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The Transition to Story Films: 1903–1904 - Exhibition and Distribution

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T he American film industry was entering a new phase of rapid expansion by mid-to-late 1903, and a key factor in this revival was the popularity of story films. If such subjects had yet to become the dominant product for American manufacturers, they had at least become the kind of cinema emphasized at urban theaters. In their Sunday newspaper advertising, Kohl & Castle announced the featured pictures at their three Chicago theaters where Spoor’s kinodrome service was used. An analysis of these announcements in terms of actuality or documentary-like subjects on the one hand and acted or fiction subjects on the other yields the progress charted in the graph on page 338. As discussed in the previous chapter, a similar shift had taken place at Keith theaters only a few months earlier, when Vitagraph was hired. By mid 1903 successful exhibition companies and the theater managers who hired them recognized the enthusiasm with which audiences greeted story films. Although making story films required a substantial investment, American producers felt ready to meet this demand with original subjects now that they were clearly protected by copyright law.

Exhibition and Distribution

The rise of the story film coincided with other important changes in the film industry, including increased production and improved projection: all contributed to cinema’s revived and increasing popularity. The number of theaters showing films as a permanent feature as well as the number of traveling exhibitors rose rapidly. During October and early November 1903, approximately eleven prominent New York theaters were showing films, a figure that had changed little in three years. By April 1904, the number had increased to seventeen. Keith’s had been the only Boston theater to show films on a regular basis during the 1902–1903 season, but by fall 1903, films were appearing at four theaters. Two of these also gave Sunday concerts that included films. Although still shown at the end of the bill, these films, wrote the Boston Herald, “caused many persons to forget that there were such things as railway schedules.” 30 The “chaser period” was coming to an end.

In Rochester, moving-picture exhibitions reappeared on a sporadic basis at commercial theaters in March 1903. Their increasing frequency in the fall coincided with the programming of story films. The Kinetograph Company’s screening of T HE G REAT T RAIN R OBBERY created tumultuous excitement in January 1904 and reportedly “scored the biggest moving picture hit ever made in Rochester.” 31 The following Sunday it was shown at another theater, where crowds packed the house from gallery to orchestra and a great many people were turned away. Two weeks later, in response to many requests, a return engagement was arranged. Soon the Kinetograph Company was exhibiting at Cook’s Opera House on a permanent basis, while Sunday film shows were given at a rival theater.

A similar boom began among traveling exhibitors in the nation’s opera houses. A survey of records documenting these showmen’s activities suggests that the number of exhibitions given in the spring of 1903 was almost double that of the previous two years. These numbers increased another 50 percent in the fall, and more than 50 percent again in the spring of 1904. Lyman Howe started a second exhibition company to travel through the Midwest in early 1903. That summer, an employee, Edwin Hadley, left and started his own company. Archie Shepard, who had shown films between play acts for the Maude Hillman Stock Company, started his own traveling motion-picture show in the fall of 1903; he added a second unit in January and a third in February 1904. Other exhibitors were either getting started or moving into commercial venues at about the same time. Morgan & Hoyt’s Moving Picture Company may have been operating during the first years of the new century, but in the fall of 1903, they added a ladies’ orchestra, a whistling soloist, and two singers to present illustrated songs. They were thus assured of successful exhibitions in commercial theaters. 32

Perhaps the only form of exhibition that did not prosper during this period was, ironically, the storefront theater, which, for reasons discussed in the previous chapter, suffered as existing vaudeville theaters added motion pictures to their bill. Moreover, new vaudeville houses opened in many middle-size cities, such as Hart-ford, Connecticut, where S. Z. Poli added a theater in September 1903; here as elsewhere on the Poli circuit, the electrograph had become a permanent attraction. The proliferation of inexpensive vaudeville was particularly characteristic of the Far West (Portland, Los Angeles, etc.). Known as small-time vaudeville, these places had between six and eight acts on their bill—much fewer than at Keith’s—and the admission charge was correspondingly less, usually a dime. Motion pictures had a prominent role in these houses, but potential patrons received more for their money in these situations than at specialized storefront picture shows.

During 1903–1904, fundamental changes in the method of distribution became widespread. Until this period, distribution had been only one of several functions performed by exhibitors. Now, some established companies began to rent a reel of film to the theater for less money (about twenty-five dollars a week) and let its management be responsible for the actual projection. The theater thus became the exhibitor, while the old exhibition service retained the more limited role of distributor. This development was not some belated “discovery” but a practical response to recent changes in the industry. The exhibitor’s role had become simpler and easier. With titles usually incorporated into the films rather than on separate slides, the mechanics of the editorial process were no longer performed in the projection booth, at least in vaudeville houses where a single reel of film was being shown. With projectors easier and safer to operate, astute exhibition services shifted projection responsibilities onto the theater’s electrician (often selling a projector to the theater in the process).

While films had been rented occasionally in the past, the practice now became much more common. In August 1903 Lubin announced that “A Million Feet of Film of all the latest and Up-to-date Subjects will be rented.” 33 Yet this offer did not have the commercial impact of similar moves made by others, particularly the Miles Brothers and Percival Waters’ Kinetograph Company. In December, several months after making the shift to story films, Biograph sought to dispose of many of its old actuality subjects by offering them for sale at eight cents a foot. The Miles Brothers, who had located their New York office first in Biograph’s new building on Fourteenth Street and then across the street, saw a commercial opportunity in the sale. According to Albert Smith, “They bought a number of these old copies of films, and went across the country to San Francisco, stopping at the small towns en route, and making arrangements with the managers of theaters in these small towns to supply them with programs from week to week on a circuit basis.” 34 Because they had purchased the film at a low price, the Miles Brothers could offer theater managers an attractive bargain. Many of their customers were in the Far West, where small-time vaudeville managers found films an effective way to keep within their budgets.

Even though it was inaugurated with actuality footage, the Miles Brothers’ venture was made possible by the shift toward story films. As this contradiction suggests, advances within the film industry were rarely instituted uniformly. A company making advances in one area, in fact, usually did not make comparable advances in others. The Miles Brothers’ picture circuit indirectly challenged the business practices of exhibition services by simply renting a reel of films rather than a service that also included projector and operator. Perhaps because the theaters supplied by the Miles Brothers were small and removed from New York City, and the films were secondhand and nonfiction, the implications of this commercial strategy were not immediately apparent. The separation of distribution from exhibition and the treatment of a reel of film as a standardized interchangeable commodity had commercially revolutionary implications for the film industry.

Percival Waters’ Kinetograph Company made the move to renting a reel of film at about the same time as the Miles Brothers. The precise date is uncertain, but the results were obvious. Four Boston theaters were showing films at the beginning of December 1903: Keith’s with the biograph, the Boston and Majestic with the vitagraph, and Howard’s with the cineograph. A month later, five theaters were showing films: Waters’ kinetograph or kinetoscope service was at the Howard, Majestic, and Music Hall, while the biograph remained at Keith’s and the vitagraph at the Majestic. In Rochester, where the biograph, vitagraph, and kinetograph were all contending for a place on the local vaudeville bill, the Kinetograph Company probably won the competition because of its lower cost. Nor is it surprising that the Kinetograph Company was the first to make such a move toward rentals. Unlike Biograph or even Vitagraph, Waters could rarely offer exclusive programs. He was thus forced to experiment with innovations in other areas to challenge his leading competitors.

The policy of renting films was quickly adopted by others. In Chicago, Eugene Cline and Company was advertising “Film for Rent” by the beginning of January 1904. In New York City, Alfred Harstn & Company followed in March, and William Paley by April. By that month George Spoor, whose kinodrome was the leading exhibition service in the Midwest, was also renting films through his National Film Renting Bureau. 35

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