A veteran of the motion picture industry, Mark Borde has a career that reaches back to the early 1970s, when he joined the family business as an independent distributor. Borde has helped bring dozens of films to screens across the United States—all with the insight and understanding of an executive with direct experience in production and exhibition. Boxoffice spoke with Borde ahead of ShowEast, where he will be receiving this year’s Al Shapiro Distinguished Service Award, and asked him to reflect on a career full of memories—including the in-theater marketing campaigns that continue to reverberate today.
How did you first get involved in the industry?
My father was a division salesman for Disney when I was growing up, so the movie business has been in my blood ever since I was a little boy. I remember for my birthdays he would bring home 16-millimeter movies of animated films like 101 Dalmatians. My friends would all sit around the living room floor and watch movies—then we’d get tickets to Disneyland! So the movies are part of my heritage, my legacy, since I learned to walk.
I didn’t plan to go into it; I was going to be a lawyer, went to law school. But I also got married early and needed a job, so I asked my dad if he would let me work in the family business. He had started a company called Seymour Borde and Associates. He let me in but had me start at the bottom. I was in the shipping room, pasting labels onto 35-millimeter cans for years, putting them on trucks.
It happened a lot like Al Shapiro’s experience; I started off the same way. I was a theater usher, then I was a theater cashier, then I was a theater assistant manager, then I was a theater manager. All during my teenage years, I had the smell of popcorn all over me, wearing that old tuxedo suit that never fit. That was part of my background. I put in the time in the shipping department of my dad’s company until he let me do sales; I started selling short subjects and cartoons.
I went from that to selling film. My territory was the 13 western states. As a young married man, I had to travel to Denver, Salt Lake City, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, and Hawaii every other month. That was a great learning experience. In those days, all the exhibitors actually had offices in these cities. You’d actually go and sell these guys where they lived. There’s no replacing that experience. I wouldn’t say it was fun, because it was a lot of pressure on a young man to perform. If you didn’t come back with a lot of bookings, you’d hear about it. It was just a fabulous way to get out there, interact with exhibitors, and learn the business.
A lot of things were going on back then that you don’t have now, since all the clearances are gone. You had to worry about clearances first and foremost. There was a certain mileage requirement, so you had to have these big charts: “I can’t take that theater with this theater, and I can’t take this theater with that theater.”
The good news about all that was you could stay at a theater longer. You were in a zone all by yourself, and there wasn’t anything like home entertainment to worry about. If the picture was doing well, you could hold it over for a long period of time: 10, 12, 15, 20 weeks. Now, of course, you open on 4,000 screens and the theaters are playing across the street from each other. All the grosses are compacted into the first week, which is why we’re seeing 50 or 60 percent drops in week 2. Nobody gets turned away anymore. There are no lines. We used to love lines. We would create lines! Five years ago I owned an art house theater up in Monterey, a six-plex. Even if there were only 20 people and we had plenty of room for them, we’d make them wait in line outside until the show started, so that when people were walking by it looked like, “Whoa, must be a good movie—there’s a line outside!” That’s part of the old showmanship that’s kind of lost nowadays. That’s how I cut my teeth; that’s how I got started.
After you were up and running, did you ever think of stepping back and doing law like you intended?
Once it’s in your blood, there’s no going back to doing anything else. My dad retired and I started my own business. I called it Borde Films. I created a very successful independent company called Legacy. Then I sold Legacy to a company called Independent Artists and worked with them for a year. Then I went to work for Robert Vince and Keystone as president of distribution—we did the Air Bud movies.
Then I started a company called Innovation Film Group. At that time I met my partner, Susan Jackson. She was handling all the TV stuff. I would get domestic rights to movies, so I would do the theatrical and I would ask Susan to do the TV side. We started being successful; she would give me movies and I would give her movies. One day we looked at each other and said, “Well, we should just do a company.” We called it Freestyle Releasing. It went on to have a very long, healthy, successful run.
I had invented, at that time, a model called the service deal, which started actually a little sooner than Freestyle, but it went full tilt with Freestyle. People would hire us for a fee and we would put it in theaters. That was a very successful model. We did that with Susan for many, many years. Unfortunately, she passed away, and I was approached by a number of companies to buy it and I was in a mood to sell. Byron Allen and Entertainment Studios came along, he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I didn’t refuse it. That was three years ago, and now I’m president of distribution for Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures and having a ball.
What stands out for you the most when you think back to that time span?
The thing that stands out most is how fast the time goes. I don’t feel my age and I don’t think I look my age, but when I realize that I’ve been selling films to theaters for 45 years, I can’t even believe it myself. My advice to people is enjoy the moment, because it goes by very, very quickly.
Looking back, as I’m receiving this award named after Al Shapiro, he comes to mind easily. I got to know Al. One of the things that he was particularly good at—and gained a reputation for—was thinking outside the box, creating release patterns and marketing plans that were different over at New Line. I’ve more or less done something similar, though I didn’t specifically set out to emulate him. I admired him and found him to be a terrific executive. I’ve done something similar in my career, in a much smaller way.
I’ve never worked for a studio in my life. I’ve worked with studios, but I’ve never worked for a studio. In fact, around the time I sold Freestyle to Byron, I had never worked for anybody except for my father. I admired Al’s style and I’ve tried to emulate that in my way. I’ve been lucky enough to have the ability to do things my way, because I didn’t have to answer to anybody. A lot of times it worked and a lot of times it didn’t work, but at least it was my way.
You mentioned showmanship earlier. What tricks of the trade still have a place in today’s moviegoing culture?
My father first introduced me to showmanship at a very early age, when he distributed a movie called Carry On Nurse, a British comedy. The final scene of the movie, the lead gets wheeled out of the hospital with a daffodil sticking out of his butt. That was the big laugh at the end of the movie. We played Carry On Nurse at the Crest Theater in Westwood for 50 weeks. We ordered daffodils from the flower yard and handed them out to people as they left the theater. They’re walking around Westwood with daffodils in their hands, and when people asked where they got them, they’d say, “Oh, we just came out of Carry On Nurse. It’s over at the Crest Theater.”
That was my introduction to marketing. I realized you could do something you “couldn’t do.” Back in my early days, drive-ins were huge. Certain theaters in Los Angeles had dozens and dozens of drive-ins. They did tremendous box office all over the country but did particularly well in Southern California, where there’s good weather year-round. A lot of times they would play triple films, so we would play three horror films at one time. So I came up with this idea where we hired young ladies in nurses’ uniforms. We mimeographed thousands and thousands of made-up insurance policies with a little seal that said, “By buying a ticket to this theater, you absolve management and the filmmakers of any responsibility should you die of fright after watching these movies.” The nurses would stand at the box office at the drive-in and would make the driver sign this insurance certificate to everyone that came in. Pretty soon, getting this insurance certificate was more exciting than seeing the movies.
I released a movie called Flesh Gordon, an R-rated takeoff on Flash Gordon. In the major cities, I would hire a crane and take the star, Jason Williams, to the top in his costume. We did it in front of the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco; we did it in Times Square in New York. That’s how we got press in those days.
I don’t want to use the phrase “the good old days,” because we still have gimmicks. We did a lot of stuff for 47 Meters Down with our shark—our standee was five times the size of a normal standee. It encouraged people to take selfies looking like you were being eaten by a shark. It sort of took on a life of its own; people were stealing parts of the standee, taking them home.
Now if you go through the theater, you’ll see the standees are getting bigger and more complicated. Some of them take up a whole wall. Here in L.A., the ArcLight does a lot of standees. The Landmark, they’ll put in entire Plexiglas [displays] with the costumes from the movie they’re playing. Anything that you can think of to get the attention of the moviegoing audience. Very high-priced marketing people racking their brains for new and exciting. We had a very successful Snapchat lens on 47 Meters Down, which had a shark coming out of the water.
It’s always fun hearing how showmanship has evolved over the years. It’s what stands out whenever we look at older issues of the magazine.
I’ve been reading Boxoffice magazine for many years. When my office was at 1800 North Hyland, Boxoffice magazine was in my building. I was very tight with the publishers back then. We did a lot of advertising with Boxoffice back in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s. We’d have lunch together and schmooze. There was always a Boxoffice magazine on my desk, and there’s still a Boxoffice magazine on my desk! You’ve been around as long as me!
What, in your opinion, is the current state of theatrical exhibition?
What I’ve seen in the last five decades is that the business is adaptable. It’s like a plastic mold; it bends and it bends and it bends, but it doesn’t break. It keeps reinventing itself in order to keep people from staying at home and giving up on going to the movie theater. As somebody who’s now into his seventh decade of living, the moviegoing experience is vital and dear to me. I’ll never give it up, I love going to the movies. I go to the movie theater all the time. My kids and my grandkids, I insist that they go see the movies in the theater, not at home. Therefore, my philosophy and my mandate is the moviegoing experience. I don’t think anybody wants to get all their entertainment at home. I’m impressed with the way the industry has recognized that and still to this day insists on windows as much as they can. I’m a big proponent of windows. I love the 90-day window for theaters before home entertainment and VOD. I’ll always be a proponent of that.
I like what’s going on in theaters today, making it a more interactive place to go and be entertained. I’m a little disappointed—though I understand why we have them—with smaller auditoriums, having to make room for those fancy seats that expand out into beds, like first class on an airplane. It’s a great experience, so I get it. The serving of beer and wine in the theaters and food service, that’s all necessary. Maybe not for a traditionalist to see and embrace completely, but I get it. These theaters they’re building now are beautiful. The auditoriums are a little small for my taste, but a small price to pay for getting people to come out of their houses and not watch movies on TV.
While there are other forms of entertainment and things to do, the movies are still the best bargain ever. At the cost of two tickets and some popcorn (and maybe parking), it’s the best deal in town. That’s why I think it’s going to survive everything that’s being thrown at it. It wasn’t supposed to survive television, it wasn’t supposed to survive HBO, it wasn’t supposed to survive DVDs. But we’re having one of the best years ever.
I don’t see anything stopping it in the foreseeable future, even with all the technology in the world. Theaters have the ability to keep up with the technology, and movies have the ability to keep up with the technology. I always look forward to the newest piece of technology, the newest things they’re doing, whether it’s immersive seating or augmented reality, or whatever’s going on. I like going to conventions and seeing some of the new inventions. I get excited about this stuff, I get motivated by it. I see a bright future for movies and movie theaters.