How Movie Industry Racism Almost Derailed ‘The Blues Brothers’
The Blues Brothers debuted on June 20, 1980, but whether you were able to see the new film from John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in your local movie theater largely depended on the neighborhood in which you lived.
The film had a roller coaster ride to its release date. What first started as a highly anticipated comedy turned into an over-budget albatross. Costs skyrocketed past original estimations, as The Blues Brothers ran more than two hours long – far exceeding the traditional comedy length. The failure of Belushi’s most recent movie, 1941, made executives nervous. Many feared his next project would be another flop.
Then things got worse. In the weeks leading up to the premiere, director John Landis screened The Blues Brothers for exhibitors – the men charged with determining which theaters, and how many, will showcase a particular picture. To Landis’ surprise, The Blues Brothers was largely dismissed.
“Most of them said, ‘This is a black movie and white people won’t see it,'" the director told Vanity Fair in 2013. “Most of the prime houses wouldn’t book it.”
One movie exhibitor made his perspective crystal clear to Landis. According to the director, Universal Pictures head Lew Wasserman called him to his office to meet with Ted Mann, owner of Mann Theaters. The chain boasted many of the West Coast’s biggest venues, including the Bruin and the National – two popular cinemas in the predominantly white, upper-class Southern California neighborhood of Westwood.
“Mr. Landis,” the director recalled Mann saying to him, “we’re not booking The Blues Brothers in any of our national or general theaters. We have a theater in Compton where we’ll book it. But certainly not in Westwood.” Confused, Landis asked why he wouldn't book the movie in that particular neighborhood. He said Mann replied: “Because I don’t want any blacks in Westwood.”
The movie mogul reportedly believed that The Blues Brothers appealed only to an African-American audience, while others would avoid it. His assumption appeared to be that white moviegoers would be turned off by the musical artists featured in the film. “Not only are [the musicians] black," Landis remembered Mann saying, "they are out of fashion.”
Mann apparently wasn't alone. The Blues Brothers opened on far fewer screens than traditional big-budget pictures. At that time, most major movies booked 1,200-1,500 theaters nationwide in their opening weekend, while The Blues Brothers was shown in just 594.
Of course, Landis, Belushi, Aykroyd and the entire Blues Brothers team had the last laugh. The film became a huge hit with moviegoers regardless of race, earning more than $115 million at the global box office and becoming one of the most revered comedies of all time.