King Kong (1976) Is A Major Television Movie Event And Other Wonders Of The World
"The most exciting original motion picture event of all time."
- Advertising slogan on the movie poster.
(How a remake can be an "original" motion picture is anyone's guess.)
History is filled with myths reported as fact and cinematic history is no different. Oft-repeated myths exist about the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis King Kong remake really should be dispelled.
- One - The title is somewhat of a misnomer since the film came out in December of 1976 meaning the vast majority of people saw the film in 1977.
- Two - The film was a bomb. The $25 million film pulled in well over $100 million worldwide in just theatrical grosses. This doesn't include merchandise or television and home video rights.
- Three - The film is insufferably bad. A remake of one of the all-time greatest films in cinema history is hard to pull off and the "campy" route enraged critics. The remake is not terrible, but the script is really is uneven in segments. Admittedly, some of the acting is over the top.
One of the all-time biggest myths, one I take personal, is the television airings had little effect on building the cult of the film. Millions of people saw King Kong for the first time on TV and the appearance of Kong on the small screen was an incredibly huge event. Or, in the words of NBC, a Big Event.
And the debut of King Kong (1976) on television was one damn big event. All the hype was delivered upon one of the more interesting - albeit really flawed -- became something very rare in modern times. You positively had to get in front of the TV to see the airing or else the boat (from Skull Island) will have sailed.
You just had to be there. Yes, there was a time when television "events" meant everything else in life pretty had to stop. The arrival of King Kong, a very unique big budget spectacular, was just such a time.
Classic Intro to the Three Hour 1980 Airing
I Was A King Kong (1976) Child
The 1976 and 1977 theatrical hype and merchandising bonanza for King Kong helped lay the foundation for similar and over-used modern marketing movie hyping. I'll always have fond memories of Christmas 1977 when I received a King Kong puzzle, a King Kong View-Master, and a King Kong mug. (I still have the mug) It took me a year to put that puzzle together and I ended up missing ONE PIECE in the center of Kong's chest.
I never did get to see Kong in the theater though. I am one of the few people who saw Star Wars at the long gone Budco Orleans 4.
Watching King Kong on television was very, very important. (To me anyway) Younger people today who didn't grow up in the 1970s missed out (and, man, did you really miss out) on an era that truly was special as far as movie going, pop culture, and life in general was concerned.
For one, you did not have three or four $200+ million dollar films coming out virtually every month. Motion pictures had much more modest budgets since they did not have DVD/Blu-Ray, PPV, video game, and other ancillary means of pulling in money. A movie has to sell tickets in the theaters and even studio films maintained modest budgets.
The film also had to sign good money deals for network television debuts. The rights to Kong went to NBC and the fee was not cheap. NBC paid well over $19 million for the rights, a staggering figure at the time.
(De Laurentiis and Paramount receive a check for $19 million and people still think the film was a failure?)
The Somber Intro to Part Two of the 1978 Airing of King Kong
A Place in 1970s Cinema History
King Kong (1976) deserves an honorable place in the annals of 1970s pop culture. Kong-mania was massive in the late 1970s. There just weren't a lot of films like it. (Well, there was a rip-off from South Korea entitled A*P*E. The 3D film featured a giant gorilla on the rampage and the advertising slogan was "Not to be confused with King Kong.")
The extravaganza is no Jaws, but it never reaches Orca (1977) or The Swarm (1975) levels of bad. Kong never arises to Star Trek: The Motion Picture level of boredom either.
King Kong stands out tremendously thanks to its epic nature. The scope of the film was not commonplace in the 1970s. A producer really had to have guts to produce an epic sci-fi or fantasy film. Everything you see on screen had to be built from scratch. Computer generated effects weren't accessible.
No CGI meant films relying on special effects had to trail-blaze into territory no one else entered. There weren't a lot of event films in the 1970s, but the big budget extravaganzas definitely were memorable. The Towering Inferno (1973), Earthquake (1974), Jaws (1975), and Superman: The Motion Picture (1978) are among those iconic films that endure.
Kong Humor As A Double-Cross
The overly-serious narration on the previews for the arrival of Kong on the Peacock Network completely buried any hints that the film was very campy in spots. Therein lies a lot of the trouble the film ran into during its initial release. The film was unfocused mixing high adventure with really inappropriate humor.
Imagine if the original 21 Jump Street television focused on an important social theme and then, at several points during the episode, the humor and humorous style of the 21 Jump Street movie was interjected. The mix doesn't work and that was the trouble with King Kong. Over the years, the campiness has been forgiven and adds to the charm of the film.
People who watched the previews for the upcoming theatrical release and television airing thought they would be getting a "Rich Man, Poor Man only with a giant gorilla" type melodrama.
The sillier aspects of the film were a bit of a shock to the system. Critics took the flaws with the film way too serious. Audiences generally enjoyed things.
The Giant-Sized Arrival to Television
In both 1978 and 1980, an enormous amount of hype surrounding the television debut was Kong-like in size and scope. The big money sale of the television rights meant NBC had to really hype up the airing. Promos for the film presented the movie as it was a combination of the greatest show on earth and the greatest story ever told.
The $19 million had to be recouped with advertising sales and, likely, refunds would be offered to advertisers if the ratings were poor.
The narrator on the long-lost preview commercials made damn sure unless you amassed the Treasure of the Pharaohs and were able to buy a Betamax, this two-part (1978) and THREE HOUR EVENT (1980) was your only chance in life to see the melodramatic triangle between Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, and Rick Baker in the Kong suit play out.
Few people owned VCRs in those days so you had to set a date on your calendar to watch King Kong and, if you were not able to watch the presentation when it first aired, you would have to wait for some long, indeterminate amount of time in the future. The history books show the sad souls who missed the 1978 airing of King Kong were stuck waiting until 1980 for a repeat.
This is why motion pictures and pop culture had such a powerful influence on people them. Certain projects really were special and you could not just DVR things until some mysterious date in the future when you got around to watching it.
The arrival of King Kong on NBC was a major television event and everyone knew it. The super-hype of Kong's arrival on TV even led millions of people to forget the film had received mostly (unfair) bad reviews.
1980 Needed a THREE HOUR EVENT
When the film was repeat in November of 1980, it was figured a three hour version airing on a Sunday night was more appropriate than a two-part special. Since millions of people had already seen the film either in theaters or on TV by this point and, honestly, the film was yesterday's news, a little extra hype was necessary to promote another "go round" on free television.
The THREE HOUR EVENT was pushed and pushed because, in case you haven't figured it out, a THREE HOUR EVENT is one hour longer than a two-hour movie. Virtually all TV movies were two hour and THREE HOUR EVENT was an extra-hour longer and that means its special you better watch it. Period.
Only the self-loathing and the guilty would dare watch the garbage on the other two channels when the THREE HOUR EVENT of King Kong airs. The extra hour was designed to shame and guilt people into watching the program. If you spent $19 million (a lot of money at one time) you'd probably would even try to extort old people and small children into watching, too.
A King Kong (1976) Epilogue
A three hour major motion picture event was too much for me when I was 8 years old. I tried to stay awake and watch the film to the end, but to no avail. As Kong was being shot by the fighter jets at the climax, I faltered and fell asleep. In 1980, falling asleep during a movie meant having no idea when you would see the film again.
It would not be until about 1987 when I got a copy of the old Paramount VHS. The experience wasn't the same as watching that brilliant television movie event.
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