Manson helped to usher in the modern era of Hollywood market research through his innovative campaign for the 1971 horror film ‘Willard,’ and also specialized in cutting TV spots and trailers, including the famous one for the 1981 horror film ‘Scanners.’
Arthur Manson, a veteran marketing and distribution executive who helped to usher in the era of consumer research at Hollywood studios, and one of whose many industry mentees was Harvey Weinstein, died Monday at his home in Riverdale, New York, at the age of 90. His daughter, Cynthia Manson, confirmed the news to The Hollywood Reporter.
Manson was born in Brooklyn in 1928. At 16, he landed his first job, as an advance agent in New York for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, which became one of the first British films to make major inroads in America. At 17, he headed to Europe for a brief stint as a reporter for Stars and Stripes in Allied-occupied Germany. He then returned stateside and graduated from City College of New York, before following his brother, Alan Manson, into the entertainment industry in earnest.
Manson quickly began making a name for himself in the New York offices of a number of different Hollywood companies. He had stints at MGM, Samuel Goldwyn Productions, Stanley Kramer Productions, Columbia Pictures, Dino De Laurentiis Corp. (working closely with Joseph E. Levine) and 20th Century Fox (he was executive assistant to executive vp advertising and publicity Jonas Rosenfeld, Jr.). Then, in the mid-1960s, he was hired as vp advertising and publicity for Cinerama Releasing, where he and his department — which included Marvin Levy, who went on to become Steven Spielberg’s personal publicist — worked to promote Stanley Warner’s revolutionary wide-screen process around the world. “It was almost like a religion to us,” Manson recalled in the 2002 documentary Cinerama Adventure. In a 2014 interview with THR, Levy described Manson as “one of the greatest marketing people ever in the business.”
Manson’s place in Hollywood’s marketing history was solidified with his handling of the 1971 horror film Willard, in which rats feature prominently. According to the 1972 book Those Great Movie Ads by Joe Morella, Edward Z. Epstein and Eleanor Clark, Cinerama — read, Manson — “was concerned with the marketability of the subject matter” and “undertook market research” before crafting a gameplan, in what “has become the first highly publicized case [of market research] in the movie ad business.” The book explains, “Cinerama had two choices — advertise the rats as the element of horror, or ignore them completely in the visual ads and copy but advertise the film as horror fare. Against their ad agency’s advice, Cinerama’s initial decision was to avoid any mention of rats in the ads and rely on word-of-mouth to help the picture click. The agency — Deiner, Hauser, Greenthal (one of the top agencies in the movie ad field) — strongly favored an aggressive campaign. The dispute resulted in a decision to test market, using two Pennsylvania cities of demographic similarity, Scranton and Wilkes Barre. The ads which portrayed the rats in graphic detail were used for the Gateway Cinema in Wilkes Barre and ads with the subtler approach, which barely suggested the rat theme, were placed for the Camerford Downtown Theatre in Scranton.”
The book continues, “An analysis of box office receipts showed both theatres had drawn well but more thorough investigation elicited valuable information. The audience make-up in Wilkes Barre showed that the more explicit ads had attracted a predominantly youthful audience. Most were of high school age and younger. They exhibited a great deal of enthusiasm for the film and questioned when the picture would return for a regular run. As a result of the findings, Cinerama agreed to go with the ads originally proposed by the agency. In addition, they decided to hold the film’s release until school had closed to take advantage of their obvious market. And they reached the picture’s natural target audience by advertising the film in school newspapers and similar publications just before schools closed.”
The book, which was published a year after the film’s release, noted, “Willard has proven to be a colossal hit and a sequel is planned. Whether this brief excursion into market research will be an inducement to other distributors to introduce similar techniques is difficult to judge.” Forty-seven years later, no film distributor of any note releases a project without doing market research.
When Cinerama’s offices moved from New York to Los Angeles, so did Manson. But in 1974, after Cinerama merged with American International Pictures, and the latter largely absorbed the former’s oversight over distribution, Manson departed and briefly became evp distribution of Bing Crosby Productions, which had produced both Willard and Walking Tall, before exiting to start his own consulting firm, Cinemax. Then, in 1975, Manson became vp worldwide advertising and publicity for Warner Bros, signing a three-year contract. He and the studio parted ways after barely a year, but not before he oversaw the marketing of films such as All the President’s Men and A Star Is Born and formed a close relationship with Stanley Kubrick. In 1977, he returned to Cinemax, which he grew into a bicoastal consulting company, Cinemax Marketing and Distribution Corp. (later renamed CineManson), through which he consulted with the likes of Oliver Stone and the Kennedy/Marshall Company, and, in addition to test screenings, began specializing in trailers and TV spots. Most famously, he cut a trailer for David Cronenberg’s 1981 horror film Scanners, which — over Cronenberg’s initial objections — included footage of an exploding head, which certainly provoked interest in the film.
One Thursday night in the fall of 1976, during Manson’s tenure at Warner Bros., he was a guest speaker at a lecture series at New York’s CAMI Hall called “On the Production, Distribution, Exhibition, Buying, Advertising, Publicity and Promotion of the Movies,” which was moderated by Julian Schlossberg, who was Paramount’s vp East Coast production. Among the attendees was Schlossberg’s 24-year-old assistant Harvey Weinstein, who described it as a life-changing evening for him during a 2016 interview with THR. “He talked about how to market movies,” Weinstein said. “He talked about the rat or no rat [dilemma] for Willard. He took an ad with a rat and he took an ad without a rat in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. I still remember it — and the concept of how he marketed, and the way he presented films and his dedication, his love. This was amazing to learn.” Added Weinstein, “When he no longer had a studio job, Bob [Weinstein] and I hired him [to work at Miramax in 1990], and Scott Rudin hired him, as well. Arthur’s a genius, a mensch … still writing me notes like, ‘That [TV] spot stunk,’ or ‘That trailer? You gotta be kidding me with that!’”
During his later years, Manson continued to go into work at Miramax and then The Weinstein Co. He was a highly active member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, founding its New York events committee to provide increased programming for Academy members based on the East Coast, and serving as its chairman — and hosting its annual New York Oscar night party — from 1989-2004. And in 1998, he received ShowEast’s first Distinguished Service Award.
Manson lived in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale for 60 years, where he was a longtime member of the Riverdale Yacht Club and the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel. He was married for 65 years to Florence Sando Manson, a pioneering newscaster in Pittsburgh radio and television, who predeceased him in 2013 at the age of 95. He is survived by his daughter, Cynthia, as well as her husband, Jeffrey Faville, and their children, James and Catherine; and his son, Anthony Sando Manson, his wife, Angela North Manson, and their children, Daniel, William and Timothy. A small service for immediate family and friends will be held at the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel on Wednesday at 10 a.m. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Manson’s memory to the Calvary Fund, 1740 Eastchester Road, Bronx, NY, 10461.