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Warner Bros film grosses, 1921-51: the William Schaefer ledger - Warner Bros. Inc.; Jack Warner's executive secretary


This article is the third in a series of articles in this journal that have presented financial information on major Hollywood studios and the films they produced during the studio era. The present author's 'MGM Film Grosses, 1924-48: the Eddie Mannix ledger', and Richard Jewell's 'RKO Film Grosses, 1929-51: the C.J. Tevlin ledger', have provided statistics on the cost and earnings of individual films, assessed the importance of key MGM and RKO stars, and considered the impact of wider events such as the coming of sound, the depression and World War II on the studios' financial performance [1]. The William Schaefer ledger offers the opportunity to consider Warner Bros studios, and its films and stars, in a similar light. The ledger contains the production costs, domestic earnings and foreign earnings of over 1,500 films produced by Warner Bros between 1921 and 1967. This article focuses on the years 1921 to 1951, when the "studio system", in Hollywood and at Warner Bros, was at its height.

The William Schaefer ledger is held as part of the William Schaefer Collection at the University of Southern California Film and Television Archives in Los Angeles. Schaefer was the executive secretary of Jack Warner, who founded and owned the studio with his brothers Albert, Harry and Sam, and who acted as Warner Bros production chief from 1919 to 1967. Schaefer began working as Warner's executive secretary in 1933, and continued in that post until Warner died in 1979 [2]. After Warner's death, Schaefer worked on a documentary about the studio's history, created an oral history of the studio by interviewing Warner Bros staff, and donated many of his own files and mementos from his Warner Bros career to the USC Archive. These include photos, promotional materials, film programmes and the ledger beating his name, all of which constitute the William Schaefer Collection. Schaefer's collection exists alongside USC's extensive Warner Bros Collection, which includes production, distribution and exhibition records on virtually every film Warner Bros ever made. In some instances, the production cost and (less frequently) the earnings figures of an individual film can be found in the legal files or production files of the Warner Bros Collection. These files have been widely used by film historians and, when cost or earnings figures on a given film have been published, they either match the figures in the ledger exactly, or differ but slightly [3].

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The Figures

The 'William Schaefer ledger', like the 'Eddie Mannix ledger', is simply a list of films accompanied by their financial statistics, with little in the way of explanation. The ledger lists the film titles, their production number, release date, principal star(s), director, production costs, domestic (US and Canada) earnings, foreign earnings and total earnings. There are no profit/loss figures. The films are organised by seasons, which ran from September through August, and seasonal totals are offered for each of the four columns of figures [4]. The ledger includes every feature film produced and released by Warner Bros in the United States between 1921 and 1967 [5]. From 1929-30 through 1938-39, the films are separated into two categories: Warner Bros releases and First National releases. When Warner Bros purchased First National in 1929, the terms of the acquisition specified that the First National brand name would continue to be used. From the 1930-31 season onward, though, the difference between the two types of films is not easily discerned. Production of Warner Bros films had been transferred to the First National studio lot in Burbank, and stars and directors worked on both types of film. Thus, apart from the 1929-30 season, the figures in the appendices do not differentiate between Warner Bros and First National films.

Appendix 1 and Appendix 2 (see the microfiche supplement in this issue) are compiled in the same manner as in the earlier HJFRT articles on the Eddie Mannix ledger and the C.J. Tevlin ledger. Appendix 1 lists the ten top-earning films of each season, followed by an alphabetical listing of other key films released in that season. Appendix 2 contains the seasonal statistics and a breakdown of average costs and average earnings for each season. There are also two new features to this appendix. First, in order to gauge the rise and fall of domestic and foreign earnings over the years, the domestic and foreign earnings are expressed as a percentage of total earnings. Second, in the absence of profit/loss figures, a "rate of return" has been calculated for each season [6]. This percentage figure represents the return that the studio made on its production costs. However, the subsequent costs of film prints, publicity and distribution are not indicated in the ledger, and these would have to be deducted from the total earnings before a real profit figure could be ascertained. Thus, the rate of return offers a point of comparison between seasons rather than the actual return achieved by the studio. In Appendix 3 (at the end of this article) the production costs for each season are placed in three categories. 'Top' costs are those 50% higher than the average cost for the season, 'average' costs are those within a range of 50% more or less than the average cost, and 'B' costs indicate films made for less than 50% of the average cost. Two further appendices (at the end of this article) offer comparative information on MGM, RKO and Warner Bros, Appendix 4 compares the production costs of the three studios for each season, and Appendix 5 compares their total earnings.

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