From 1973 to 1975, using approximately 500 movie theaters across the US, The American Film Theatre presented two seasons of film adaptations of well-known plays. Each film was shown only four times at each theatre. By design, these were not films of stage productions — they were plays "translated to the film medium, but with complete faithfulness to the original play script." Filmgoers generally subscribed to an entire season of films, as they might if they purchased a season's tickets for a conventional stage theater. About 500,000 subscriptions were sold for the first season of eight plays using direct mail and newspaper advertising. Ely Landau was the producer for the series.
Eight films were shown in the first season. Five were shown in the second season, after which the American Film Theatre project ended. Raymond Benson summarized, "The American Film Theatre could probably never be repeated, especially within the economic structure that exists in the motion picture industry today. It’s a shame, for even though the AFT was not a perfect product, it was a bold and fascinating experiment that attempted to blend the stage with cinema. It’s the kind of project that reminds us how recklessly courageous—and often artistically brilliant—filmmakers could be in the 1970s."
The films were released on DVD in 2003 by Kino International and again in 2008 as a boxed set.
Twelve of the thirteen films were specifically produced by Landau for the series. The budgets were low: $750,000 for each film. Landau was able to convince leading playwrights, actors, and directors to offer their work at minimal rates. The largest fee paid was $25,000; Lee Marvin remarked that he lost $225,000 by acting in The Iceman Cometh, since his usual fee for a film was $250,000.
The American Film Theatre's marketing was based on selling season subscriptions. For the 1973–74 season there were eight films exhibited. Each film was shown only four times at a specific theatre. The American Express company developed a direct mail and newspaper sales campaign that cost $2.5 million, and yielded about 500,000 subscriptions for the first season. The posters and other advertising emphasized that the films were being shown in "limited engagements", and it was rumored that the films would not be released again for years.
Most theaters that participated in the American Film Theatre showed the films on Mondays and Tuesdays, which were days on which ticket sales for the films from the major studios were relatively small. For the second season, the major studios apparently began to exert pressure on these theaters to withdraw from American Film Theatre. In January 1975, the month the second season began, American Film Theatre filed an antitrust lawsuit against six of the major studios alleging that they were "coercing exhibitors into canceling scheduled AFT playdates or transferring them to theatres different from those designated to subscribers when they signed up for the AFT series". The outcome of the lawsuit isn't clear, but the second season was the last for the American Film Theatre.
The months indicated for each film are for the American Film Theatre release. Excepting Three Sisters and Philadelphia, Here I Come, all of the films listed below were produced by Ely Landau and were first shown as part of the American Film Theatre.
These films were shown by American Film Theatre in the first five months of 1975.
The 1970s and 1980s saw a number of Irish-themed films being made in Ireland by foreigners. Brian Fiel's well-known play, Philadelphia, Here I Come (John Quested, 1970) ...
The theatre managers dressed up, and 'Cinebills' with fake leatherette covers were handed out.This article discusses the reasons that it took more than twenty-five years after the second 1975 season before the American Film Theatre productions were released to DVD, etc..
The American Film Theatre was, nevertheless, a pioneering enterprise on Landau's part. The high quality of acting and directing in many of them, featuring actors and directors of recognised stature in both media, redeems their challenging length and inevitable emphasis on the spoken word as much as the image.