So, as promised, it’s cinema month here at the Bioscope, and let’s kick things off with a guide to operating your own motion picture theatre, produced in 1912, which is going into the Bioscope Library.
James F. Hodges’ Opening and Operating a Motion Picture Theatre: How it is Done Successfully is available from the Internet Archive. It was produced as a basic manual for the opportunist. As Hodges writes in his introduction:
This book is written with the view of giving to the novice in the Motion Picture Business information that will be of service to him in his efforts, and which might require much time and labor on his part to obtain. It is written not so much to guide the man in the business as it is to guide him who contemplates engaging in the business. In it is contained much information that will open his eyes at once to important matters at the beginning, so that he may start right.
This is a guide therefore in the mould of those similar texts from the time which encouraged the gullible to believe that they could become actors or screenplay writers for the price of the dollar that the book would cost them. Many at this time looked upon the cinema as an easy route to quick riches, with elementary set-up procedures and costs, to be followed by an endless procession of huddled masses with their nickels yearning for the silver screen. In truth, by 1912 the initial rush of cinema speculation was over, and Hodges’ guide is for those who had come a little too late to the party. But it is all the more interesting for how it explains the business to one who it assumes knows little or nothing about motion pictures.
Firstly, he lures the keen investor in with the promise of riches:
There are approximately 14,000 picture theatres in the United States, and these give two shows, at least, an evening and seat an average of 500 people for the two performances; thus 7,000,000 people patronize the picture theatres and combination picture and vaudeville theatres each evening. Figuring the admission averaging 7 1/2 cents, which is reasonable, for while the 5c. houses are in the majority, the higher priced theatres accommodate larger audiences, it will be seen that more than $500,000 is taken in nightly.
This does not take into consideration those houses that are open from 11 A.M. and from 1 P.M. on. This would add considerably to these figures probably 50% or about $300,000,000 per annum. More than $50,000,000 is invested in the Motion Picture industry in this country outside of the picture theatres. Seventy-five to one hundred negative films are made each week and more than 3,000 positives, to supply the demand of the 14,000 picture houses.
Interesting figures, but they assume that every cinema was full all the time, which was seldom the case. He goes on to advise over location (“The best place to locate a Motion Picture house is, of course, on a street with plenty of traffic, or just around the corner from a busy thoroughfare”), management, competition, audiences (“A manager will gain a pretty fair knowledge of the effect of his program upon his business by watching the audience as it passes out”), how films are rented from a film exchange (“A film service is generally made up of films of different ages. One film may be a week old, the next may be three weeks old and the third may be three months old. The price you pay for service will determine what service you get”) and the new phenomenon of the feature film.
Example of an attractive theatre front from Opening and Operating a Motion Picture Theatre
More follows on how to convert your building into a motion picture theatre (“It is absolutely essential, after deciding upon your location, to have plans of alterations submitted to the bureau of buildings, which will inspect the premises and pass upon seating capacity, material construction, etc.”), layout, lighting, seating (“For a small place 299 chairs are generally installed. This is because in most states the license for houses containing less than 300 seats is much lower than for houses containing over 300 seats”), projection equipment and electricity (here the book gets surprisingly technical), the screen, advertising, song slides, music (he recommends having an automatic piano in case the pianist fails to turn up), side-line revenues, and he gives these costs for salaries:
Machine operator, $15 to $24 per week
Pianist, $12 to $20 per week
Ticket seller, $6 to $8 per week
Ticket taker, $8 to $10 per week
Porter, $7 to $10 per week
Manager (probably yourself)
To this list may be added, if required:
Singer, $12 to $25 per week
Violinist, $10 to $20 per week
Drummer, $12 to $15 per week
Usher, $3 to $8 per week
Particularly interesting are the overall costs that he gives for costs for operating a small motion picture theatre:
So, are you tempted? If so, then James F. Hodges is waiting for you, because at the end of his book he gives you an address and tells you that he has a number of theatres throughout the United States available for sale, or he can join you up with a syndicate, if you can indicate how much money you are willing to invest. I wonder who tore out the form at the end of the book in answer to his call?
This reminds me of an antique Steve Martin routine, How to Make a Million Dollars and Pay No Taxes. “First, get a million dollars…”