THE MOVIE THAT STARTED IT ALL
Rialto’s Bruce Goldstein Discusses the 50th Anniversary Theatrical Release of GODZILLA
Author: Keith Aiken
Source: Rialto Pictures
Special Thanks to Bruce Goldstein and Michael Schlesinger
Originally published March 29, 2004.
1954 was a milestone year for Toho Co., Ltd. At a time when the average Japanese movie was made in 4-6 weeks at a budget of approximately $75,000 US, the studio decided to produce not one, but three films that would require much more time and money. The first (and most expensive) of these was Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (Shichinin no Samurai). Nearly a year of production, much of it on location, had pushed costs up to $560,000, nearly 8 times higher than usual. Hiroshi Inagaki’s SAMURAI: THE LEGEND OF MUSASHI (Miyamoto Mushashi), the epic life story of the legendary swordsman (played by Toshiro Mifune) based on the novel by Eiji Yoshikawa, was also a massive production as well as being Toho’s first film in Eastman Color. Its final budget ended up at $500,000. The last of the trio was Ishiro Honda’s monster movie GODZILLA (Gojira). No Japanese studio had ever attempted to make a movie of this nature, so a great deal of money was needed for Eiji Tsuburaya to develop the special effects and create all the miniature props and sets. While GODZILLA cost far less than SEVEN SAMURAI or SAMURAI: THE LEGEND OF MUSASHI, its $170-250,000 budget was still three times that of the average Toho film.
These three films were a huge risk for Toho — if any of them had failed at the box office it could have crippled the company — but it turned out the studio had gambled wisely. SEVEN SAMURAI opened on April 26th and went on to become the highest-grossing movie of the year. In addition, its critical reputation has grown to the point where it is now widely regarded as the greatest film ever made in Japan. Opening on September 26, SAMURAI followed a successful theatrical run by becoming the first Toho film to be widely released in the United States, where it won the 1955 Academy Award for “Best Foreign Picture”. The film is now known in the US as SAMURAI I (one) and is available on home video and DVD (along with its two sequels) from Criterion. GODZILLA premiered on November 3rd and sold over 9,691,000 tickets in its initial theatrical run. The movie grossed nearly $2,250,000, more than eight times its production costs, and inspired an ongoing franchise that includes 27 sequels, one American remake, and a wave of monster movies from Toho and its rival studios in Japan.
Following SAMURAI’s success in America, Toho opened a small office in Los Angeles in order to promote and sell more of their films in the US. An English subtitled print of GODZILLA was shown in LA in 1955, most likely at the Linda Lea Theatre in Little Tokyo. There it was seen by Samuel Arkoff of American International Pictures, who approached Toho and made a bid for the movie. “The whole situation was ridiculous,” Arkoff said decades later. “We were dickering with [Toho] for about three months, then came to find the rights were already sold.” It turned out the US theatrical and television rights to GODZILLA had been purchased by Edmund Goldman, owner of a small distributing company called Manson International, for $25,000. “I made them an offer and they accepted it rather quickly,” Goldman told author Steve Ryfle in 1995. “It turned out to be a bonanza.”
Since Goldman’s expertise lay in selling American movies to Asian countries, not the other way around, he decided to sell the rights to Harold Ross and Richard Kay, owners of Jewell Enterprises. The two screened GODZILLA for Joseph Levine of Embassy Pictures, who agreed to pay $100,000 for a 50% share of the film. Levine then brought in additional partners to create a new company, Trans World Releasing Corp., to `Americanize’ and distribute the movie. Director Terry Morse was hired to write and film the new version. Nearly 40 minutes of footage from the original GODZILLA was removed; what remained was dubbed into English by James Hong (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) and Sammee Tong (BACHELOR FATHER) and edited with new footage of actor Raymond Burr (REAR WINDOW, PERRY MASON) playing an American reporter in Tokyo. Morse and co, did a masterful job adapting GODZILLA so that it would appeal to 1950s America, but much of the power and symbolism of Honda’s film was lost in the process.
After briefly considering the title “Godzilla: The Sea Beast”, Trans World decided to release the film on April 4, 1956 as GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS. It did amazing business for a low-budget, independently distributed movie, grossing more than $2,000,000 at the box office. The American version was also sold to foreign markets; playing in such countries as Mexico, Italy, Britain, France, Argentina, Cuba, Belgium, and Sweden. Thanks in part to the worldwide success of the “Raymond Burr cut”, Godzilla became an international icon.
Following the release of GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, the original Japanese GODZILLA has been rarely shown in America. After nearly three decades, the subtitled version finally resurfaced in 1982 as part of a New York film festival entitled “Thank You, Godzilla”. Since then, there have been a handful of screenings; one or two in Chicago, a couple in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the past few years — but the majority of US fans have never had the opportunity to see the original, uncut, undubbed version on the big screen.
In celebration of GODZILLA’s 50th Anniversary New York-based Rialto Pictures has acquired the theatrical rights to the film. Founded by Bruce Goldstein in 1997, Rialto has released a slew of classic films from around the world to theaters across America. The company’s list of titles include the Mike Nichols/Dustin Hoffman hit THE GRADUATE, Jean-Luc Godard’s CONTEMPT, Mel Brooks’ THE PRODUCERS, and Federico Fellini’s JULIET OF THE SPIRITS. Rialto has received praise for their restorations of THE THIRD MAN, GRAND ILLUSION, LE CIRCLE ROUGE, RIFIFI, and NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, and their efforts won them both the Heritage Award from the National Society of Film Critics in 1999, and a special award from the New York Film Critics in 2000. Several of Rialto’s theatrical releases have become best-selling DVDs from the Criterion Collection.
For GODZILLA, Rialto is planning the first-ever nationwide US release of the original Toho version starting in the spring of 2004. To whet the public’s appetite, the company has created a 50th Anniversary theatrical trailer that has been running with their current releases EYES WITHOUT A FACE and THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS and is also available online at Apple.com. New prints of the movie have been struck, a new translation and subtitles prepared, and the company is now in the midst of making deals with theaters to screen the film. In spite of this hectic schedule, Bruce Goldstein was kind enough to discuss Rialto’s plans for GODZILLA :
Keith Aiken: How did Rialto get involved with GODZILLA? Were you a fan of the film?
Bruce Goldstein: Yes, I was. I’ve been trying to get the film rights from Toho for over 10 years, but they weren’t available until recently. Most of the foreign films Rialto has released came from France and Italy and for some time I’ve wanted to branch out from strictly European fare. GODZILLA was a natural first choice to do that.
Keith Aiken: What are your plans for the theatrical release? How wide will it be?
Bruce Goldstein: GODZILLA will open in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington DC in May, then is scheduled to play all the major markets in the US until October or so. After that, the movie will be made available for film festivals, conventions, etc. Rialto has the theatrical rights for seven years.
Keith Aiken: In comparison to a “typical” Rialto release, has there been much interest from theaters in booking this film?
Bruce Goldstein: The response from theaters has been tremendous. Godzilla is a household name and the first film has a well-deserved reputation as a classic.
Keith Aiken: If a theater or festival wanted to screen GODZILLA, how could they get a print of the movie?
Bruce Goldstein: The easiest way is to email us with any serious inquiries. Our contact info is available on the Rialto website.
Keith Aiken: How many prints of the movie are being struck?
Bruce Goldstein: We’re starting low — maybe two or three prints. More will added if the demand warrants it.
Keith Aiken: Was much restoration work needed?
Bruce Goldstein: Not really. The film negative Toho supplied us with was in surprisingly good shape.
Keith Aiken: I’ve heard that GODZILLA will have a new translation and subtitles. Who is handling that for Rialto?
Bruce Goldstein: I’m working with a Japanese translator on the new subtitles. We’re just making the subs less stilted and more descriptive. There will be no modern phrasing and slang — GODZILLA will still come across as a movie taking place in the 1950s.
Keith Aiken: Will this be tied into any other projects for the 50th anniversary of the film? Are you involved with the American Cinematheque event at the Egyptian Theatre in late June?
Bruce Goldstein: We’re not working directly on any other 50th anniversary project, though I have made some suggestions to Toho. We are trying to work with the American Cinematheque, but the film will open at the Nuart in May.
Keith Aiken: Several Rialto titles are available on DVD; mostly from Criterion. Is either company planning to release GODZILLA on home video?
Bruce Goldstein: It’s too early to say about that — any decisions regarding video are way down the line. At this time, we only have US theatrical and non-theatrical (not home video) distribution rights to GODZILLA.
Keith Aiken: If the film is successful, do you have plans for any future releases? Would you like to release other Godzilla or Japanese fantasy films?
Bruce Goldstein: That’s definitely a “wait and see.” But it would be tough to find another one as special as this one — a classic that’s entirely different from the version people know.
For additional information and updates — including future screening dates, please visit Rialto’s GODZILLA page.
Note: Much of the information on the original theatrical releases of both GODZILLA and GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS came from three excellent books. I would like to credit and thank the authors for their assistance:
Stuart Galbraith IV, THE EMPEROR AND THE WOLF: the lives and films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune (Faber and Faber, 2002) Steve Ryfle, JAPAN’S FAVORITE MON-STAR: The Unauthorized Biography of the Big “G” (ECW Press, 1998) Guy Mariner Tucker, AGE OF THE GODS (Daikaiju Publishing, 1996)