Spaghetti Western Box-Office Stats
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
Since my research tends to involve the analysis of large groups of films, quite sizeable data sets often emerge as a by-product. I do my best to include as much of this material in my published work as I can, but some data inevitably do not make the cut. This is usually because the data set in question is simply too large and unwieldy to present in its entirety in the appendices of a printed book.
In this post, I will present one such set of complete findings, parts of which appeared in a truncated form in my previous work (Fisher 2011: 219-222). These are the prima visione (first-run) box office takings of 420 Italian Westerns that were released between the years 1961 and 1976. The data were all taken from listings in the Associazione Generale Italiana Dello Spettacolo's Catalogo generale dei film italiani dal 1956 al 1975 (3rd Edition).
I was as thorough as I could be in compiling a corpus of films and then collating the related data, but this is certainly not a definitive list of all Italian Westerns released in these years. Firstly, my selection criteria were inevitably subjective and fallible (I tried to select films that were produced or co-produced by Italian studios, whose narratives are geographically located in the USA, Mexico or Canada, and whose historical setting lies between the Gold Rush and the Mexican Revolution). Furthermore, the Catalogo generale only includes prima visione box-office takings, so any films that went straight into the smaller seconda or terza visione circuits do not appear. In my 2011 book, I estimated that a total of 493 Italian Westerns were released in Italy between 1962 and 1980 (Fisher 2011: 224), suggesting that a significant majority did achieve a prima visione release.
The raw data are presented at the end of this post, but some interesting patterns emerge from the findings, which I will first visualise here. Here is a graph of the number of films that were released each year:
This shows us what we already know from numerous studies of the Italian Western: that the mid- to late-1960s were the period of peak proliferation; that this was followed by a slow-down; and that the Spaghetti Western then underwent a smaller but significant resurgence in the early 1970s (as it entered a phase of profitable self-parody inspired by the Trinity films), before petering out in the middle of the decade.
Talking of profits, the graph changes slightly when we add up the box-office takings per year. Though the previous trends remain largely intact, the years 1965 and 1966 noticeably outperform their films-per-year ranking, in large part thanks to Sergio Leone's two biggest hits: Per qualche dollaro in più (1965) and Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (1966), which rank second and fourth for box-office takings in the raw data. Conversely, the statistics from the year 1971 include the film whose box-office takings outstripped all other Italian Westerns by quite a distance - Enzo Barboni's Continuavano a chiamarlo Trinità - but this does little or nothing to alter the trend for that year. These figures show that this film was an anomaly, which was almost single-handedly responsible for that year's takings being so high. It accounts for 5,268,718,000 lire out of 1971's total of 19,099,782,000 lire: that's a single film making up 27.5% of takings in a year that saw 42 releases.
Of course, all this really tells us is the rather obvious fact that certain films are considerably more successful than others. We can get more insight into the specificities of how the Italian film industry operated at the time when we look at the outputs of individual directors. This can be visualised in various ways. First, who directed the most Italian Westerns from the sample (excluding those who directed fewer than 3 films)?
We can look at this in another way though. Filmmaking is of course a business, and the Italian filone system of the 1960s and 1970s was driven primarily by profit. So, let's look at which directors made the most money during their careers (excluding those who made less than 1,000,000,000 lire).
While these last two graphs are interesting, the figures presented here don't tell us the full story. If we delve a bit further into the data, and instead rank directors by average income per film (here including only the top 30), we see something very revealing.
Here are the top 23 from each of those last three graphs, side-by-side:
The discrepancies between these lists are significant. Only seven directors who appear on the first list (Corbucci, Castellari, De Martino, Leone, Parolini, Petroni and Valerii) also appear on the third list. Of those, only two from the top half of the first list (Corbucci and Castellari) also appear on the third list (and both near the bottom of it). This gives us a clear indication that those directors who were commissioned to make a lot of films were not the most likely to make a lot of money on each project they completed.
This might seem strange, since the easy assumption would be to think that people who made the most lucrative films would be approached more often to make more films. The fact that this is not the case tells us a lot about how the filone system operated. This was a business model by which films would be churned out as quickly as possible to maximise cumulative earnings from a profitable formula, rather than gamble on the likelihood of individual films becoming box-office hits.
The now-revered Sergio Corbucci is a case-in-point. We can see here that he was one of the most prolific filmmakers in the system, and that he made a significant amount of money over the course of his career by sticking to this concentrated release strategy. His average box office takings per film, however, were a respectable but unspectacular 716,692,000 lire, placing him 23rd in the "Average Box Office Income Per Film" graph. In other words, he was embedded within his industrial context.
Fisher, Austin (2011), Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema, London: I. B. Tauris.
N.B. This post has been edited, to correct a couple of data entry errors. Thanks to the eagle-eyed community of the Spaghetti Western Database for pointing these out!