Friday, March 12, 2010

W. Stephen Bush in England

As noted in the 3 May 1913 issue of Moving Picture World, in April W. Stephen Bush had sailed for Europe to investigate the state of the industry in the principal European markets: Great Britain, Italy, Germany and France.

Mr. W. Stephen Bush, of the editorial staff of The Moving Picture World, is making a business tour of England and the Continent. He sailed April 12th, and will remain abroad from six weeks to two months inspecting productions and making a study of the European market generally. It is expected that Mr. Bush will contribute some interesting stories upon the various phases of the motion picture business in Europe as presented to his critical eye for the benefit of readers of The Moving Picture World.
Source: “Facts and Comments,” Moving Picture World 3 May 1913, 463.

Through the early summer, Bush sent back detailed reports from the various cities he visited. Almost all of these reports contained descriptions of his visits to the local moving picture shows. Though Bush tended to visit the higher class theaters in each city, the comparisons he offers do give some sense as to how exhibition differed by country.

His first installment on the state of the film industry in London was published on 10 May 1913 and it is reprinted below.

Yankee Films Abroad

An Interesting Budget of Information on
Picture Conditions In Great Britain.

Written on the Spot by W. Stephen Bush.

If you want to realize what can be done with American-made films, do not fail to come to London. If you happen to be an exhibitor it might pay you to come and see, and then go back and put your experience into dollars and cents.

There are, indeed, in some of the very cheap sections in the East End, moving picture theaters where they charge as low as 1d. (2 cents) and 2d. (4 cents), but in the West End the prevailing price of admission is 6d. (12 cents) ranging upwards to as high as 10/6d. (2 dollars 62 cents). English capital which is hopelessly shy about supporting any film producing enterprise, is remarkably eager to invest in moving picture theaters or "cinemas" as they are called over here. The concrete and immediate strongly appeal to the British mind. While through the lack of financial support, English film making enterprises languish like an exotic plant on unfriendly soil, the city is dotted with modern superb moving picture theaters. I will not attempt on such short acquaintance as I have, to theorize about this, and to explain why the London exhibitors are generally prosperous and the British manufacturers generally poor, while the renters too are coming in for some of the cream. Perhaps the open market has something to do with this. Perhaps the liberal patronage of the London public may help to explain it, and perhaps it is the superior method of presentation or perhaps it is due to a combination of all these factors.

In the West End Cinema, where I attended a moderately good entertainment last evening, consisting of six reels, the scale of prices was as follows:

Orchestra Seats in the Rear 50 cents.
Orchestra Seats nearer the Curtain 25 cents.
Second Balcony 25, 35 and 50 cents.
First Balcony 60 and 75 cents.
Private Boxes $2.60.

At 10 o'clock the house was crowded. The seating capacity was only 800, but that is good enough with such a scale of prices. The furnishings were of a high order throughout. There was an invisible orchestra, which played music suitable to the pictures. Please take that word "suitable" in its actual, and not in its American or Pickwickian sense. No doubt the music had been carefully rehearsed, as it invariably struck home at the psychological moments. I have a painful recollection of an orchestra in New York engaged in an effort to follow the pictures with suitable music, and frequently coming to a dead stop at precisely the wrong moment, closing, for instance, with a crashing finale just a minute before the climax of the play on the screen. The highest price in the New York theater was 15 cents. I will leave it to the reader to draw his own conclusions. I characterized the program as moderately good, and barring the luxurious surroundings, the splendid music and the perfect management, I have seen moving picture entertainments at home a grade better than this, and charging no more than 10 cents. Again I leave the reader to draw his own conclusions which lie on the surface.

It is evident to even the inexpert eye that the exhibitor has a decided say in the moving picture industry hereabouts. Both the renter and the manufacturer respectfully consult his wishes. The progressive London exhibitor with possibly two or more theaters has his "viewers" or "selectors" scouting about projection rooms, and when the "viewers" or "selectors" commend something to the exhibitor, the latter suggests to the renter the purchase of the film, and as a rule the renter accepts the suggestion and acts upon it. The exhibitor's freedom in the selection of his program is absolute, and because he is able to grade his service according to the character, and demands of his audience, he gets the crowd, whether he is in a fine residential section or in a rougher neighborhood, or in a location where he depends on the transient trade.

Mr. Seymour Hodges, the Manager of the Marble Arch theater, admittedly one of the finest in England, was quite emphatic on the subject. "If," said Mr. Hodges who had had theatrical experience on our side, "we had to depend for our supply of film on just one single group of manufacturers we would soon suffer. The present arrangement enables us to select just what we think our patrons like best." The splendid crowd in the Marble Arch theater at 10 o'clock p. m. seemed to indicate that this particular exhibitor at least knew the tastes of his audience. Music, projection, management worked co-operatively toward absolute perfection, nor were there any first runs. The backbone of the particular program was an Edison subject, which an American friend at my elbow had seen at St. Louis three months ago, and which must have been in England at least a week or two. If the American film of today continues to hold an easy supremacy over the rest, it is due largely to the good judgment of the British exhibitor. There are not a few somewhat irresponsible men in the exhibiting business here, especially in the City of London, who have a small place, and can never under any circumstances, see one inch further than the entrance to their theater. But for them, the exhibitors organization in this country, would be a deal stronger than it is. These men, however, care nothing about the common weal and are stumbling blocks in the path of progress. The larger exhibitors, on the contrary, are keenly alive to the fact that harmony and co-operation make them strong and powerful, and they are well united. The result is, that they have a pretty free hand in the selection of their programs, and I think that helps to explain their success and prosperity. But a short time ago, there happened to be a short and sharp conflict of interest between the exhibitors and renters on the one hand, and certain manufacturing interests on the other. No attempt was made by any of the parties to the conflict to resort to "steam-roller" methods, there were amicable conferences, and a final agreement to disagree on certain matters and to re-unite on others. The liberty of the exhibitor to arrange his own program as long as he pays for it, remains in full force and vigor.

The only films which seem to appeal to the British public are the products of either purely American or partly American films. It is a high compliment to American-made films that they are hardly ever objected to by the Censor. The very fact that they are of American origin seems to create a presumption in their favor. I have seen a few French and German films, which would drag down almost any program to either the level of licentiousness or stupidity. The unadultered or rather unpurified French products are apt to rouse the ire of the Censor, while the ordinary German melodramatic films, mostly in two or three reels, have value only as an unfailing antidote for insomnia.

I have heard and read a whole lot about the superior projection in the capitals of Europe, and as far as London is concerned I have seen much actual proof of it. Projection varies here too, some of it is good, some of it indifferent, and some of it awfully bad, but the average is high. The trade conditions are far more settled here than they are on the other side of the water. There are no daily changes of programs here. Programs are changed twice or three times weekly, and this applies to the cheap as well as the expensive theaters.

It is a pleasure to relate that the educational film is doing well here in London. I have just had a long talk with Mr. Chas. Urban of the Kineto Co. Mr. Urban who is known on both sides of the water as one of the earliest pioneers in the educational field. He has retired from the Urban Trading Co., and is devoting all his energies to Kinemacolor, and educational kinematography both in natural colors and in black and white. I learned from him that the London County Council have had a plan of kinematographic instruction under consideration for some time. They wanted to add a kinematographic course of instruction to the program of the Polytechnic schools and after viewing a large variety of films submitted by the different manufacturers they arrived at the conclusion that the Kinemacolor would probably lend itself best to moving picture instruction. They have just completed an agreement with Mr. Urban, which provides for a trial of educational films extending over a period of six weeks. The conditions and details are as follows: At each one of the six Polytechnics (industrial schools, teaching. Carpentry, Machinery, Telegraphy, etc.) there are to be four exhibitions per day, each lasting from 45 to 50 minutes, each of these exhibitions are to be attended by classes of 1000. This means that there will be an attendance of 4000 children per day, or 20,000 per week or 120,000 for the entire period of the experiment. Children of all grades will be asked to attend these exhibitions, and the teachers intend to ascertain the value of kinematographic instruction by carefully questioning each child. If the results thus obtained are satisfactory, machines are to be installed at once. There is no question that this would then be the entering wedge for a general kinematographic course of instruction in all the schools of England, both public and private.

Mr. Urban tells me that he had a most interesting visitor in the person of a gentleman named Margunrien, who was authorized by the Greek Minister of Education to inquire in London as to the supply of educational films. He brought with him a letter of authorization, which I think will often


be quoted by the future historian of kinematographic education. The document sets forth the fact that there are 4000 schools in the Kingdom of Greece, and that the Greek Minister of Education desires to make a thorough test if the moving picture as a means of teaching the young mind. It goes on to state that the Minister does not know how much of a supply there is on hand at the present time and he assures Mr. Urban that he will be able to absorb and utilize almost any supply that may be on hand at this moment. The Greek representative has had numerous interviews both with Mr. Urban and his General Manager, Mr. Hickey, and the probabilities point to a large order of machines and films. Mr. Urban will construct a special model of machine, which will generate its own electricity, and take a standard size of film. It seems probable then, that Greece, the mother of education, will be the first to make practical and general use of the new invention in schools of the modern Kingdom. Mr. Hickey will leave for our side with a large supply of black and white educational films on May 6th.

Mr. Urban was in a reminiscent mood, as he talked and recalled the early days of kinematography, here and in America. He spoke with some feeling of a memorable trip he made to our side of the water in the winter of 1910. He came with hopes running high, banking, as he said, on promises, which were not fulfilled. He spoke in grateful words of the assistance and encouragement which the late founder of the Moving Picture World extended to him. Mr. Urban has now been in London for 18 years and his enthusiasm in the cause of education still remains unabated. He is firm in the belief that eventually the moving picture as an educator will in importance far surpass the moving picture as a form of amusement.

Passing through Cecil Court, otherwise known as "Flicker Alley," I noticed the sign of "Warner Feature Film Co.," I walked in and found Sam Warner in full charge. He has been here for about one month, and has had a busy time of it familiarizing himself with conditions, and with the various denominations of British currency. He thinks this is an ideal market for an enterprising American picture man and he is going at full speed all the time. He is the latest American invader.
Source: W. Stephen Bush, “Yankee Films Abroad,” Moving Picture World 10 May 1913, 573-74.