Friday, June 8, 2012

The State of the American Movie Scene in 1916

This article from the February 1916 U.S. film fan magazine Film Players Herald is a veritable treat for the early cinema lover. 

It provides an insightful snapshot of the excitement felt by the American film industry, at a time when the European film industry, which had become a dominant force in world cinema pre-WW1, was near collapse. 

The article also takes a look at the moviegoing habits of the time, the financial workings of the industry (quickly becoming standardized), but more importantly, it emphasizes the vital emotional connection to the cinema and the obsessions with celebrity that had begun to fascinate the world.

It's a long read, but well worth it.

What part of the article did you find the most interesting (or not)? Post a comment and let me know.


The Riches of Midas and Croesus Mere Pin-Money Compared with the World's Most Lavish Amusement and Most Astounding Industry!

Let us see how big the movie story is, set to figures-thousands, millions, tens of millions. There are, in the United States, about 21,000 photoplay theatres. Some of these have 300 seats, some 600, some 800, some 1,000, and others in excess of 1,000. Most of them exhibit three or four times nightly, and seven days a week. A few years ago, the picture theatres were closed during the summer. Now, nearly all of them operate every day of the year. Some of them, especially in large cities, are in operation afternoon and evening. 

Let us see if we can find an average as to the seating capacity and the number of shows a week. Suppose we put the seating capacity at 500 for each theatre. That would mean a total seating capacity of 10,500,000 for the 21,000 theatres. Suppose we put the average number of afternoon performances at three, making twenty-one a week. Suppose we take only two matinee days, with three extra performances each day, or six additional exhibitions, which would give us twenty-seven each week.

Let us say that the theatres are not filled to capacity twenty-seven times weekly, but fifteen times each week. That would give us 157,500,000 paid admissions every week in the picture theatres of the United States. This means that the lowest estimate that we can place on regular patronage would be 25,000,000 persons, with another 25,000,000 as incidental patrons, going perhaps once or twice a week. Millions of enthusiasts will go to two or three different theatres in an evening, (if the theatres are convenient and there are that many in the town or neighborhood).

The smallest price charged is 5c. In the large cities, most of the better class of playhouses charge 15c and 25c, but the great majority charge a dime. Suppose we were to place the average at 8c. That would mean $12,600,000 paid every week, and for fifty-two weeks the total would be $655,200,000.

This is a modest estimate. Indeed, it is a very low estimate, because the seating capacity will undoubtedly be far greater than we have indicated. Therefore, we may take as the absolute minimum, the sum of $655,200,000 as the amount of money paid by the American public to see the pictures.

Now-just to prove how modest this estimate really is - let us take "The Birth of a Nation" as an example of what a big feature can do financially. This play, on January 5, 1916, completed a solid run of one year in the city of Chicago alone. For 365 days it gave two shows a day. That meant 730 shows in one year. First, it was at the Illinois Theatre, and later it was at the Colonial Theatre-the seating capacity of each being over 1500. Certainly 1500 persons on the average viewed "The Birth of a Nation" during each of these 730 performances. That meant 1,095,000 paid admissions. Half of this seating capacity was sold at $1.00 a seat.

This would amount to $547,500. The balance of the house was sold at 75c and 50c and 25c, or at an average of 50c; making another $273,750, or a total of $821,250. These figures we have not secured from the exhibitors, but they are based on facts that even the most casual observation would have learned. 

Watch D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915)

At the same time, this same play was running to capacity in New York, Boston, and other large cities, and at this time is being exhibited in smaller cities. "The Birth of a Nation" will undoubtedly have gathered in $6,000,000 or more, at the time it has run the gamut of its popularity. 

"The Million Dollar Mystery" was exhibited in 2,500 picture theatres at one time; or, in other words, during the days of the early releases. There were 23 weekly episodes, and we understand that the price charged was about 0.25 an episode, or about $575 for the series.

At this rate, the 2,500 theatres alone, would have paid a rental fee for the films of $1,437,500. Hundreds of other theatres ran these pictures long after the first release dates, and then the series went to England and had as heavy a run there. The figures presented have nothing to do with what the public paid at the box offices at these hundreds of theatres. But there is one fact that will convey a very clear idea of what this one serial did financially. The Syndicate Film Corporation, that distributed "The Million Dollar Mystery" -a $100,000 corporation-paid in excess of 700% to its stockholders on the basis of par. 

This was merely one of a great many serial productions. Within a space of two years there were the big serials that started with "Kathlyn," and that included "Lucille Love," "The Perils of Pauline," "The Master Key," "The Broken Coin," The Black Box," "The Diamond from the Sky," "The Adventures of Elaine," and a great many others of that type.

The World's Most Remarkable Business

The moving picture business is unquestionably the world's most remarkable and fastest growing branch of commercial endeavor. It has grown so rapidly that there are not even any dependable statistics; because, at the time they are compiled, greater growth has occurred. The great film organizations that are so familiar to us today, date back but a few years. Few of them existed before 1900.

Although the cinematograph was invented in the 'nineties, the moving picture business is a twentieth century institution. It has been estimated variously as the fifth, and fourth, and even the third industry in importance in the United States. A better idea of how it ranks may be gained by reference to statistical facts. 

All classes of manufacturing in the United States produce about $21,000,000,000 yearly. The agricultural production of the United States is about $6,000,000,000 yearly, exclusive of livestock. The operating revenue of the railways of the United States is about $3,000,000,000 annually. There are, in the United States, over 25,000 banks-but the banking business should not necessarily be taken as a separate industry, but rather as an adjunct to all other industries. This, then, would place the motion picture business fourth in line; or, counting banks as a separate industry, fifth in order. 

The motion picture business today amounts to more than the automobile industry. It is about ten times as important as ship-building. It is worth anywhere from five to eight times as much as all of the agricultural implements manufactured. It is about equal with the products of flour and grist mills. It is about four times as important as the carriage and wagon industry. It is practically equal to the entire production of steel works and rolling mills. These comparisons may convey a working idea of the importance of moving pictures. 

At the same time, let us remember that the animated photographs, as a systematized branch of industry, date back but about eight years. In fact, it is doubtful if eight years ago there was such a thing as a picture theatres were remodeled stores. Today, there are hundreds of theatres far more costly than any that were devoted to the speaking drama. 

It is believed that the picture industry employs at least 300,000 persons in its various branches, and that about 35,000 of these persons are actors and actresses, ranging from the leading parts down to the extras

All of the other industries, (With the single exception of automobiles), with which we have made comparisons, date back decades. The motor car and the motion picture have been the two great industrial marvels of recent times. But the picture business has outstripped the motor car industry, that started at about the same time. Whenever you see a modern limousine or touring car or roadster or truck, remember that it was conceived and worked out at practically the same time that the motion pictures were being perfected.

Bear in mind that if we are to take that class of industries dependent on manufacturing, we can place moving pictures as at least fourth, and very likely as third. It is exceeded; if, indeed, it is exceeded at all, by one, two or three industrial branches, and those that outstrip it were in existence for generations before the cinematograph became a reality.

Ideas of Profit

To convey a fair working idea of the amount of money invested and the profits realized, we may make reference to a few of the large film manufacturing and distributing organizations.

The net profits of the leading picture companies are estimated at $50,000,000 yearly, not including theatres. Many of the organizations that are today capitalized according to industrial custom, started on veritable shoestrings. Other companies, dating back but a few years, were organized and capitalized in a big way and they paid the customary rate of earnings on the stock. It is stated that both the Kalem and Vitagraph companies started originally with $10,000 capital. When Carl Laemmle came to Chicago from a small Wisconsin town, he invested a few hundred dollars in a picture theatre. Out of that modest' beginning he expanded his business until it became the great Universal Film' Company of today. 

We think it is conservative to estimate that at least a quarter of a billion dollars is invested in picture theatres alone in the United States, and that the investments in studios and exchanges will easily equal that sum. The amount of capital actually invested in the moving picture business is not far from $500,000,000.

While every producing company, and every exchange, and every picture theatre has not necessarily succeeded - a great many of them have won in a tremendous way. We know exhibitors who have realized 100% and better on their investment ever since they started, which was some years ago. There is one picture playhouse on State Street, Chicago, that is said to be clearing over $100,000 annually. 

Like any other business, the moving picture industry has been obliged to go through its experiences and correct its errors, The majority of persons starting picture theatres were without experience in theatrical management. Apart from general fundamental business experience, none of those entering the picture industry had the advantage of any precedent to guide them. And yet they have literally wallowed in millions and billions. The amount of money that has been paid in the United States alone for the purpose of being entertained by the silent drama, has probably been well in excess of $3,000,000,000 within the past six or seven years,

The World's Most Lavish Business

Not only is the motion picture industry the most remarkable and the fastest growing of all industries, but it is the most lavish of them all.

The Census Bureau stated that in the year 1914, the amount of film produced in this country, including the original negatives and positives, or prints, amounted to 385,000,000 feet, or 77,000 miles. This would be a stretch of film sufficient to extend around the earth at the equator, three and one-twelth times.

During the early days of picture manufacturing, there was a great deal of substitution and trickery but this was supplanted rapidly by realism of the most costly and thrilling nature. 

To convey a fair idea of what is really spent to entertain the public, let us refer to a coming David Wark Griffith production that will likely be released in the autumn of 1916. This is being produced at the Fine Arts studios near Los Angeles, California. This play, which is to be known as "The Woman and the Law," will have in it a fade-in-and fade-out view of the Gates of Jerusalem. In order to make this vision realistic, Mr. Griffith has had constructed, walls about 90 feet high and monster gates. The cost is placed at $75,000. This scene will occupy 20 feet of film, meaning that it will be shown for 20 seconds on the screen; or, at a cost of almost $4,000 a second, meaning $4,000 a foot. This would be like building a railway at a cost of $20,000,000 a mile.
Watch D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916)

In producing his "The Birth of a Nation," Mr. Griffith really constructed three towns, one of which he destroyed completely to give those realistic scenes of the destruction of Atlanta by fire. Very often railway trestles have been built especially for sensational crises in films, and although many thousands of dollars went into their building, they have been destroyed as though they were the least expensive properties. 
It would perhaps be impossible to count the number of automobiles, motorboats, wagons, buggies, and ships that have been destroyed utterly for the sake of realistic scenes.

Most of the studios set aside so many thousands of dollars a week for thrillers. On several occasions, entire trains have been wrecked merely to give the proper impression on the screen. Money has not counted at all if effects could be secured. Oft times, thousands of dollars have been paid for the rental of beautiful paintings, or necklaces, or costly bric-a-brac, to convey just the right impression on the screen. The camera's relentless eye, assisted by the magnifying power of the projecting machine, shows ,the texture of every fabric and the poorness and richness of every material. 

Everywhere we look we see thousands, and tens of thousands, and millions of dollars heaped unstintingly into the hopper of the mill of entertainment. Compared with the picture industry, all other forms of entertainment dwindle as insignificant. The circuses, carnivals, baseball, football, and all other sports are simply the jitney pastimes in comparison with this monster that entertains and thrills the pleasure-seeking world.

The twenty-five million regular picture patrons of the United States, and the twenty-five million incidental patrons-meaning one-half of our total population, must have something new and something better, regardless of cost. The theatres that ventured into the 10-cent class four years ago, found that their patronage increased instead of diminishing. The new theatres, that charge 15c and 25c, have the same long lines reaching through their foyers out upon the sidewalks that were to be noted in the days of the nickel admission. 

Six years back, the motion picture theatre was such a crude institution, it appealed chiefly to loungers and children. In the larger cities, the school teachers and ministers of the gospel started a movement to suppress what they termed "the evil of the movies." But while the agitation was still in process of formation, the movies outgrew this movement morally and today we find thousands of automobiles parked adjacent to the picture-play theatres of our great cities. The farmer who has become the owner of a motor car, takes his family to town of evenings, and he understands the pictures just as well as the denizen of the "Great White Way." Within the recent past, the Methodist Episcopal Church not only sanctioned pictures as a form of honest entertainment, but adopted the use of pictures in church entertainments. The Christian Science Monitor, that is slow to recognize anything that is untried, has been devoting space to the pictures. 

All classes of all beliefs are picture-mad, because the movies have found the new interpretation that pleases our eyes and pleases our minds. We live the pictures and we supply the words that the silent screen merely suggests. In the passing of an hour we may see three or four dramas, each with a dozen times the number of scenes that the speaking stage would employ in an entire evening. We have seen our old dramatic masterpieces, and the novels we have loved to read, done over in the new dress of the movies. Every time we have read a story, we have pictured its scenes in our minds. But the films relieve us of this duty-they do the picturing for us. And because this is the royal entertainment of the multitude of all classes, of the masses and the elect, we are glad to pay our nickels, our dimes, our quarters, and even our dollars-and we are pleased to know that we have builded a new industrial giant. 

A newspaper published in Utica, N. Y., recently estimated that Utica's population attends the movies three times weekly. Utica is a city of about 80,000. This estimate means that the admissions to picture theatres each week in that city amount to about a quarter-of-a-million.

Chicago has about seven hundred picture-play houses. Their seating capacity ranges from 300 to 2,000; the average is likely 700. That means a total seating capacity of approximately 500,000. Most of them charge 10c or 15c-some more. An average of 8e is fair. These theatres are filled about twice nightly-about twice three matinee days of the week, or a total of twenty times. Each time they are filled, they bring in something like $40,000; and for twenty times, $800,000-that much weekly-or $41,600,000 yearly. This is what one city does in the picture business. Consider the estimates for the entire country. What else has ever even remotely compared with the movies?  

The American Picture-Play the Standard 

All over the world, the American picture-play is the standard. In the beginning we were running neck-and-neck with France and Italy. But the mighty war came on and converted the European studios into Red Cross hospitals and sent the actors and actresses and camera operators to the front as warriors or nurses. And, in the meantime, the picture industry in the U. S. A. has gone forward beyond the measure of all prophecies. It is entertaining the world. It speaks the language of action, which is the fundamental language of all mankind. 

The actors and actresses we have learned to love on the screen are loved as dearly and sincerely in every portion of the world. Thus, our own millions and billions are supplemented by other millions and billions-and the world is crying for more and more, and for better and better. 

The refinement of this new art has been so remarkably rapid, even our most ardent critics have been silenced. The slushy melodrama has gradually receded before the forward march of the finished dramatic screen plays. The art of photoplay construction has been developed to the point of genius, until every crisis, every period of relief of suspense, every climax, every dramatic element has been carefully measured both in the conception and the working out of these silent plays. 

New industries have sprung up on every hand to furnish the supplementary needs of the moving pictures. Architects have found a new demand for their talents in designing studios and theatres. Manufacturers of seats have been working to capacity. Several firms are making screens, that have taken the place of the old plain white drop-curtain. Electrical concerns have made exit lights.

Ventilator manufacturers have solved the problem of supplying ample fresh, pure air. Ticket printers have turned out the pasteboard coupons by the billion. Lithographers have been rushed with the new demand for gaudy posters and the big bill-board stands. Newspapers have opened new departments and have found new sources of advertising. Costumers, modistes and milliners have not only found a new source of profit, but a widespread means of exploiting their art. And beyond this are the many other industries that have turned part, or all, of their attention to the demands of the world of the films. 

A new crop of photographers has sprung into existence, and electricians, carpenters, scenic artists, and other craftsmen have discovered new angles to their trades. House furnishing companies have supplied trainloads of props for the studios. Trappers and trainers of wild animals have been furnishing the tremendous zoos that have become part of the production of the silent drama. The city of Los Angeles has increased in population and wealth, just as Detroit prospered through its motor industry. It is stated that already a million dollars a month is being spent by the picture people in Los Angeles alone. Throughout the length and breadth of the land, there are approximately one hundred studios, many of which employ from two to twenty companies.

And the millions and the billions are still poured into the hopper of the mill of amusement, until one becomes dizzy in the mere act of attempting to estimate and compute. Today, the inquisitive individual who was wont to ask if the pictures would endure, has become conspicuously absent. But all agree that the movies are still in the infant class-that no matter what they have done, they have scarcely found themselves. Publishers, who were delighted in past years with their "six best sellers," never published any book that in any measure brought in the number of dollars that a single movie feature will produce.  

The Highest Paid Profession 

The new branch of art brought into being by the pictures has been productive of the highest salaries paid to any artists, considering the period of employment and the matter of necessary personal expense. 

A syndicate of newspapers, running articles under the name of Mary Pickford, carried full-page advertisements stating that Miss Pickford is the highest paid artist in the world, not even excepting Caruso.
The salaries are lavish and the expenses are small. Many of the well known actors and actresses of the speaking stage have gone in "to do a picture" and have received from $15,000 to $30,000 in compensation. The number of actors and actresses receiving hundreds of dollars: weekly in the picture studios is increasing. Even the modest extra receives $5.00 a day, and the person who plays "bits" usually receives twice that amount. The salaries ranging from $150 to $300 a week are almost too numerous to count.

Unlike the old troupers, who were ever on the go - the movie folk have built beautiful homes, and many of them own expensive estates comparable with the baronial and ducal estates of the old world. They have purchased the highest priced motor cars, and many possess beautiful yachts. They have plunged and dived in thousands and millions. Their measure of fame has been greater than was ever possible when they were obliged to appear personally on the "boards." How many persons throughout the world know Miss Pickford, or Charley Chaplin, or the others in the top places? Each one of these artists is known personally through the intimacy of the screen to tens of millions of individuals. In the passing of one year they appear before more individuals than Joseph Jefferson greeted 'in his long career of a lifetime.

And yet these artists have been but part of this tremendous organization. They have supplied their share. But more than a quarter-of-a-million persons, regularly employed, have been obliged to take care of the various angles demanded by business practice. And yet, even the children of the present day look back to the beginning of the picture-play as a dramatic entity. All likes have been met-all temperaments have been appealed to. Everybody loves the movies. And when everybody is in love with any industry, what must be the answer financially?

Not the Classes – the Masses 

Nothing else on earth has ever appealed to such a vast variety of persons as the films. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief-and the balance of the human family-are "fans”. They pay their nickels, dimes and quarters willingly-anxiously.

Down in De Lesseps Park, Panama, some enterprising advertising men erected, an out-door screen. It would be viewed from either side, even if the wording of the titles,' on one side was backwards! Thousands of Panamanians-and scores of visitors-would stand for hours watching the films al fresco. 

At the same time, the city of Panama had about four picture theatres, seating about four to six hundred each, filled to overflowing afternoon and evening. They charged 50c silver-or 25c American money.

Go into the country, along Broadway, in the South - out in the mining camps of the West-in the north woods-in the East; go anywhere-and there you will find the multitude enjoying the films. Try the movies on any nationality, and there also is the same popularity. On no basis, have mortals ever come together so. much and so persistently as they have patronizing the films.

And this means money-mountains of money-money almost beyond counting-cash-in-advance, money paid at the moment. It means profit-such profit as infant industries' never dreamed of making. And this is but the beginning.

Do not ask if the films will endure. They will last for always. They will be improved, changed, added to in various ways, but they have found the universal language-the form of, expression that everybody understands; they have reached nearer to the heart than all the printed words or paintings the world has ever known. The films have worked wonders, but greater wonders lie beyond them-for the next generation-and the next-and the next-ad infinitum. 

The world's most popular amusement presents a future that fairly staggers us with the countless billions it will involve. It will soon pass the billion-a-year mark, and the time will come when even the billion will fade in insignificance. 

The real giant of the financial and the industrial world has sprung up in our midst, as though invisible seeds of enjoyment and endorsement had been sown all over the world. Compared with the magic tales of old, the movies have surpassed all romance and have ridden beyond all imagination.

© early cinema digest 

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