Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Future of the Single Reel

This article by W. Stephen Bush is not concerned with music or sound at all. But it is an illuminating account of the situation with respect to transition from single reel to multireel (feature) production in 1913. At least in part because the distribution system for features differed somewhat from that of the single reels (following a complicated system of state's rights rather than a general release to the film exchanges), features were often shown in venues other than motion picture houses, including legitimate theaters, which had higher prices and more elaborate traditions of accompanying dramatic presentations. Even when motion picture houses chose to put on features, they tended to treat the feature as something special and augment the number of musicians or include a lecturer. As some of the ads that have been posted suggest, the production companies encouraged more elaborate accompaniment by commissioning scores for special features, a practice that had been tried on and off for a number of years. (Click on the Vitagraph ad on the right to see that the company had begun providing music for all its special features in March 1913.)
The Future of the Single Reel
by W. Stephen Bush

Less than three years ago the single reel held absolute sway. Old moving picture men will easily recall the wonder expressed in film exchanges, when the Pathe "Dreyfus Case" was released. This splendid feature ran but a couple of hundred feet over one reel and the short end had an old-fashioned "comedy" for a running mate. Exhibitors were puzzled as to how it should be put on, but most of them guessed right and waited awhile before they let the tear-stained climax of the tragedy be followed by the farce. Nobody then thought much about features and the possibilities of the multiple reel. "The Fall of Troy" was among the early features consisting of more than one reel.

Then along toward 1911 multiple releases became more frequent, but they were still looked upon as exceptions, and there were few indeed who then anticipated the coming rise and development of the multiple feature reel. Multiple releases were given to the exhibitor in installments, the continuity of the subject to the contrary notwithstanding. In that shape they were anything but welcome to the exhibitor, who had to hear frequent complaints from his audience because subjects of multiple reels were split up and often released at intervals of a week and more. When producers at last began to heed the demands of the public and the repeated urgings or this paper and decided to release multiple reels on one and the same day there were many vaudeville houses which sandwiched acts of vaudeville into reels treating the same subject. We mention all this just to show what a novelty the feature reel was in those days and how long it took for producer and exhibitor to properly adjust themselves to the new conditions.

On June 17, 1911, The Moving Picture World said in its editorial columns : "The present upward trend of the moving picture could not be shown more strikingly than by grouping together the titles of the following films released recently or about to be released : 'The Fall of Troy,' 'A Tale of Two Cities,' 'Enoch Arden,' 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic,' 'The Maccabees' and 'Faust.'" We prophesied the further rapid development of the feature films in the same article in these words "It is * * * characteristic of the present higher ideals that of the subjects above mentioned one consists of three reels and two consist of two reels each. The two and three reel subject is indeed a necessary product of the higher ideal. It is bound to come, and in two or three years it will be the rule rather than the exception in all dramas."

Events have literally verified this prediction. I believe that on the whole the quality of the feature reels has been above that of the single reel, though the feature reel has lately gone to inferior sources for its material and inspiration. The fond hope that the feature and the higher ideals would become synonymous has not been entirely fulfilled. European productions especially have too often departed from the higher ideals in the selection of subjects for multiple reels.

With the feature still holding the center of the stage and with every prospect of continuing to hold it for many years to come the question will occur to every exhibitor: What is to be the future of the single reel? The studios and equipments of every producer who issues regular releases every week is especially adapted for the making of single reels. The great fortunes in the manufacturing branch have in the last five years been made through the production of single reels. To the men who supply the staple of the exhibitor's program the feature is, as a rule, a thing most difficult of achievement. They look at the film situation from an angle wholly different from that of the feature men. It is well nigh impossible to put out a weekly supply and at the same time astonish the film world with wonderful features. There are some producers, not too many of them, who have foreseen the coming triumph of the feature and who have prepared special facilities for the production of features, entirely separate and distinct from their equipment for single reels. Such producers are the exceptions rather than the rule. The great majority of manufacturers will for a long time to come be dependent for their financial success and their artistic reputation on single reels.

It seems plain that the diminished demand for single reels will suffer still greater diminution unless the average of quality in the single reel takes a quick and decided turn for the better. In the regular single reel issues of certain producers there is about as much variety and interest as in the links of a chain of sausages. When one remembers to what heights of artistic achievements the industry rose in the days of the exclusive reign of the single reel, it is strange that there has been so much retrogression.

It would be easy to recall instances of splendid single reels. Take for example the old Shakespearean series of the Vitagraph Company, which no multiple Shakespearean reel since made has ever been able to approach in dramatic power and condensation ; take the famous old Biographs such as "Pippa Passes," "The Greaser's
Gauntlet" and scores of others, which were the delight of the public and the exhibitor. The old companies still release an occasional fine single reel, but on the whole even their single reel issues have shown meager quality, while of the newer companies scarcely one can lay claim to even a fair average of quality in the single reels. Originality of invention and dramatic power are sadly lacking.

We hope the day will never come when the single reel can be considered as little more than a "filler." There is to say the least as much chance for a display of directorial skill in the making of the single reel as there ever was. No matter how many features may be produced hereafter and how good such features may prove to be, the single reel will continue to be the backbone of the motion picture show. That show will in the end be judged by its single reels. If these are given over entirely to the exploitation of cheap comedy and cheap melodrama it will be a sorry day for the exhibitor and the public.

The coming of features consisting of eight reels and even twelve reels will undoubtedly have a tendency to decrease the demand for the single reel. Such features will establish new standards in kinematography. If the difference in quality between these very big productions and the every day single reel release is too pronounced it is not at all improbable that the single reel will lose in popular favor and will be relegated to the very cheapest of motion picture theaters. There is but one way to prevent this. The single reel must conform to higher standards. Its place in the kinematographic procession must not be too far in the rear of the modern feature of many reels.
Source: W. Stephen Bush, “The Future of the Single Reel,” Moving Picture World 19 April 1913, 256.