Movies and Film: Exhibition(ists)


Of course you can't see a movie unless someone projects it. But there's more to this story. The medium in which the film is projected is part of the message. Why did we go from nickelodeons to picture palaces to drive-ins and beyond? What is the historical significance of these movie venues?


Director's Cut

Even after the nickelodeon boom ended, the "flickers" were still much less expensive than other forms of entertainment. In Boston in 1909 a movie cost a dime, but a vaudeville show cost 50, "legit" theater was a buck, and the opera two bucks. We live under this economic rule today. Movies seem outrageously expensive at $7 or $8 a pop, but consider the $30 some baseball stadiums charge, or the hundreds of dollars you might pay to see a command performance of the current darling of opera tenor fans. The reason is fairly simple: Technologically reproducible events tend to be cheaper than live events be-cause they are reproducible over and over with the aid of a single (so cheap) projectionist rather than a cast of dozens.

How could any writing about movies and money not include a bit on the exhibition practice whose root word means money? Though, from the very beginning, movie distributors tried to appeal to the moderately moneyed middle classes in venues like vaudeville houses, one of the earliest methods of exhibition—the nickelodeon—first appeared in working-class neighborhoods.

At the height of their popularity, there were thousands of nickelodeons in cities across the United States. The nickelodeon was not terribly fancy, much of the time composed of a simple store front with a screen, a projector, and chairs. The exhibits were also simple: a series of silent movies lasting only a few minutes apiece, with simple narratives and easily identifiable characters. And it all cost only a nickel.

In several ways these first movie theaters were the perfect response to their early audiences: They were easily accessible to working-class people (who would then not have to spend money and time on transportation). Because the movies were silent, they did not alienate an immigrant audience with difficult dialogue. Further, the movies were cheap. Also, they were a quick form of entertainment for an audience with no time. The whole bill took much less time than a contemporary feature film, and, because the short films ran more or less continuously, you could come into the exhibition at almost any point and leave after you'd seen the entire run once. It was the movie equivalent of the quickie. Finally, for moviemakers and exhibitors, the nickelodeon offered the possibility of huge audiences. Nickelodeons cost far less than most other forms of entertainment, but, unlike the audience for boxing or opera, the potential audience included just about everyone.

After the nickelodeon craze ended, exhibitionists in different decades tried to find ways of appealing to the changing tastes and modes of living of the middle classes. The following sections offer the principal means of exhibition in roughly chronological order.

Director's Cut

During the height of the Great Depression, when box-office receipts were faltering, exhibitors would try anything to get people back into the theaters. They would hold raffles for prizes like dish sets or other useful household items, and announce the winners during intermission. Talk about dinner and a movie!

Movie Palaces

The seediness and down-market locations of many nickelodeons did not appeal to middle-class patrons. So exhibitors started spending money on big movie palaces in the hearts of major urban centers. Their decor was often wildly exotic, and the theaters sported names like Grauman's "Egyptian" or "Chinese." On entering the lobby of a palace, you were supposed to feel a bit as if you had just entered a movie. Or the Taj Mahal.

Of course films would no longer cost a nickel, but by the 1920s, when movie palaces were going up, the American economy was going great guns. Palaces even continued being built (albeit at a slower rate) during the Great Depression. Most have now been torn down, but some cities have chosen to restore their palaces as active historical landmarks.

Some examples of these great old movie palaces can be seen in cities across America today. The most famous of these is probably Mann's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. It is more than 70 years old and is where the famous "footprints of the stars" in cement is located. But there is also Milwaukee's Egyptian, Chicago's Music Box Theater, and the United Artists in Detroit. Unfortunately, fewer exist than ought to because we have a tendency to tear down the old and replace it with particle board.

A typical early drive-in.

A typical early drive-in.

Drive-Ins: Asphalt and Art

The 1950s and early 1960s saw the heyday of the drive-in movie (though they continue to exist to the present day). They became popular as Americans moved to the suburbs, and large tracts of land were available that were almost impossible for exhibitors to own in the middle of major cities.

The appeal of drive-ins was multifold: Parents could save money by paying for a single carload of kids and adults rather than for individual tickets. Teenagers could "make out"—or even get to "third base" and beyond—in the comfort of the back seat of Dad's roomy 1955 Chevy. And though the speaker system that you hooked on the side of your car was much more tinny-sounding than the sound system in a theater, the screen and its image were satisfyingly huge. Godzilla, Rodan, and other huge latex 1950s monsters would never roam the earth like this again.

Multiplex Madness

Though there has been a recent retro/nostalgic revival, most drive-ins are now defunct. Suburbia, small town, and city alike are now in the era of the multiplex cinema: theaters with two or more screens showing more than one film. Many older theaters have been converted into multiplexes by simply splitting the auditorium and screens into two or more separate units. More often, however, multiplexes are built from scratch in urban and suburban shopping areas, mainly malls.

At first modestly consisting of two screens, multiplex builders have recently become much more ambitious, with theaters boasting 30 or more screens. But we still wonder how it is that, with so many screens, all of America seems still to show the same eight films at any given time.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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