The Bel Air Circuit

“The Bel Air Circuit” was once among the most inside-y of showbiz insider terms. Technically, it exists in no Hollywood rule book, but it’s one of the most important invisible, little known social networks of the film industry. For a century, the Bel Air Circuit has referred informally to envied members of the Los Angeles-based film industry so elite that they have professional projection facilities in their own homes, tiny but fully equipped 35mm movie theaters, to screen their own films as well as those of competitors. This was once incredibly rare.

Even today, these charming, oversized Twenties-to-Fifties houses, these fake English manors and Versailles chateaus, keep coming up on the real estate market. They are worth far more because four discreet projection view ports cut high into the living room wall are silent testimony of the long-ago presence of glamour: Barbara Stanwyck, Irving Thalberg, Humphrey Bogart or Ava Gardner.

It’s hard for us to imagine a time, less than fifty years ago, when no matter who you were, you basically couldn’t have a movie of your choice each night, to see in your home at a time of your choosing. You flat out couldn’t buy a copy of a feature film no matter how much money you offered. Even wealthy people in America’s other great cities and industries—Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, you name it, even haughty New York—didn’t have that privilege. By contrast, in Hollywood, once you were “in”—part of the so-called Bel Air circuit, you just placed a phone call, and a studio delivery man would bring you whatever current film you wanted for home viewing, no charge. This was elite privilege at its most rarified.

Top actors and directors imitated their bosses and built their own home screening rooms once they had the money, or could bludgeon the studio into it. No matter what branch of show business you were tops in, the elite of five and ten and fifteen years before were still clawing for influence, and sometimes regaining it. They’ve all got home screening rooms, too, a status symbol that nobody wants to surrender voluntarily.

On the negative side, it was also a pitiless mark of status, or the lack thereof: the week after you got sacked by Warners, you humbly learned what it was like to wait on the phone line on endless hold—you!--as if you were just some ordinary schmuck!, merely to find out whether or not Disney’s film print booker will still let your kids see “Cinderella” on Saturday. After all it takes to become part of the Bel-Air circuit, it was tough, usually socially painful being nudged back out of it.

Let’s say: Harry Cohn at Columbia wants to see Metro’s “Singin’ In the Rain” Wednesday night. He’s on the list; he gets the movie. (Which, BTW, has a key scene in the home theater of a studio boss in Bel Air, the fictional first screening of a sound film.) Frank Sinatra wants to see “The Best Years of Our Lives” this weekend. Sam Goldwyn initials an OK and two heavy metal cans of film are dropped off at the kitchen entrance of Sinatra’s house.

No charge for the movie, anyway: actually screening it for family and friends cost a pretty penny. This was extremely expensive, so building home theaters and paying the projectionist who ran the machines was written into executive and star contracts. Few of the big shots complained, because few of the big shots paid for the screening room out of their own pockets. The studio picked up the tab. It was considered work, not fun.

For the top dozen executives at each of seven major studios and the entertainment divisions of each of the (then) three major networks, besides those prestigious evening screenings, it meant a daily hour of catching up on raw footage of yesterday’s filming, usually at 6 am each workday morning. From roughly 1920 through the end of the century, this meant a projectionist had to come out to the house and run the machinery, often in two odd shifts: early morning and evening.

As noted, New York and other cities had plenty of exalted rich people too, but relatively few of them had this particular perk. New York screening rooms tend towards small and utilitarian, not sumptuous and in people’s living rooms. Because extremely few individuals owned 35mm copying or film laboratory equipment, and their work was so easily traceable, studios could operate on a trust system, lending films among themselves freely, with the certainty that bootleg copies would not be made.

Smart Hollywood social climbers like Sammy Davis Jr and young TV actors like “Rawhide” star Clint Eastwood learned to fake it a little, creating less formal home theaters in garages or other outbuildings, using 16mm projectors (no union operators, easy to use, reasonably pro-looking on a small enough screen) for an entertainment effect that impressed friends and girlfriends.

The latest films currently in theaters were exclusively in 35mm, but by the late Fifties studios were making 16mm reduction copies for the armed forces and television. It required fewer, lesser studio connections to borrow these merely semi-pro film copies. Seeing any film at home that was in theaters only months ago was still impressive in an era decades before home video. Watching “Never On Sunday” in the cabana next to Sammy’s swimming pool might not have had quite the cachet of seeing “Gone With the Wind” in Clark Gable’s living room, but it still meant you were a member of the insiders club.

In the Eighties and Nineties my wife worked for Samuel Goldwyn Jr and saw both sides of the Bel-Air circuit; the exclusive home theater that his father had built, and Goldwyn’s endless line of show business contacts who exchanged films with each other. Every Christmas, our household was blessed with veritable mountains of gifts from various celebs who appreciated the access my wife granted to Goldwyn films. Robes, gift cards, bottles of champagne, blankets, and other hundred-dollar trinkets, most of them no doubt also showing up in the offices of VIP handlers at every other studio in town. All part of the intangible goodwill that kept the Bel Air circuit going.

Gradually, the mystique of having a home screening room faded a little as cheaper technology made it available to more people. In the Seventies, Advent, an audio manufacturer, marketed a novel projection TV for the home. Gradually, the idea of a home theater for the masses—i.e., you and me—took hold. But classic TV wasn’t high definition and without special technical tricks those video screens didn’t even pretend to match film quality.

The Bel Air circuit exists today, though vastly less even of elite Hollywood’s life revolves around 35mm film, the gorgeous but aged prima donna of the moving image. It no longer requires a union projectionist entering through the kitchen at 6 am while a maid makes breakfast. On the other hand, there’s much higher concern about illicit copying than there was in Hollywood’s golden era. In 2020 anybody with wall space and a thousand bucks can enjoy home screenings technically equal to anything a mogul had back in the day. That’s the change wrought by the blessings of better and cheaper technology.

But the ancient Hollywood sense of privilege, of power over the images to shape the emotions and minds of hundreds of millions of people; that hasn’t changed. Studio executives still rise at 5:30 to see all of the previous day’s filming and begin their round of browbeating phone calls.

The final decisions of what you see on screen will always be in the hands of a mere handful of people who guard their exclusive status carefully. And they’ll often be exerting that power at dawn, sitting in their bathrobes, sipping coffee, frowning, and making notes in the flickering light: Who to hire that day. Who to stroke. Who to badger and snipe at. And who to fire.