The film is complete. Here is a description of the dealings that take place before it finally reaches the screen—by a contributor who was president of the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association, 1931-32.
by Reginald Crow
LITTLE known to the cinema public, but enormously fascinating, is that side of the industry which deals with the sales and distribution of films. When a film is delivered from the production studios, there follows a spell of feverish activity on the part of the firm (known as the “ renters ”) who are to handle it.
It has to be determined, first of all, into what category the film falls. It may have had many thousands of pounds spent on it, yet may not be worthy to be labelled as a “ super ” production ; it may have begun as quite a modest little affair, and yet have turned out so well that it is put across as a picture above the average. The film is seen many times by the firm’s executives, but even then they are not always satisfied with their own judgment. So it is " tried on the dog.” This means that the production is slipped into a programme in some outlying district. No preliminary boosting is given ; the audience that happens to be at the showing is just lucky. Unheralded this film is put on the screen ; but scattered throughout the theatre, sitting among the audience, are “ scouts.” Every comment made by the people around them is noted, and in this way some idea of the public’s appreciation, or criticism, can be gleaned.
ч Having decided that the film is a ”’super,” a “ programme” (that is on the average level) or a " second feature ” production, the trade shows are then held. These take place in each of the large towns, and of late years have assumed proportions
undreamed in the past. Some of the evening productions held in London, for instance, develop into events approaching theatrical first nights. Many stories could be told of the use and abuse of what is primarily a private unspooling, made compulsory by the Cinematograph Films Act.
At these trade shows the cinema proprietors (known as the exhibitors) form their opinions on the merits and demerits of the picture. They try to judge if it will suit the particular audiences for whom they cater. A film that would suit, say, a Golders Green audience may be received in stony silence—or worse—at Luton.
Presuming, then, that the film deals with a subject that appears to be generally popular, there follows a tussle to book it. This little battle goes on between the exhibitors in each area — sometimes circuit - owned theatres versus independently-owned cinemas ; sometimes between independents alone. More often, indeed, it is a combination of both.
Cinemas owned by one of the large circuits would appear to stand the best chance of securing the best products. But they are, in many cases, affiliated to a producing concern and have to surrender a large proportion of their “ play dates ” to their company’s own films. It is obvious, therefore, that this allows plenty of opportunity to the independents, and levels matters up considerably ; actually there is a chance for all the larger theatres to get a fair proportion of the ” big pictures.”
The smaller theatres in large centres
.are usually content with " second runs," and often score on that account, the " first run ’’ having served as a wonderful advertising medium. The tussle, therefore, between the “ first-run ’ theatres and cinemas becomes a stern struggle when there is a much-wanted film. Competition is often so keen that the renter has an enormous job to preserve a spirit of equality and maintain his business relations with all his customers. He is eager, of course, to maintain the business rivalry between the bidders, but, at the same time, he has to hold a fair balance, and this is often done by arranging a “ split ”—i.e. a division of the “ big films,” between competing cinemas ; as there is a large number of renters, this system works fairly well.
Films, as you will realize, are unlike articles of merchandize. It is impossible to buy, or, rather, hire them by the gross or dozen. Each one has to be bargained for and booked separately. The prices paid for the period of exhibition—three days, or a week, as the case may be—are now fixed on a “ percentage of the takings ” basis. This sj'stem came into force with the arrival of the talkies ; previously, payment had been on a cash basis only.
Why did the talkies lead to this change ? Because neither renter nor exhibitor had any data on which he could fix amounts. So now the bargaining that goes on between renter and exhibitor is to fix the rate of the percentage.
After the trade show, and during the period between that event and the date of the general release (which is usually some three or four months later), it has become customary to have a pre-release run in the West End of London. This serves two purposes. It helps to advertise the film, and also it gives the exhibitor outside London an opportunity to judge what sort of a reception it is given. After all, an audience of cinema-goers is vastly different from an audience consisting of members of the trade and their friends. An exhibitor can therefore get some idea of the way the public receives this film, although he knows full well, of
course, that if he has a cinema in a small provincial town, the reaction to the production is likely to be totally different from that of the London audience. Sometimes, of course, provincial audiences do care for the most unexpected productions. That " glorious uncertainty ” is one of the great attractions of a film exhibitor’s life.
After the bargaining for the film has been completed, there is an enormous amount of work still to be done. The dates of the release have to be decided on ; the prints of a film have to be ordered, and the number is governed, of course, by the popularity of the production. For a Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell film, for instance, there is always a terrific demand, and in consequence there have to be a large number of copies of the film printed. “ Bars" are another ticklish problem. Let me explain this. An exhibitor, possibly, has paid a high price for a film which he thinks will make a lot of money. This high price covers protection for him, in that he is guaranteed that the film will not be sold to the owner of another cinema within a certain radius—at least, until he has shown the film.
When these many intricate problems have been satisfactorily solved, and a contract between the parties entered into, there comes a breathing spell. Posters are booked ; publicity plans are decided on ; all sorts of ideas to ensure the success of the production are thrashed out.
Eventually, a few days before the general release date, the dozens of brand new copies of the film arrive from the printers, ready for distribution to the exhibitor. Each " reel ” of film is of one thousand feet or so, and is carefully packed in its own tin. Most feature films run into six to eight thousand feet, and so the separate reel tins are in turn enclosed in a wood and metal “ transport case,” ready for despatch by road or rail to the various cinemas that have booked the film.
As a general rule, the release date in London is two weeks ahead of that in the country, and, on a popular booking, as many as 150 prints of the film are nce:led.
The world film encyclopedia, 1933
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