Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Successful Exhibitor

If reports in the trade papers are any indication, the spring of 1908 was a tough season for the motion picture business. The initial craze of the nickelodeon was wearing off, more theaters were closing than opening, and exhibitors were looking for ways to retain if not increase their patronage. One issue was the lack of sufficient film titles—theaters on the same block often ended up with the same film on the bill. This situation forced exhibitors to look at their whole show in order to make it as attractive as possible.

In this editorial, Moving Picture World advocates in favor of adding sound effects, talking pictures (actors saying lines behind the screen), and a"lecturette" to the program.

Among the news of the week we gather that several shows throughout the country have been compelled to close on account of lack of patronage. In some cases competition is given as the reason, especially where the peculiarities of the service or bad management accounts for similar subjects being shown during one week in two theatres on the same block. Certain managers have complained that there is not sufficient variety in the film subjects or not enough snap in them to hold the interest of the people. We do not agree with this explanation and are still inclined to the belief that incompetent management, bad judgment in choice of location, or poor taste in the selection of subjects are the only reasons why any theatre should be compelled to close.

We have taken the time to visit many theatres in this and other cities so as to be able to form a just opinion of the situation, and, if possible, offer some suggestions to exhibitors. We find that public demand for this class of entertainment is on the increase, rather than on the wane, but the public will not continue paying its money to be fooled. The manager who puts on the best show will draw the crowd, of course; but, to hold their patronage, he must use his own brain as well. It is not enough to rent a few reels of film each week and leave his place in the hands of a ticket-taker, operator and usher and come around occasionally himself to carry away the receipts. He must plan and execute. The successful show manager is always on the lookout for new ideas and schemes that will attract and please the public. Many have taken up this business thinking that it is an automatic coin-getting project which does not require attention. Those are the ones that fail.

“Props” as a Feature

In several theatres we have noted that the intelligent use of “props” materially adds to the attraction of a poor film subject, while there are none, however good, that can not be made more attractive by the “man behind the screen.” It is only necessary to mention the large and appreciative audiences such men as Lyman H. Howe draws, to substantiate this. His success is largely due to his well trained assistants who render the dialogue behind the screen, but no less so to the fact that his large experience has taught him what kind of pictures the public cares to see.

Pictures that Talk

When the Park Theatre, in Brooklyn, was given over to motion pictures a few weeks ago, the management wisely decided on this added feature, and, to their credit, we must say that the effect is well carried out. It is a common remark among the audience that “it is as good as a real play.” The dialogue helps the less intelligent to fully understand the plot, for, no matter how skilfully worked out, there are always passages which require something more than mere pantomime to fully explain the situation.

Satisfy your patrons and they will come again. Make them feel that you are giving thme the best show you know how and that you hope to see them often. There is one theatre on a busy thoroughfare in this city where we frequently go just to see how poor a show can be put on. Here, of course, the proprietor depends upon transient trade which he gets by the aid of a leather-lunged barker and a phonograph which grinds out the same old song without intermission. The pictures are as unsteady as a defective machine can make them, and the rate at which the films are run makes the movements of the actors ridiculous. It is this kind of places that fail and, moreover, they do more than anything else to make the public lose interest in this class of entertainment.
This is an age of education. There are no doubt intelligent people among your audiences and they want to be educated as well as amused. The show which leaves the best impression, that will make the patron feel that his time has not been wated is the one which runs an educational subject at each show. Not all comedy—and, very rarely, tragedy.

This leads us to the feature of

The Illustrated Lecture

Lecturettes, or “travelogues” as they are sometimes called, given between the reels, are now a feature in many successful theatres. Keith’s theatres often announce them as headliners, and what Keith adopts is a safe rule for less experienced managers to follow. At Keith’s 14th Street theatre, the other evening, we were only able to get a box seat. Every other seat in the house was filled and standing room besides. The lecture subject was “China.” It was brief and to the point, well illustrated by some very interesting slides and received the applause of the audience. This, with two reels and a song (by a good singer) illustrated by the original slides of a good maker was a program well calculated to bring the same people back on another evening.
For nickel theatres, where the management cannot afford a two-reel show, the “travelogue” feature recommends itself. Sets of slides, with brief lectures, are no obtainable on rental and at very low rates. The services of a lecturer or reader may be beyond the means of some, but it is a poor ensemble if there is not some attache of the show that is qualified to intelligently read the lecture while the slides are shown. In college towns, it should be easy to get some student who is working his way through college, who would be glad of the opportunity to earn an honest dollar and at the same time exercise his elocutionary powers.

Managers and proprietors, you who complain of waning patronage, get wise to the situation. Adopt such simple methods as the above to make the public feel that taking their money is not your sole aim. Do not tell us that you have to close because the public is losing interest in motion picture shows, for we will not believe you.
Source: “Editorial: The Successful Exhibitor,” Moving Picture World 16 May 1908, 431.