The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, directed by Ron Howard, leverages the power of archival footage to take viewers back to the origins of Beatlemania, pulling the audience along with the Fab Four on their journey from local Liverpool band to global superstardom. The film’s producers took a remarkable journey as well, beginning their quest in 2003 with the idea that, given the growing ubiquity of handheld cameras in the early sixties, unseen archival footage documenting the Beatles touring years must surely exist in private collections and obscure archives around the world.
And they were right. Over a ten-year period, the original research team at One World One Voice (OVOM), headed by Matt White, Stuart Samuels and Bruce Higham, scoured the globe for these unseen films, tapping into an international network of Beatles collectors and historians and assembling a massive, crowd-sourced cache of rare, lost and amateur-shot Beatles footage. Throughout, they maintained the unconventional approach of building their production archive first, and letting the archival materials drive the story forward.
“We flipped the model,” said White at the London premiere. “What we were saying is we don’t know what’s out there, let’s just find as much as we can, let’s not limit ourselves to a story first. Let’s find that and see how the archives can speak, how they can do it. So then Ron Howard becomes the one who is listening to those archives. And he's going on and he’s finding these amazing stories and he’s starting to put that through.”
The effect is riveting. From the films first concert sequence at the ABC Cinema in Manchester in 1963, with the youthful Beatles performing “She Loves You” before a throng of screaming teenagers, the excitement still resonates, and not simply as nostalgia.
“If it allows people to feel what they felt back then, that’s what it’s all about,” said White.
The film captures the Beatles personal experience as they encounter global fame on an unprecedented scale. No band had ever achieved this level of international popularity before, so they had no script to follow. The scenes at Shea Stadium are remarkable not just for the collective madness of the crowd, but also for the vision of the Beatles performing on a bare-bones stage, their music barely audible over their modest amplifiers and the stadium’s in-house PA system against the backdrop of the screaming fans. The phenomenon of the stadium band was new, and the Beatles, with just three roadies on hand, were clearly making it up as they went along.
“I thought that their idea of focusing on the touring years was really ingenious because the Beatles' story in total is epic and sprawling,” Ron Howard said in an interview with Fast Company. “But this has a narrative. As a director, I immediately identified it as sort of an adventure story. I felt like it was almost a survival story for these guys. They launched themselves into this, and the world reacted in a way that nobody could have predicted. It created all kinds of challenges for them. The way they navigated those challenges is revealing, moving, and impressive.”
Innovative Footage Search Process
While the interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and others provide context, the visceral impact of the film comes primarily from the archival clips and performance sequences, many which, like their last concert at Candlestick Park in 1966, had not been seen before. Unearthing that sort of footage required an extensive, global, multi-year effort.
The idea of telling the Beatles story through unseen archives was conceived by Matt White in 2003. While working at National Geographic archives, White discovered a clip in the Nat Geo vaults of the Beatles from 1966, making an unscheduled landing in Anchorage, Alaska while en route to Japan, filmed by a Nat Geo camera crew. He believed that more forgotten footage like this must be hidden around the world, and pitched the idea to Neil Aspinall, then CEO of Apple Corps, not as a film first but as a global search for undiscovered materials that could be used to tell the Beatles story in a new way. The idea intrigued Aspinall, and White kept at the search over the the next few years, eventually forming One Voice One World in 2007 with partners Samuels and Higham, to build out the project, resulting in an enormous trove of home movies, newsreel footage and other found archival materials.
Based on that work, Apple commissioned OVOM to expand their search in 2012, allowing them to set up a global crew of 30 researchers and put out a more comprehensive call to fans on social media, including a short video on YouTube. Meanwhile, Apple brought in Nigel Sinclair and his team at White Horse Pictures to produce the film, and, with Ron Howard on board to direct, announced the start of production in 2014, whereupon White Horse relaunched the footage search campaign, setting up a dedicated website to draw in footage owners and reaching out to the Beatles 40 million Facebook fans. “The result was a massive outpouring of materials,” said White Horse’s Nick Ferrall, one of the film's producers, in an interview with Variety.
There are over 100 archival sources listed in the credits, with many of the big archival providers listed, including ABCNEWS VideoSource, AP Archive, Framepool, Getty Images, Global ImageWorks, Historic Films, ITN Source, NBC Universal Archives and WPA Film Library. The film benefits from access to the archives of Apple Corps and the inclusion of archival gems gleaned from untraditional sources, such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and the Vancouver Police Museum, as well as many private collections.
The film is noteworthy for its sound quality, with audio engineering headed up by Giles Martin, son of the late Sir George Martin, the Beatles original producer. The challenge in restoring the audio was two-fold: separating the Beatles music from the noise of the fans, which often overwhelmed the band’s onstage sound systems; and working with what were often lo-fi recordings of the Beatle’s live performances. Martin used cutting-edge audio technology to re-master these recordings and bring the sound of the Beatles to the forefront, and it makes a huge difference, giving viewers the chance to actually hear the music.
Strong Box Office
With big players like Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and White Horse Pictures involved, as well as the full participation of Apple, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr bringing the film to fruition, the release was a hit. According to the Los Angeles Times, “in the first three days after opening on 85 screens on Friday, Sept. 16, Eight Days a Week grossed $622,410, for a per-screen average of $7,322,” according to the film’s distributor, Abramorama. “Factoring in preview screenings on Thursday, the total gross through Sunday came to $771,154,” the LA Times reported. As of October 2, the film had grossed $2,088,918 in North America and $6,071,329 outside of North American for a worldwide total of $8,160,247, according the website Box Office Mojo. The film is being held over for a third week in some theaters and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on November 18, according to Billboard. The release strategy was also innovative, premiering simultaneously in theaters worldwide and on-demand on Hulu.
A Post Network Hit
This film has all the characteristics the Post-Schedule Documentary economy described by Peter Hamilton both on his blog, Documentarytelevision.com, and in an interview we published in last month’s Footage.net newsletter (Archives are Back!). It includes a big name director (Howard) and A-List production talent, brings with it a large affinity audience and has as its subject matter a group of major, global celebrities. It also includes previously unseen footage, a critical selling point for the networks. Hamilton’s Case Study on Eight Days a Week is a must read.
“Archive based ‘event’ docs are nearly always about celebrities and historical figures with huge name recognition, and therefore the film is presold to the audience,” Hamilton said in our interview. “This is important in a universe where there are thousands of channels, and networks can’t afford to market a concept from a standing start.”
Documentaries like Eight Days a Week “attract passionate affinity audiences who promote their favorite docs across their own press and social media communities,” according to Hamilton.
And the significance of previously unseen footage in Eight Days a Week as well as other signature docs cannot be overstated. “Just about every network we are working with will not accept archive-based shows unless we can say the images have never before been seen,” filmmaker Tom Jennings said in our interview. “There is tremendous pressure to do this. Obviously, the image and sounds have been seen at least once if they were broadcast. We have to look far beyond the usual images that an audience remembers to try and find the moments that live outside our collective consciousness. If we can’t say ‘unseen’ many times we lose the sale.”
The film also exploits an innovative Post Network release strategy, premiering in both theaters worldwide and on Hulu simultaneously.
Eight Days a Week was produced by Nigel Sinclair (White Horse Pictures), Scott Pascucci (Concord Bicycle Music), Brian Grazer and Ron Howard (Imagine Entertainment) and Apple Corps. Coproduction credits went to Matt White, Stewart Samuels and Bruce Highman (One World One Voice). Clearance work was provided by the team at Global ImageWorks, headed up by Jessica Berman Bogdan and Cathy Carapella. Eight Days a Week is running now on Hulu in select theaters worldwide.