242: Movie Theatres & the Pandemic

Archival Spaces 242

Will Movie Theatres Survive the 2020 Plague?

Uploaded 8 May 2020

On Thursday, 30 April, Ross Melnick and the Carsey-Wolf Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara hosted an online panel discussion, “Moviegoing in the Age of COVID-19,” with Manohla Dargis (New York Times) and Alison Kozberg (Art House Convergence) about the future of movie theatres. While there was some pessimism about the present state of cinema culture, the general tenure of the discussion was positive, noting that they (and hopefully many other people) miss not seeing films with an audience in a big theatre and that the hunger of moviegoers for that experience will survive the present plague. Such a positive attitude is not surprising, given their expressed nostalgia for movie theatres and their professional attachment to them. But this may be a minority view of patrons, certainly of those under the age of 30, who seemingly prefer smart phone viewing. The fact is that Disney, Warner Brothers, and Universal are now launching online platforms for the release of new films, as well as their back catalogs. Indeed, Universal released the new Trolls movie online, leading AMC to ban Universal from their screens.

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Disney’s Trolls World Tour (2020)

These developments make me less optimistic about the survival in this country of all but art houses and subsidized non-profit screening spaces. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (5-3-30)Jonathan Kuntz, himself a long-time moviegoer, notes that the present pandemic is accelerating online delivery of moving image entertainment, and that except for special event screenings, “everything else will be streaming.” What is certain is that this crisis will change the film industry, just as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 had huge consequences for the structure of the film business. The 1918 influenza pandemic killed 50 million people across the globe, including 675,000 Americans in 1918/19.

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Richard Koszarski was the first modern day film historian to remind us of the Spanish Flu’s horrific influence on film-going in the 1918 pandemic, a fact that film historians, like Benjamin Hampton, Maurice Bardèche/Robert Brasillach, and Lewis Jacobs took for granted. In an article in Film History (2005), Richard noted that “Photoplay estimated that 80 percent of the movie houses in the United States and Canada had closed for between one and eight weeks, losing $40,000,000 in revenue and putting 150,000 employees temporarily out of work. Production in California was said to have been cut by 60 percent, while the eastern studios ‘ceased completely’.”

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While the first outbreak of the Spanish Flu in the United States may have been on a military base in Kansas is early 1918, the Flu raged mostly in Europe until September, when it hit Boston, New York, and Philadelphia hard. Surprisingly, theatre owners refused to close until ordered by city officials, although New York’s theatres remained open with show times staggered to avoid crowding on subways in and out of Times Square. It also banned smoking and standing-room admissions in theaters but allowed theatres to fill seats without social distancing. However, even where cinemas stayed open, the audiences stayed away for fear of contracting the deadly virus, attendance dropping often below 50%. By November 1918, the Flu was everywhere, although some cities, like St. Louis, which had instituted social distancing early, had significantly fewer deaths than San Francisco, which reopened prematurely. Los Angeles had closed all theatres and places of amusement on 11 October, later mandating the wearing of masks. Many other cities, like Indianapolis, also ordered the wearing face masks, although they seemingly did little to stop the spread of the virus.

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Seattle Tram Conductor with face mask (Courtesy NARA Archices)

The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry announced an embargo on their release of new films in October, and film production in and around Hollywood ground to a halt during October and November, while the shooting of crowd scenes was banned even longer. Even though film production recovered by early 1919, many smaller producers and countless mom and pop exhibitors went out of business. So how did the Spanish Flu change the industry structurally?

Adolph Zukor

Even before the virus hit, Paramount’s Adolph Zukor was in a huge struggle against First National Exhibitors’ Circuit, a distribution network formed in 1917 to amalgamate 26 first-run cinema chains.   Adolph Zukor, who had been producing films since 1912 through Famous Players, and distributing films through Paramount Pictures since 1914, saw his theatre clientele suddenly disappearing. According to Benjamin Hampton, Walter Irwin told Zukor that he could destroy First National, if he built first-run cinemas in every city where First National owned theatres. After a merger with First National failed, and the incredible losses independent theatre owners suffered during late 1918 and early 1919, due to the flu pandemic, Zukor went into action. He secured a $ 10 million loan from Wall Street and purchased 135 theatres in the Southern States in 1919; by 1921, Paramount-Publix had acquired a total of 303 first-run theatres in major cities across the country, creating the first vertically integrated film company in the United States, controlling production, distribution, and exhibition. Given that in Europe Nordisk, Pathé Frères, and UFA had previously already gone that route, which would become the model for all the American majors by the mid-1920s, it is likely that Zukor would have consolidated, regardless of the pandemic, but it undoubtedly created an economic opportunity.

New York’s IFC Film Center on COVID-19 hiatus

Similarly, the move to digital distribution of movies directly into the home is a trend that has been accelerating for the past ten years, but the corona virus pandemic of 2020 may actually deal the coup de grace. AMC Theatres, which is carrying $ 4.9 billion of debt, is likely to file for bankruptcy shortly with its stock plummeting. John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, predicted in a speech to Congress in late March that the great majority of this country’s theatre owners will go bankrupt if Congress does not give them financial relief in Corona Virus rescue legislation. If we are witnessing the death of cinema(s), I will be in mourning. Unlike my daughter’s generation who has grown up watching movies on smart devices, I have always been happiest in a darkened space where dreams can be real. 

Oriental Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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