefore, do not expect to be admitted into the theatre after the start of each performance of the picture. We say no one and we mean no one – not even the manager’s brother, the President of the United States or the Queen of England (God bless her)!”
Newspaper ads showed a picture of Hitchcock conveying the same message. He even employed uniformed Pinkerton guards, private security, to enforce the rules in a very visible way.
The campaign was a huge success. Audiences were willing and eager to queue up to get a chance to watch Psycho. Hitchcock got the movie public to listen to rules about timing in a way that had never been seen before. At a time when movie audiences were declining, Psycho brought audiences back to the theatre. It ended up making $32,000,000 in its first theatrical release, more than any other horror film to date and far surpassing its modest $806,947 budget.
Theatre owners were very happy with the results. They ended up making a lot more money selling tickets for single bookings. Scheduled start times soon became the normal practice.
For audiences everywhere, it’s made cinema an event: an experience we’re willing to wait for.
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.