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From silent screen to multi-screen

A history of cinema exhibition in Britain since 1896

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Stuart Hanson

The exhibition of films has developed from a lowly fairground attraction in the 1890s to the multi-million pound industry of today. This book charts the development of cinema exhibition and cinema-going in Britain from the first public film screening in February 1896 through to the opening of 30-screen 'megaplexes'. It recounts the beginnings of cinema and in particular its rapid development, by the eve of the Great War, as the pre-eminent mass entertainment. The book considers developments of cinema as an independent entertainment, the positioning of cinemas within the burgeoning metropolitan spaces, the associated search for artistic respectability, the coming of sound and a large-scale audience. The period from 1913 to 1930 was one in which the cinema industry underwent dramatic restructuring, new chains, and when Hollywood substantially increased its presence in British cinemas. Cinema-going is then critically analysed in the context of two powerful myths; the 'Golden Age' and the 'universal audience'. The book also considers the state of cinema exhibition in Britain in the post-war period, and the terminal decline of cinema-going from the 1960s until 1984. It looks at the development of the multiplex in the United States from the 1960s and examines the importance of the shopping mall and the suburb as the main focus for these cinema developments. Finally, the book discusses the extent to which the multiplex 'experience' accounts for the increase in overall attendance; and how developments in the marketing of films have run in tandem with developments in the cinema.

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Stuart Hanson

This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book charts the development of cinema exhibition and cinema-going in Britain from the first public film screening, the Lumière Brothers' showing of their Cinematographe show at London's Regent Street Polytechnic in February 1896, through to the opening of 30-screen 'megaplexes'. In part the existence of cinema is the result of an array of technological developments going back arguably to the sixteenth century with the camera obscura and encompassing the development of celluloid film and its projection to a large audience. It is also the result of the efforts to create spaces for the public exhibition of moving images; grand spaces which have embraced and reflected the great modernist project of the twentieth century. The book places the development of cinema in a broad social, economic, cultural and political context.

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Stuart Hanson

This chapter charts the development of cinema exhibition in Britain, from the period of screening films in fairgrounds through to picture palaces. It first presents a discussion of the technological developments in the "pre-cinema" days starting with the Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope followed by other inventors in Europe and the USA including Robert Paul and the Skladanowsky brothers. The chapter then discusses early sites of public exhibition of moving pictures, the legitimate theatre and the music hall. The structuring of the film industry into the levels of producer, distributor and exhibitor took some fifteen years to emerge in Britain, while the division of labour characteristic of film production was largely absent. The chapter also highlights the screening of cinemas at the picture palaces, which emerged because the Cinematograph Act 1909 had resulted in the closure of many penny shows due to the introduction of licensing.

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Stuart Hanson

This chapter deals with the period after 1913, in particular that of the late 1920s of British cinema industry as it was a time of dramatic developments and the establishment of several features of the industry. It covers the establishment of the British Board of Film Censors in 1913, and the cinemas in First World War when the government instigated several organizations whose role it was in the first years of the war to produce propaganda targeted at those outside the country. The chapter also discusses the development of large cinema circuits and the development of cinema construction from the small, single-floored and simple buildings into the prototypes of the 'super cinemas' of the 1930s. The War and the associated conflicts in Europe saw the hegemony of Hollywood established and consolidated in the post-war period. The 1920s ended with a momentous technological advance, the development of synchronised sound.

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Stuart Hanson

The 1930s was a period when the mass media began to develop into the forms that we are familiar with today. This chapter traces the growth of cinema as a mode of mass entertainment, beginning with the early picture palaces and the 'super cinema' developments in the early 1930s. The audience was attracted to watching films along with a newsreel and a cartoon which gave them a respite from the grim reality of life, and the major cinema circuits were anxious to encourage greater attendance amongst the middle classes. The chapter discusses the legislative and other government interventions, notably the Cinematograph Films Act 1927, and highlights the specific concerns regarding the morally corrupting influence of cinema and its effects. It also documents the establishment of the Commission on Educational and Cultural Films and the debates about the role and function of the cinema as a leisure activity.

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Stuart Hanson

The immediate post-war period saw the zenith of cinema-going in Britain but in the 1950s the audience began to shrink, slowly at first and then more rapidly. There was a complementary decline in the number of cinemas in Britain. All of the major cinema chains ran organised Saturday morning clubs after the war in order to stimulate the cinema-going habit amongst children. The end of the 1940s, in the aftermath of the Second World War, once again witnessed the government intervening in the film industry and in doing so it continued a pattern established with the Cinematograph Act 1909. During this Golden Age the working class lived and worked in integrated communities, the families who played together stayed together, and cinemas were pleasure domes where the British could live out their fantasies.'

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Stuart Hanson

This chapter documents the developments in the 1960s and 1970s which saw the decline of British cinema, and the lessons learnt from the success of American cinema industry. The decline in fortunes of the cinema throughout the 1960s and 1970s took place in the context of dramatic changes in British society. The period is one in which cinema exhibitors sought to distinguish the silver screen from the television screen as a plethora of technological advancements were marketed, such as stereophonic sound and special widescreen formats, notably CinemaScope. The end of the 1970s saw the emergence of the video cassette recorder for the home television as well as the conditions created for the development of a new kind of multi-screen cinema, pioneered in the USA. The development of the shopping centre heralded the introduction of new cinemas and chains that took their aesthetic inspiration from the malls themselves.

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Stuart Hanson

By the early 1980s, Britain was viewed as a market in which the domestic exhibition sector was in terminal decline, while at the same time being a market in which films from the USA were both popular and dominant. This chapter discusses the development of the multiplex cinemas in Britain from the mid 1980s to the present. The opening of Britain's first multiplex cinema called "The Point" in 1985 heralded a new kind of cinema. The building of new cinemas, initially on the edges and latterly in the centre of Britain's towns and cities, was the result of changes in economic, political and cultural policies precipitated by both the apparent triumph of laissez-faire capitalism and the hegemony of the Hollywood film. Multiplexes built new audiences, the over 35-age group. The chapter also looks at the impact of multiplex cinemas on the cinema-going audience and the cinema industry.

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Stuart Hanson

This chapter explores the future of film screening at home and in cinema houses in the digital age with developments such as of back-projection, plasma and liquid crystal display (LCD) television sets; five, six and seven-channel surround sound, such as Dolby Digital and Dynamic Theater Sound; digital broadcast technology offering High Definition Television (HDTV); and the Digital Versatile Disc (DVD). It first provides the reasons for the popularity of multiplexes among the audiences in Britain when cinema had been declining prior to their inception. The chapter examines the myth of "choice" of the movies or product as it is known in the production, distribution and exhibition industries. The arthouse or specialised cinema represents an alternative site of consumption to the multiplex, both spatially and in terms of capital, though the relationship is characterised by a dynamic interplay in which their identities are specified in relation to each other.