Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Alexander Film Company

What I know about the Alexander Film Company could barely fill a small popcorn container. Frankly, there isn’t a comprehensive source of information about AFCO out on the Internet, just a plethora of bits and pieces, here and there, but enough to cull a generalized picture of this company and its functions.

I do know AFCO celebrated its 90 anniversary last year, and produced most of the drive-in intermission commercials and clocks seen by drive-in goers throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, which is of great interest to me. At Brian Light’s Drive-In Theater Workshop I found a 1998 article penned by a former employee of AFCO, Sebastian Speranza, who sheds some light on this process:
“On-screen people were usually local folk, but again, there were times when they were brought in from other places. I even had a hand in bringing in some people. There was a fellow, Gordon, from Colorado College that had a super voice and I urged him to come in and audition. He did, and was hired for a bunch of [voice overs] for drive in trailers. A singer I did vocal arrangements for, Bonnie Boyd, was also brought in for screen testing and she wound up doing some things also.

About sound recording/transfers. We had a number of machines. Most of the V.O. stuff was recorded on a Fairchild 1/4 inch tape machine at 15 ips. using their Pic-Sync Signal technology. Paul, or Wes, or whoever, would show up every morning about 9:30 AM and take his place in the booth. All the copy to be read was on individual cards. There was a special clock behind the mike that the announcer would set 5 or so seconds before the zero mark and then at zero would read the copy and hopefully get it in before the 10, 20, 30 or 60 second mark was reached! These guys were good and there were seldom a problem.

The way sound tracks are placed on film, there was a 1 1/2 second delay before the sound started and it ends a 1/2 second before the end of the film. (Due to placement of optical sound pickup head in the projector and splicing.) This was also indicated on the timing card that the announcer had in front of him as shaded areas. These V.O.s were all destined for the drive-in "clocks" and trailers ... AFCO's bread and butter…”
To further illuminate our subject, take a short peak behind the scenes with in the AFCO promotional film, circa 1950s:

While AFCO wasn’t the only producer of these drive-in theater trailers and intermission clocks, it was by far the largest. Tim Brown lays out the genesis like this:
“In the late 40s, the Armour company produced a trailer (short advertising film) promoting their hot dogs. This was distributed free of charge to drive-ins that sold Armour hot dogs and was run during the intermission break between features. A rapid increase in hot dog sales was immediately noted by all who ran the film and soon requests for the trailer poured in from operators all over the country. Other manufacturers followed Armour's lead and soon several product trailers were in the hands of the drive-ins. This further increased concession sales and began the trend to advertise on the screen during intermission.

“The Alexander Film Company was engaged in selling screen advertising to local merchants. This involved a nationwide network of salesmen who called on various car dealers, drug stores, laundrys, banks, service stations and the like, to sell them advertising on local screens. This salesman also negotiated contracts with individual drive-ins, for their screen time.

After production, the films were sent to the local theatres, and screened according to a particular schedule (in the mid 50s, this was usually a one week flight, but longer times evolved). Alexander paid the theatres directly for their screen time. This amount varied according to the size and location of the theatre, which reflected the number of people who would potentially see the ads. After the run, the films were requested to be returned to Alexander. It was a popular way for theatre operators to generate extra income.”
Here’s a sample of some intermission ads, supposedly produced by AFCO:

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