There are still so few books out there on cinema exhibition that the appearance of any new title is a cause for celebration. So it is very pleasing to note the publication of Stuart Hanson’s From Silent Screen to Multi-screen: A History of Cinema Exhibition in Britain Since 1896, published by Manchester University Press in its ‘Studies in Popular Culture’ series.
The book is a survey of British film exhibition from the 1890s through to the present day, organised chronologically, with an emphasis on economic, legislative and sociological conditions. It is a huge subject, and Hanson has evidently read very widely and absorbed and explained a great diversity of material. It is a very useful text, aimed squarely at the academic market, and as said there are too few titles on cinema audience studies still (it is a growing subject) not to call this book a welcome addition to the field. There is really isn’t anything quite like it which covers the whole range of British film exhibition.
Film audience at the New Egyptian Hall, London, 1907-08
That said, there need to be a few words of caution regarding its chapters on the silent era. For the most part the author has relied on secondary sources, and provides a useful summary of material to be found in Rachael Low and in the recent studies by Nicholas Hiley and Jon Burrows. However, while he has been attentive to arguments, he has not always alert when it comes to facts. There are several errors over dates (the ‘first’ British cinema, the Daily Bioscope, opened in 1906, not 1904) and numbers (there certainly weren’t forty films on offer at the inaugural British Kinetoscope exhibition in October 1894). There is also an unfortunate tendency to peddle old myths. For instance, we get the hackneyed story about people running away from film of an approaching train at the first Lumière show, despite the known fact that the December 1895 show did not feature Arrivée d’un train, and audiences in general did not run away in panic at films of approaching trains. Hanson has apparently read Stephen Bottomore’s subtle historical investigation of the ‘panicking’ audience phenomenon, but quotes from it as though unquestioningly supporting the myth. There are several such selective readings. In general Hanson is less at home with the early cinema period than he is with later developments, and it is a shame that some of the factual slips were not picked up on before publication (referring to the unquestionably male film historian Deac Rossell as a woman is another).
So do read it, but read the first two chapters with caution, and if you can check out the original essays by Bottomore, Hiley and Burrows which Hanson generously cites and which contain so much valuable primary information and insight.
If you are interested in early cinema audience studies, these are some of the key books to look out for:
- Richard Abel, Americanizing the Movies and ‘Movie-Mad’ Audiences, 1910-1914 (2006)
- Kathryn H. Fuller, At the Picture Show: Small Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture (1996)
- Douglas Gomery, Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States (1992)
- Michael Hammond, The Big Show: British Cinema Culture in the Great War (1914-1918) (2006)
- Lauren Rabinovitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies and Culture in Turn-of-the Century Chicago (1998)
- Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby, American Movie Audiences: From the Turn of the Century to the Early Sound Era (1999).
And the best single book, in my humblest opinion, covering the phenomenon of audiences in general and so placing early cinema audiences within wider contexts, is Richard Butsch’s The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750-1990 (2000). If you are looking for a place to start, start here. It is clear, inclusive and wise.