views updated Jun 08 2018




Exhibition is the retail branch of the film industry. It involves not the production or the distribution of motion pictures, but their public screening, usually for paying customers in a site devoted to such screenings, the movie theater. What the exhibitor sells is the experience of a film (and, frequently, concessions like soft drinks and popcorn). Because exhibitors to some extent control how films are programmed, promoted, and presented to the public, they have considerable influence over the box-office success and, more importantly, the reception of films.

Though films have always been shown in nontheatrical as well as theatrical venues, the business of film exhibition primarily entails the ownership, management, and operation of theaters. Historically, film exhibitors have been faced with a number of situations common to other sectors of the commercial entertainment industry: shifting market conditions, strong competition, efforts to achieve monopolization of the field, government regulatory actions, and costly investment in new technologies.


The first moving picture exhibitors were itinerant showmen who exploited the novelty of projected moving pictures by using the same film program for a series of brief engagements in different locations. They typically purchased outright the short films they screened at theaters, churches, and public halls. As early as 1903, film exchanges that owned and rented moving pictures emerged in Boston, Chicago, and New York City, creating a separation between exhibition and distribution and helping to standardize the emerging film industry. Exhibitors rented films by the reel from an exchange, allowing for more frequently changed programs at one specific location and therefore the establishment of nickelodeons, which were inexpensive storefront movie theaters.

One important early variant of the exchange system was the "states rights" model, in which the distribution rights for a film were sold by territory, often by individual state. Exhibitors then contracted with the rights owner. Within the constraints of price and print availability, the early exhibitor had considerable latitude in booking films of special interest to the local audience.

With the advent of the multi-reel feature film in the early 1910s, certain high profile films, like The Birth of a Nation (1915), were circulated through the country as "road shows." Much like touring stage productions, road show films were promoted as special events that were booked into individual venues (often legitimate theaters or small-town "opera houses") for multi-day runs. This strategy remained in place through the 1920s, then reemerged in the 1950s and 1960s, when the most expensive, spectacular, star-laden productions (usually in color and widescreen) like Ben-Hur (1959) were first exhibited on a road show basis with patrons paying notably higher admission prices for reserved seats at these heavily promoted motion picture events.

Somewhat akin to the road show was a practice called "four-walling," where a theater was rented for a special screening that in some fashion was quite distinct from standard motion picture fare. Four-walling was used, for instance, during the 1930s to present foreign-language films to immigrant audiences in the United States. But it was most commonly employed from the 1920s through the 1950s as an exhibition strategy for sensationalistic "exploitation" films about childbirth, drug addiction, prostitution, and sexually transmitted diseases. At the other end of the spectrum, Sun Classic Pictures and other firms specializing in family-oriented product had considerable success during the 1970s with four-wall exhibition of films like The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1974).

As lucrative as road shows and four-walling proved to be in the selling of individual films, the crux of the film exhibition business has remained the ownership and daily operation of movie theaters, which requires a steady stream of product booked through film distributors. Given the low start-up costs, the first theaters dedicated to offering moving pictures as their primary, regular drawing card were usually independently owned and operated. From early on, however, exhibitors realized that it made economic sense to adopt a strategy then used for vaudeville theaters and penny arcades and operate more than one theater under the auspices of a single amusement company. Thus a key exhibition strategy that emerged during the nickelodeon era was the theater chain. A chain (or circuit of theaters) might encompass more than 100 venues or might be as small as a string of picture shows in adjacent neighborhoods or towns. Regional theater chains became especially prominent in the 1910s. The Stanley Company based in Philadelphia, for example, had by the mid-1920s grown to 250 theaters across the entire East Coast. Regional chains based in, among other places, Milwaukee (the Saxe Brothers), Detroit (John Kunsky), and St. Louis (the Skouras Brothers) became dominant forces in the industry even before these companies combined in 1917 to form the First National Exhibitors' Circuit. First National was one of several attempts in the 1920s to create a national network of theaters, including Publix Theaters, the exhibition branch of Paramount studios. For its national chain, Publix borrowed managerial strategies based on the principles of successful grocery and department store chains.

Perhaps most successful among this first generation of exhibition entrepreneurs who would later shape the Hollywood studio system was Marcus Loew (1870–1927), who began his career running arcades and nickelodeons in New York City. To guarantee the regular supply of films for his theaters, Loew acquired production and distribution companies and in 1924 formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), a vertically integrated company that produced and distributed films as well as owning and operating a chain of first-run theaters in major metropolitan areas. Controlling a significant part of the exhibition market was an essential strategy not only for MGM, but for all of the major Hollywood studios. Paramount, for example, followed a similar logic when it merged with the Balaban & Katz chain of theaters (based in Chicago), and so did Warner Bros. when it acquired the Stanley theaters in the same period.

While weekly attendance in the United States reached 22 million by 1922 and rose to approximately 80 million by the end of the decade, the construction of opulent picture palaces during the 1920s further solidified the prominence of the major studio-owned theater chains, most of which expanded by acquiring more theaters as the industry completed its transformation to sound during the late 1920s. Independent exhibitors had few options: sell out to a chain, invest in the costly equipment required for sound films, or close. The Great Depression exacerbated the dilemma of the independent exhibitor, as movie attendance dropped precipitously after the novelty of sound had worn off, dropping off to 50 million per week. New theater construction stopped almost completely, and even the largest chains felt the strain: Paramount-Publix went into receivership, as did Fox; Loew's reduced its holdings to 150 big-city theaters; and Warner Bros. sold 300 of its 700 theaters.


One reason that the major studios could attain virtually monopolistic control over the film industry is that they developed several business strategies during the 1910s and 1920s that all in some way constrained the independent exhibitor's freedom in booking films. These strategies continued to play a central role in film exhibition until the end of the 1940s. Perhaps most important was the run-zone-clearance system, which enabled the "Big Five" major studios (MGM, Paramount, RKO, Warner Bros., and Twentieth Century Fox) to control the distribution of the films they produced. This system was designed to guarantee that films were circulated so as to ensure broad exhibition and to bring in maximum profits to the parent company. The national exhibition market (especially the urban market) in the United States was divided into geographical zones. In each zone, films moved consecutively from first-run through several intermediate steps (second-run, third-run, and so on) to final-run venues. Ticket prices tended to drop with each run. There was, in addition, a "clearance" time between runs, which meant that moviegoers could expect to wait months or up to a year after a film premiered at a downtown picture palace before it reached a neighborhood theater or a small-town venue. By privileging their own theaters and organizing distribution according to the run-zone-clearance system, the Big Five assured their dominance of the American motion picture industry.

Exhibition at independently owned and operated theaters was also constrained by procedures that governed how major studio films were booked by exhibitors. "Blind booking" meant that exhibitors had to schedule the films for the coming season based only on descriptions provided by the studio, with no actual preview prints available. Furthermore, exhibitors had little choice but to agree to "block booking," which required that they take a full season or at least a significant number of films (shorts as well as features) from the same studio. Exhibitors were thus less able than in the past to pick and choose titles and thus tailor their programming, week-by-week, to a particular clientele.

b. New York, New York, 7 May 1870, d. 5 September 1927

Marcus Loew, the creator of MGM and one of the most successful figures in the motion picture industry during the silent era, was, first and foremost, an exhibitor. "I don't sell tickets to movies," he is said to have declared, "I sell tickets to theaters."

Born to immigrant parents on New York's Lower East Side, Loew moved into commercial entertainment after working in the garment industry. In 1904, he co-founded the People's Vaudeville Company, which soon expanded its holdings to include several penny arcades in New York City and one in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he built a 110-seat theater on the second floor to screen motion pictures.

Loew ran nickelodeons, but he made his mark with what was called "small-time vaudeville," a show that combined live vaudeville performance with motion pictures—all for a relatively inexpensive ticket price. In the first of many acquisitions, in 1908 he purchased and refurbished the Royal Theater in Brooklyn. His chain of New York theaters grew to forty small-time vaudeville venues, including impressive new theaters, like the 2,400-seat Loew's National. By the end of the 1910s, Loew owned or leased more than fifty large theaters from Canada to New Orleans, with an especially prominent presence in the major Northeast cities.

Like other moguls, Loew became committed to developing a vertically integrated motion picture company, which controlled production and distribution as well as exhibition. He formed Loew's, Incorporated in 1919, purchased the Metro film studio and then Goldwyn Pictures. Loew's theater holdings increased to more than 100 first-class venues, topped by the 3,500-seat Loew's State Theater in Times Square. In 1924, Loew acquired Louis B. Mayer's Los Angeles studio and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was formed, with Loew's Inc. as its parent company. Until his death in 1927, Marcus Loew served as president of Loew's/MGM, continuing to expand his theater holdings, including newly built picture palaces.

Loew's legacy lasted long after his death, beyond the success of MGM in the 1930s. Following the Paramount decision in 1948, which ordered studios to divest themselves of their theater holdings, Loew's became by the late 1950s a separate entity from MGM, with fewer than 100 theaters. Over the next twenty years, Loew's diversified its holdings but maintained a relatively small number of theaters. However, through ensuing expansion and corporate mergers, Loew's by the 1990s had become an 885-screen chain owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment. Merged with Cineplex Odeon, Loew's Cineplex Entertainment eventually controlled almost 3,000 screens in 450 North American and European locations. With much hoopla, Loew's Cineplex in 2004 celebrated its 100 years of being in the exhibition business.


Crowther, Bosley. The Lion's Share: The Story of an Entertainment Empire. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1957.

Gomery, Douglas. The Hollywood Studio System. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Gregory A. Waller

Exhibitors had always been constrained in other ways as well. For instance, from the nickelodeon era onward, they had faced considerable pressure from religious and reform groups and actual policing from municipal and state authorities, especially in the form of building and safety codes, Sunday closing laws, and license fees. However, exhibitors stood to benefit from government intervention when the Federal Trade

Commission in 1921 accused Paramount of unfair business practices and illegal restraint of trade, beginning a legal process that continued on and off for more than twenty years. In 1938, the Justice Department initiated anti-trust proceedings against the major Hollywood studios, leading to a temporary consent decree in 1940 that prohibited blind booking and limited block booking to groups of no more than five films. Finally, in 1948, the United States Supreme Court delivered its decision in what was called the "Paramount case," a sweeping ruling that eliminated block booking, challenged monopolistic practices, and significantly altered the relationship between film distribution and exhibition.

The major decision in United States v. Paramount, et al. was to restrict Hollywood studios from owning and operating movie theaters. This divestiture took place over the next six years and to some degree it opened up the American market for independent theaters and newly formed theater chains. The 1948 court ruling also prohibited block booking, meaning that films were henceforth to be rented to a theater not as a package or a season, but individually. In addition, the ruling put an end to the frequently long clearance time between when a film was shown at a first-run theater and when it reached subsequent run theaters. In sum, the Paramount case dramatically opened up the marketplace and altered how exhibitors selected and scheduled movies. But since the production companies were by the 1950s no longer directly in the film exhibition business, they did not have their previous incentive to deliver many new films year round. Furthermore, blind booking was not explicitly banned as part of the Paramount decision, and this practice re-emerged, especially in the 1970s, as production costs rose and wider distribution patterns became the norm for first-run films.


The World War II years, with a fully employed work-force, marked a high point in the film exhibition business in the United States. Weekly attendance topped 80 million annually from 1943 to 1946. Exhibitors not only sold a record number of tickets, but reinforced their civic role through public service gestures: selling government war bonds and staging drives to collect rubber, scrap metal, and other material needed for the war effort. Yet between 1946 and 1953, ticket sales in the United States dropped by almost 50 percent. By 1960, weekly attendance at the movies was only 30 million, dipping further, to 18 million, by 1970.

If the Paramount case seemed to assure greater latitude for theater owners, Hollywood's mid-1950s commitment to color and wide-screen processes (like Cinemascope) meant that exhibitors were strongly encouraged to invest in another costly technological upgrading of projectors, screens, and sound equipment. At the same time, the film audience through the 1950s and 1960s became progressively younger and more male than had previously been the case. Drive-ins came to form a key part of the larger exhibition market, even as the industry suffered continuing effects from the rise of commercial television as a readily available source of entertainment in the home.

Television, however, quickly became another outlet, or exhibition window, for Hollywood films, as studio film libraries were sold or rented to TV stations, with RKO leading the way in 1954. By the mid-1960s it was commonplace for new films to move relatively quickly to prime time television after they had completed their theatrical runs. Even with poor quality sound, panned-and-scanned images (that is, wide-screen films cropped to fit the dimensions of the TV screen), and commercial interruptions, movies drew large audiences on American network television. By the end of the 1960s the precedent had been firmly set for later developments of the television set as "home [movie] theater." With the emergence and widespread diffusion of cable and satellite networks, videocassettes, and DVDs, watching movies no longer necessarily meant going to the movies. One result was that the second- and third-run theaters that had been so important during the first half of the twentieth century disappeared, leaving the theatrical exhibition business overwhelmingly dependent on first-run venues.

As theatrical exhibition shrank, the movie theater changed as well, partly in response to the Paramount decision. Multiplex cinemas, first situated in shopping centers, then in shopping malls, became the core of the business by the 1970s. New theater chains emerged, like General Cinema, which began with a handful of drive-ins and ultimately grew to more than 200 venues, mostly shopping mall multiplexes. American Multi-Cinema, which pioneered the multiplex concept in Kansas City in 1963, refined this particular exhibition model as the company opened increasingly larger multiplexes. By 1980 American Multi-Cinema's 130 theaters across the United States contained some 700 screens. That year attendance stood at 20 million weekly. (It would rise to 25 million by 1995 and to 30 million by 2002.) The spread of the multiplex meant that film exhibition increasingly became a matter of scheduling nationally advertised, widely available, first-run films with little regard for the particularities of locality or audience.

The exhibition business went through another round of significant changes during the mid-1980s, when the Reagan administration encouraged a return to the pre-1948 era by allowing a much greater corporate consolidation of production, distribution, and exhibition. Entertainment companies quickly sought to create vertical monopolies that included the ownership of theaters, as well as new exhibition windows like satellite television. At the same time, corporate mergers and takeovers meant that fewer companies came to control a greater number of screens, with much investment in free-standing megaplex theaters, not only in suburbs but also in metropolitan areas.

From the late 1970s on, exhibition also changed because wider release patterns for first-run films—called "saturation booking"—increasingly became the norm after the success of films like Jaws (1975). This move was prompted by the high cost of film production, the drop in the number of major studio releases, the need for distributors to pre-sell as-yet-uncompleted films to exhibitors (a form of blind booking), and the reliance on television as the prime advertising medium for new films. Not only did distributors aim toward saturating the market by making new films simultaneously available on a thousand or more screens, but they also insisted that new releases be given extended theatrical runs, moving from larger to smaller auditoria inside the same multi-screen theater. Thus while newly designed, high-quality theater complexes with eight or more screens held out the possibility that moviegoers might choose among a more diverse array of films, this was, in practice, rarely the case.


What the exhibitor delivers to paying customers is more than a film, it is the experience of a film program, which has varied significantly since the first public screening of moving pictures in 1896. Three key variables are involved here: (1) the exhibitor's degree of control over the program; (2) the range of films available; and (3) the actual composition of the program, including the variety of screened material (slides as well as motion pictures) and the role, if any, of live performance.

The exhibitors who introduced moving pictures in 1896–1898 had considerable creative control over the programs they offered to a curious public. While they very rarely shot the footage they screened, these traveling exhibitors did acquire and arrange a series of short films, which meant that they could juxtapose actualités (such as the Lumière films of everyday life that were shot outdoors on location) with filmed vaudeville acts or staged scenes. Depending on the venue and the intended audience, the array of short films was, in turn, combined in different ways with a wide range of other entertainment options: magic lantern slides or phonograph recordings, vocal or instrumental performances, novelty acts or educational lectures. In such cases, the program was typically designed to offer a variety of distinct attractions, though it soon became possible for exhibitors to create more unified shows in which the screened material and the live performances were arranged around a particular theme, such as the Spanish American War.

By 1900, moving pictures had become a regular feature on certain vaudeville circuits, where they served as one self-enclosed part of a program that might include six or more separate attractions, each occupying the stage for ten to twenty minutes. In this type of program, film was merely another interchangeable component, comparable to an acrobatic act or an ethnic comedy routine. In a similar fashion, moving pictures also served as novelty entertainment screened between the acts of touring melodramas and as part of the midway attractions offered by traveling carnivals and circuses.

When permanent movie theaters emerged during the nickelodeon era, the program changed significantly. Nickelodeons typically ran a continuous show in which a forty-five-or sixty-minute program was repeated throughout the day, then changed daily or at least several times each week. Using films rented from film exchanges, the nickelodeon operator offered several split or full reel films, each running from approximately five to fifteen minutes, combined in almost all cases with live entertainment: musical accompaniment for the screenings (on piano or some sort of mechanical musical device) as well as illustrated songs. Illustrated songs featured a singer whose vocal rendition of a popular song accompanied the projection of a series of colorful slides indicating the lyrics and, more ingeniously, "illustrating" the song with staged tableaux and sometimes extraordinary visual effects. Other slides offered information about the show or instructions on movie-theater etiquette (for example, "Don't Spit on the Floor").

Within the standard programming format of short films and illustrated songs, the nickelodeon operator in fact had a great deal of latitude in tailoring the show for a specific audience. Exhibitors might hire performers to add sound effects to the silent films or even have off-stage actors voice the on-screen dialogue. A speaker, called a "lecturer," sometimes provided a continuous spoken plot synopsis and description, especially for films based on Biblical, literary, or high cultural sources. Magicians, vocal trios, and other vaudeville-style acts might appear on the same bill as moving pictures.

With the consolidation of the American film industry in the 1910s and the growing prominence of the serial and the multi-reel "feature" film, one common programming strategy was the "balanced" program offering a full evening's worth of entertainment. Until the end of the silent film era in the late 1920s, the feature film was usually accompanied, if not always preceded, by two or more shorts: a one or two-reel comedy or western, newsreel installment, serial episode, "scenic" (a travelogue or other nonfiction short), or animated cartoon. Advertising slides, too, continued to figure as part of the program—pitching nationally available products, local stores and services, and coming attractions.

As larger and more grandiose picture palaces began to appear, as well as more modest neighborhood and small-town theaters, programming could be quite varied, not only in terms of the quality and length of the feature film, but also in the number of shorts and, more importantly, in the live components of the program. For instance, in 1918, a major big-city theater, like the Strand in New York City, presented its program four times daily, beginning with an overture from the house orchestra, followed by a newsreel and scenic, two numbers from a female singer, a feature film, two numbers from a male singer, a comic short, and an organ solo. Organists like Paul Ash and Jesse Crawford became major drawing cards in their own right. During the 1920s, picture palaces added even more spectacular live performances to the show, including elaborate Broadway-styled production numbers, which sometimes took the form of a "prologue" that was connected thematically to that day's featured film.

Smaller venues continued to provide some form of musical performance, if only by a pianist or a mechanical music machine. But such theaters might also add, on occasion, a special attraction: a pared-down prologue, a band performing Hawaiian music, or, by the mid-1920s, jazz; traveling musical comedy troupes, minstrel shows, and magic acts; or participants in a local talent contest. Indeed, film exhibitors' widespread reliance on all manner of live music meant that by the end of the silent era, more musicians worked in movie theaters than in concert halls, hotels, and nightclubs combined.

The coming of sound fundamentally altered the film program, at least in terms of its live component. Short sound films of vaudeville acts and famous orchestras were intended to replace certain live performers on the bill. More significantly, Hollywood's rapid transformation to sound put countless musicians and theater organists out of work, leading the Musicians Union to undertake a futile public relations campaign against "canned" music. Live performance did, however, remain a special attraction for a great many movie theaters well into the 1940s, which booked touring variety shows, radio performers, amateur contests, magicians and midnight "spook" shows, and, by the late 1930s, the film industry's own singing cowboys, like Gene Autry (1907–1998).

Newsreels, cartoons, serial episodes, and a range of other shorts continued to accompany the feature film in programming during the 1930s (and, indeed, into the 1960s). But the Depression also saw the widespread use of another exhibition strategy, the double feature, which paired selected shorts with two feature films, sometimes each of less than an hour in length. This popular programming strategy went hand-in-hand with the increased production of low-budget, sixty-minute, series films (frequently westerns) and other B movies, which were designed to fit the requirements of the double feature. About 300 different films were needed annually by a theater that offered three changes of double-feature programs each week. For the independent theater owner, the demand for more feature films allowed for somewhat more control over the program. Highly vocal opposition to the double feature came especially from concerned parents and teachers, who worried about the effect on children. Yet by the end of the 1930s, more than half of the theaters in the United States were regularly offering double features, with some even resorting to triple features or to continuous programs of low-budget "action" films. The double feature also allowed for a regularly scheduled intermission, which boosted concession sales.

The double (or triple) feature with intermission breaks also became the standard program at drive-in theaters during the 1950s, while some form of the balanced program (combining shorts with a feature film) survived well into the 1960s. Overall, from 1950 on, there was increased attention given to coming attraction trailers as part of the show and less to comic and dramatic short films. But even as the industry focused increasingly during the 1980s on the high-budget blockbuster designed to be the sole drawing card in a multiplex or megaplex cinema, the program continued to involve more than simply or solely a feature film. Trivia games, innocuous recorded music, advertising slides, filmed commercials, public service announcements, instructions on correct audience behavior, and, most notably, flashy trailers for coming attractions—all these elements served as components of the film program in the late twentieth century, though there was little opportunity for the individual theater to customize its offerings.


While the exhibition business has always depended on attracting a core of regular or habitual moviegoers, exhibitors have also been quick to exploit specialized screening and programming occasions, often directed toward a more niche audience. For example, Saturday matinee screenings specifically designed to attract children were initially promoted by progressive civic organizations in the 1910s, but soon evolved into a profitable staple for many film exhibitors. The 1930s saw an increased interest in the Saturday matinee, which favored cartoons, comic shorts, and serial episodes, sometimes coupled with live performances, giveaway contests, and talent shows.

Independent exhibitors in the pre-television era also took advantage of other specialized programming possibilities by scheduling commercially sponsored shows designed to display new appliances and other consumer goods to female audiences. Especially in areas where there were no theaters catering specifically to an African American clientele, exhibitors might also offer special "colored" screenings, usually late in the evening. Sometimes called "midnight rambles," these shows reinforced prevailing codes of racial segregation, while also suggesting that even a small-town theater owner could profit by attracting a number of different audiences.

As early as the 1920s but especially in the 1950s and 1960s, art house cinemas in major urban areas and college towns offered a self-consciously high cultural alternative to mainstream moviegoing. Specializing principally in non-American films and independent productions, these venues promised a more intimate, adult, and "refined" experience both in terms of their programming and also their ambience and décor, which often included an art gallery and low-key concession area. In many cases, the art house eventually was transformed into the repertory theater, which thrived until the late 1980s, offering an array of feature films (sometimes programmed into mini-festivals centering on a particular director or genre): foreign art cinema, revivals of Hollywood classics, cult movies, rockumentaries, and new independent films.

Among the most notable features of the repertory theater was the midnight movie. Midnight screenings, which were once principally "colored" shows or special premiere screenings, took on a much different flavor from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s. The midnight movie in these years was likely to be The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) or some other cult film, screened to a highly participatory audience of teenagers and college students. From its origins in New York City, the midnight movie spread nationwide, becoming a lucrative programming option, even for multiplexes housed in shopping malls.


Early promotional efforts included colorful posters and banners that added to the already striking effect of what by the mid-1910s had become a standard feature of the movie theater, the electrically illuminated marquee, which announced the current show. To complement newspaper advertising, exhibitors relied on a range of "ballyhoo," all designed to attract attention to the program and, more generally, to the theater itself: trucks with promotional displays, billboards, signs on streetcars, poster displays in store windows, sidewalk stunts, and—perhaps most memorable—extraordinarily elaborate facades constructed to match the film then being screened. In such instances, the front of the theater might be decorated to promote a jungle adventure one day and a prison melodrama the next.

In addition to the promotion of individual films, exhibitors were frequently engaged in the ongoing promotion of their theaters, which often meant establishing and maintaining strong ties both to other local businesses and, more generally, to the home community. Thus a theater might put appliances and other products on display in the lobby, arrange tie-ins with local merchants involving free movie tickets or product giveaways, or even offer free screenings sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce or the retail merchants' association. From the 1910s through the 1940s theaters also developed community relations by opening their doors for benefits, public interest programming, school events, patriotic drives, amateur shows, and even church services. Handbooks like Harold B. Franklin's Motion Picture Theater Management (1928) provided practical guidance about promotion and a range of other topics of concern to the theater manager.

In an attempt to counter falling attendance during the early 1930s, exhibitors relied not only on advertising, but also on sometimes elaborate promotional contests designed to lure customers. These included the giving away of free "premiums," like glassware, fans, and cooking utensils, and contests that encouraged audience participation. Bingo-styled games like SCREEN-O games were common, as were "Bank Nights," perhaps the most widespread of these contests. Bank Night featured a drawing for a cash prize, which required that entrants register at the theater and that the winner be present at (though not necessarily inside) the theater when the winner was announced.

Increasingly after the 1940s, theatrical promotion became less spectacular and more restricted to on-site posters and displays, which were part of national marketing campaigns for individual films. By the 1970s, given the prominence of theater chains and the role of media advertising (eventually including the Internet as well as television and radio), there was no longer neither the incentive nor the need for individual exhibitors to come up with unique promotional schemes.


From the late nineteenth century's traveling moving picture shows to the late twentieth century's home theaters, films have been screened outside of movie theaters in a host of non-theatrical sites. Highly visible traveling exhibitors like Lyman H. Howe (1856–1923) had great success in this market between 1900 and 1915, offering ambitious film programs that involved elaborate sound effects. (In Europe, traveling moving picture shows were extremely common at fairgrounds.) As automobiles and expanded highway systems allowed for greater mobility, a host of other itinerant exhibitors brought moving pictures to rural audiences throughout the silent period and well into the 1940s. Traveling exhibition thrived in the Depression and World War II years, especially with the increased availability of highly portable 16mm sound projection equipment. At the same time, the non-theatrical market also included individuals and companies (including government agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture) that sought to tap the vast interest in regularly exhibiting motion pictures at schools, churches, military bases, YMCAs, and retail stores. These non-theatrical exhibitors offered a variety of programs, some very similar to what was being screened in contemporary theaters, others highly idiosyncratic and tailored to a particular audience.

One other form of non-theatrical exhibition that has figured prominently in film history, particularly in terms of the creation of what might be called a cinema culture, is the non-profit film society. The film society, very much dedicated to promoting an appreciation of cinema, typically sold tickets by subscription and featured precisely the sort of films that were not likely to be screened in mainstream commercial theaters: innovative alternative cinema, foreign-language film, and older classics. (There was some significant overlap in this regard between the non-commercial film society and the commercial repertory cinema.) One model for the more than 250 film societies that had emerged by 1960 was Amos Vogel's Cinema 16, which began in New York City in 1947 screening a mix of experimental cinema, socially conscious documentaries, and international films. Film societies were often affiliated with a university, college, museum, or community arts center, where their actual screenings were held.

The most significant development in non-theatrical film exhibition has been the shift to home viewing made possible by a host of different technologies: satellite and cable television, videocassettes, DVDs, and projection and sound equipment specifically designed for the domestic consumer. The home exhibition of film has been a viable option since the introduction of portable 16mm equipment in the 1920s. However, it was not until the late 1980s that the home became the major site for film exhibition in the United States, a trend that was only reinforced by the subsequent introduction of digital cinema, available on DVD and the Internet. Given the ease and relatively low cost of watching movies at home, perhaps the most surprising fact about film exhibition in the 1990s is that theatrical attendance in the United States increased by one-third from 1985 to 2002, even as the total number of movie screens grew from a little over 20,000 in 1985 to more than 37,000 in 2000.

SEE ALSO Distribution;Publicity and Promotion;Studio System;Television;Theaters


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Franklin, Harold B. Motion Picture Theater Management. New York: Doran, 1927.

Gomery, Douglas. Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Huettig, Mae D. Economic Control of the Motion Picture Industry. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944.

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Klinger, Barbara. Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Musser, Charles with Carol Nelson. High-Class Moving Pictures: Lyman H. Howe and the Forgotten Era of Traveling Exhibition, 1880–1920. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Ricketson, Frank H., Jr. The Management of Motion Picture Theatres. New York and London: McGraw-Hill, 1938.

Schaefer, Eric. Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Film, 1919–1959. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Stones, Barbara. America Goes to the Movies: 100 Years of Motion Picture Exhibition. North Hollywood, CA: National Association of Theatre Owners, 1993.

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Gregory A. Waller


views updated May 18 2018

ex·hi·bi·tion / ˌeksəˈbishən/ • n. 1. a public display of works of art or other items of interest, held in an art gallery or museum or at a trade fair: an exhibition of French sculpture.2. a display or demonstration of a particular skill: a supreme exhibition of the farm worker's skills [as adj.] exhibition games. ∎  [in sing.] an ostentatious or insincere display of a particular quality or emotion: a false but convincing exhibition of concern for smaller nations.