The 1985 film Clue, based on the popular Parker Brothers board game released in 1949, was an abysmal failure at the box office when it debuted 30 years ago this week. With an estimated budget of $15 million, the movie grossed precisely $14,643,997 in the United States — meaning that it wasn’t going to be making back its full investment (nor a profit) in theaters.
Even so, Clue has since developed quite the cult following. While most will assume this has something to do with Tim Curry’s penchant for starring in cult favorites, it also owes something to the movie’s unusual multiple endings. Three different endings exist, and each presents a unique outcome for all the twists, turns and murders that stem from the death of Mr. Boddy.
Most modern-day fans of the film have seen all three, and that’s because the VHS and DVD releases played all of them back-to-back. The first two, dubbed Endings A and B during the film’s theatrical run, are presented as possible outcomes to the dinner party-turned-murder investigation. After Ending B reveals Mrs. Peacock to be the killer, however, the screen indicates Ending C is really how things played out. That every single dinner guest committed one of the murders and the butler Wadsworth (Curry), who is the real Mr. Boddy, is going to blackmail them.
Audiences lucky enough to catch Clue in theaters didn’t experience this cut. Instead, moviegoers were treated to only one of the three endings made for the film, and whether they saw A, B or C depended on which theater they attended.
“[John Landis] thought it would be really great box office,” director Jonathan Lynn told BuzzFeed. “He thought that what would happen was that people, having enjoyed the film so much, would then go back and pay again and see the other endings.”
Unfortunately, Landis — the director who co-wrote and executive produced Clue — and the studios were completely wrong about there being any box office appeal for a film with three endings. As Lynn explained, “The audience decided they didn’t know which ending to go to, so they didn’t go at all.”
The film’s poor reviews were another indication as to why Clue did so poorly in theaters. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “They’re playing each of the endings in a third of the theaters where the movie is booked. If this were a better movie, that might mean you’d have to drive all over town and buy three tickets to see all the endings.”
Considering the two stars he gave Clue, Ebert wasn’t a huge fan of the flick. Nor was New York Times film critic Janet Maslin, who wrote that “while the multiple-ending device does not seem strictly a gimmick, neither is it very helpful in allowing for a clear and interesting solution to the small crime wave the screenplay sets in motion.” Yet Ebert acknowledged the significance of the studio’s strategy for showing and marketing an otherwise typical film fitted with an unusual number of conclusions. It wasn’t something most distributors would do, and its novelty deserved recognition. “The way Paramount is handling its multiple endings is ingenious,” he said.
“My obligation now is to tell you which of three endings you should try to see, but that will be harder than it sounds,” explained Ebert. “I was informed that the newspaper ads for the movie will contain the letters A, B or C, denoting which ending is being shown at which theater.”
Before the invention of CAPTCHA tests, smartphones and websites like Fandango, people interested in going to the movies would do one of three things. They would drive to the local theater whenever they decided to go, call the box office ahead of time, or read the local newspaper’s entertainment section to find out what was playing, when it was playing and where.
Sure enough, newspapers whose entertainment sections were advertising Clue would list all the theaters at which the film was showing. For each theater named, the ad indicated whether the A, B or C ending was playing.
No other details were provided, mainly because Paramount didn’t want to spoil the three endings for audiences ahead of the movie. Hence the lettered system. This proved annoying for critics like Ebert, who were unable to give readers a concrete estimation of which one they liked best.
“On the basis of my information, ending A is the one to go for — more fun, more satisfying. But then at the last minute Paramount called back to say they ‘weren’t sure’ whether they were right about which endings corresponded with which letters. So we’re back where we started,” he wrote.
Audiences willing to see all three didn’t care. So long as the theaters were marked correctly, one could drive from box office to box office to see endings A, B and C without issue. Of course, this meant seeing the first, second and most of the third acts three times, but anyone invested in the film was probably willing to make the effort. Most were not.
Perhaps theatergoers were made to do too much in order to enjoy Clue. Not just to see all three endings, but also with the movie’s other efforts to mirror the experience of playing the original board game. Like providing viewers with slips of paper not unlike those included with a standard box of Clue. Why? So that they could keep track of the numerous clues — spoken and seen on screen — and make their own guesses as to who did what and why.
A marketing ploy like this definitely wouldn’t work in 2015. It barely worked when the film was released in 1985. But as Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull) himself told BuzzFeed, it wasn’t necessarily about trying to appeal to an audience who would rather stay at home and play the game. It was more about Clue remaining true to its gaming origins.
“My family could sit down and play Clue tonight, and Colonel Mustard would have done it. Tomorrow night, Mr. Green could have done it,” he said.