Clockwise from top left: Copenhagen Cinema, Variety Picture Palace, Hornsey Palace, Electric Vaudeville, from

There are those who revere old cinemas and what remains of them. Particularly they like those cinemas from the earliest years who have an unbroken history of film exhibition, especially when they retain some of the original decor – cinemas such as the Notting Hill Gate or The Phoenix in East Finchley. Or much if the building is lost or its purpose changed, they still point to that piece of plasterwork or signage that shows that a little of the cinema still remains.

But I like cinemas that are cinemas no more. Time moves on, the purposes of buildings change, and just as many of the first cinemas in the UK were converted from shops, halls or roller skating rinks, so as their lives as cinemas came to end they took on new lives as other shops, apartment blocks, restaurants, flats, or just became empty spaces where a building once stood. Cinemas that are no longer cinemas – that’s where the real poetry lies.

It is this rich association between past and present purpose that informs a new project, website and exhibition by London artist Sam Nightingale entitled Islington’s Lost Cinemas. Nightingale’s project aims to

unearth, collect, and illuminate the multiple histories and present-day realities of Islington’s cinematic past by developing and presenting an online archive: ‘The Islington’s Lost Cinemas Website’, which includes:

  • photographic documentation of the historic sites of cinema in Islington: both past and present;
  • historical research that combines moving image history with the specifics of cinema development in Islington;
  • the reminiscences of Islington’s own community: through the invitation for those who remember the cinemas to contribute their memories and photographs of the cinemas.

The website has begun with eight ‘lost’ cinemas, hauntingly photographed in black-and-white on the project website, with background histories for each building, and an invitation to Islington residents to participate by contributing memories or images to the site. They include the Cosy Corner Picture Playhouse (opened 1911, now an office block), the People’s Picture Playhouse (opened 1913, now local authority housing) and the Electric Vaudeville (opened 1909, now a sauna and restaurant). More are promised on the site in the future. An exhibition of the photographs, Spectres of Film: Islington’s Lost Cinemas and other Spectral Spaces, is currently taking place at A. Brooks Art in Hoxton Street. It runs until 30 June.

I had happy time a few years ago working on a research project in London’s cinemas (and other kinds of film venue) before 1914. I found arund 1,000 which had existed in London between 1906 and 1914, some of them purpose-built cinemas but most of them buildings adapted for the purose (often shops) or spaces which had other purposes besides showing films (halls, public baths, boxing arenas, arcades etc.). They are all listed on the London Project database and if we had had the time, money and indeed imagination those bare records should have been photographed much as Nightingale has done – and geo-located, and linked to film programme records, and to other London history resources, and so much more. Ah well.

When undertaking the London Project (with co-researcher Simon Brown, who worked on film businesses, while I focussed on cinemas and audiences), I got a sixth sense for detecting buildings that once were cinemas and are no more. There was something about them, some nameless isolation, that made you think – a cinema stood here once. All that activity, light, laughter, music, part of a great change in the leisure lives of Londoners, and here it is now, a block of flats or a fast food restaurant. It’s a particular psychogeographical pleasure, wandering through London spotting where so many cinemas once stood (there were 2.8 cinemas per square mile in London in 1911), inhabiting a London present with a London past and knowing that in time all these buildings will change purpose once again.

The former Biograph Theatre, Kilburn (operated 1910-1917), from Picture Palaces

If you are interested to go in pursuit of London’s lost cinemas, the first place to start is the London Project database, which lists most of the film venues of London 1906-1914, each identifiable according to London borough, and in some cases with information on the status of the building today. Picture Palaces is an evocative site by Terence Nunn documenting twenty London cinemas, some still active, others changed, each photographed and with a short history. The huge Cinema Treasures site is the best guide to cinemas worldwide (including cinemas that are no longer cinemas), with some London and UK buildings, though the emphasis is on the USA.

As for reading, the essential accompaniment to Islington’s Lost Cinemas is Chris Draper’s very fine (but also very rare) Islington’s Cinemas & Studios (Islington Libraries, c.1988). Other books on the cinemas of the various London areas include:

  • Mark Aston, The Cinemas of Camden (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, 1997)
  • Jeremy Buck, Cinemas of Haringey (Hornsey Historial Society, 2010)
  • Allen Eyles and Keith Skone, London’s West End Cinemas (Keytone Publications, 1991)
  • Ken George, ‘Two Sixpennies Please’: Lewisham’s Early Cinemas (Lewisham Local History Society, 1987)
  • Cliff Wadsworth, Cinemas and Theatres of Willesden ( CAW Books, 2000)

Finally, there are various Flickr groups that collect photographs of cinemas, in London and worldwide. Former Theaters, however, mostly gets the idea of documenting that which is now lost, though it still likes its building to have some hint of their entertainment past. But no one, so far as I have been able discover, is interested in cinemas transformed completely into something else, so that only the ghost of that cinema remains, in the way that Islington’s Lost Cinemas shows.

Perhaps others may be inspired to take the story further. There is more to old cinemas than architecture and nostalgia.

New York, New York

A rare photograph showing the interior of a film business preview theatre, at the offices of American Cinephone Co., 124 East 25th Street, NYC, in 1910, from the MCNY Collections Portal

Now here’s an excellent resource for you. In 2010 the Museum of the City of New York launched its Collections Portal, opening up nearly 100,000 archival images of New York City to the web world. The collection is being added to all the time – a substantial collection of digitised postcards has just been added – and needless to say it offers plenty for the researcher interested in silent films.

The site is simple to use. The front page offers a striking browse option, where you can scroll laterally through images on the themes of Bridges, People, Waterfront, Skylines or Prints for Sale; or else by Borough (Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan etc.), or featured photographer. There is a simple search option, with the advanced search giving you the options of keyword, artist/maker, subject term, excluded subject term, or accession number. There is a lightbox facility for registered users. Each image has a title, description, original dimensions given, date, and is subject indexed under a variety of terms, encouraging further browsing as each term is hyperlinked to further search results (though note that, for example, ‘motion pictures’ as a linked term gets 81 hits, but ‘motion pictures’ simply typed into the search box gets 257 hits. Classification is helpful, but always selective). There is powerful zoom function, though paradoxically you have to squint to find it (look out for the mini magnifying glass bottom left of any image).

Interior of the Automatic Vaudeville theatre, 48 East 14th Street, NYC, c.1904. Mutoscope viewers can be seen on the right-hand side

There is plenty on film-related subjects, and a lot of them from the silent period. It is best to keep search terms simple, and using the terms ‘movie’, ‘film’ or ‘motion picture’ yield the best results (our traditional test term, ‘kinetoscope’, brings up four images). The emphasis is not so much on production as on the distribution, sales and exhibition side of things. So there are are some fascinating interiors of New York film businesses, including American Cinephone, Mutual, Empire Film Co., Pathescope and others, plus exteriors of cinemas and other venues – among the earliest film-related images is a set showing an amusement arcade from c.1904, the Automatic Vaudeville, which includes a line-up of peepshow Mutoscopes among its visitor attractions – a handy reminder that not all films of the period were experienced in cinemas. All in all one gets a picture of the early film business somewhat stripped of its glamour, but very much a part of the ebb and flow of the business life of a great city.

What should be especially interesting for researchers is to seek out film-related subjects which the MCNY people have not identified. Among the many street views and postcard images of early 20th century New York City, there are going to be those which show cinemas, nickelodeons, variety theatres which showed film, and so on, which may not be the main subject of the image. It’s an activity worth undertaking, as I know from having searched not unprofitably for similar images of early London film venues in postcards.

A motion picture industry employees’ ball, New York, c.1910. Among the companies whose pennants can be seen are Moving Picture World, Nicholas Power Co., Hog Reisinger, Thanhouser, Great Northern, Lux, Lumiere, Imp, Buffalo and Rex

If you do find anything new, you should tell the people at MCNY. Their website invites interested users to submit new information or corrections, and I can confirm that they reply promptly, and make amendments quickly.

Finally, although the site is partly aimed as the commercial market, with the lightbox and information on rights and reproduction fees, they also say that any image can be reproduced for non-commercial purposes on personal blogs, for research or other academic study. Good for them, and thank you.

Go explore.

Cinema context, once more

The Rembrandtplein, Amsterdam in 1934, from Cinema Context

In the very early days of the Bioscope, when its total readership could probably have been fitted into a broom cupboard with some comfort, we reviewed Cinema Context, one of the leading film-related resources anywhere. Four years on, the broom cupboard has expanded somewhat, and it’s time we returned the resource, and devoted more attention to it. So let’s do so.

Cinema Context is a database of Dutch film culture. There’s something about the Netherlands that makes it just about the right size for a country when it comes to apportioning things (geographically, demographically, economically), and it’s the case when it comes to film databases. At the heart of Cinema Context is data on all of the Dutch cinemas, including travelling cinemas, that have existed since 1900 – there are 1,615 of them – and so far as I know the Netherlands it the only country to have comprehensively documented its every single film venue. The venues have then been mapped to almost every film shown in a Dutch cinema up to 1960 (45,582 of them), so that one knows not only what was shown, but when it was shown, and where. This information has been taken from a wide variety of film programme information, from which data has been added on musicians, live performers, entry prices and more. There is a whole range of people (4,259) and companies (1,611) listed, from cinema managers to distributors, so one does really get a sense of the depth and extent of Dutch film culture. It is, by the way, a bi-lingual site – Dutch and English.

What Cinema Context does not provide is much in the way of filmographic detail, but it does link every identifiable film to its record on the Internet Movie Database, so it is possible for the dedicated researcher to trace not only which films but which performers very popular in which part of the country, and how such presence changed over time and territory. The site does not exist to give you every answer, but rather to provide a solid basis on which to go looking for answers.

There are simple and advanced search options. The latter invites you to search across five categories: films, cinemas, programmes, people and companies. Under programmes, you can search for programmes showing more than one film, those from travelling cinemas only, and search within particular dates. So, for example, if I look up Alex Benner’s Bioscope, a travelling cinema which appeared at a fair near the town of Roosendal on 24 December 1911, I get its position on a Google map, a list of the films shown (all hyperlinked to their own page and ultimately the IMDb) and a listing of the archival resources used. And the films are (with their Dutch release titles, though there is cross-referencing to original titles):

Kabeljauwvangst op IJsland
De gelofte
Het interessante artikel in de courant
De jonge circusrijders
De meloenen op hol
Door eigen kracht zijn eer gered
Het witte costuum van Nauke
Wil het mij vergeven
Max gaat hoepelen

There’s a browsing option, which is probably the best way into the resource. Here you can look across cinemas by year or by city; films by country, year, title (original or Dutch); by company (exhibitors or distributors, but not production companies); by people (name or function); and by censorship rating, year or file number. This latter element is an exciting development. Every film record between 1928 and 1960 on Cinema Context has been cross-linked to the record of its file from the Netherlands Board of Film Censors, as held by the Nationaal Archief in the Hague. It does just point you to a catalogue entry rather than a digitised document or transcript, but let’s not be greedy. Cinema Context remains a work in progress, and is keen to grow further. Such additional features will be added in time.

And there’s more. The site offers some useful statistics, such as cinema attendances and film production year by year in the Netherlands and selected cities, a listing of all Dutch film magazines, and a map of the country which links you to cinemas on the database.

Back in 2007 I wrote:

What is the finest film reference source on the Web, for all film let alone silent film? With all due respect to the Internet Movie Database, I think it is Cinema Context, a Dutch site created by Karel Dibbets and the University of Amsterdam.

I think I still stand by that, though it may now share first place with Germany’s Filmportal, while resources produced since 2007, notably the University of North Carolina’s more localised and more specialised Going to the Show, demonstrate how to take this sort of data to the next level through the new search tools that are now available. And I see no reason to change my original summing up of the resource: “This is the new film research. Every nation should have the same”.

I don’t know the degree to which these databases of cinemas rather than films have succeeded in opening up cinema history to social and cultural historians in general, and not just a film studies audience, but that has to be the intention. Resources such as Cinema Context must exist to facilitate the fundamental question that should be asked of film history, which is how it related to society. My feeling is that such databases – other examples are the London Project, the Scottish Cinemas and Theatres Project, the Utrecht Project, and the huge American site Cinema Treasures – still direct themselves primarily towards an audience which understands film culture first and foremost. They may seek to answer new questions, but it is unclear if they are sufficiently reaching out to those who are asking those questions. It is when Cinema Context or the London Project map themselves to population figures, transportation data, domestic expenditure, or the competition from alternative attractions, that we may really start to compute the historical position of cinema in society.

Silents to see before you die

Do silent films ever get seen as cult films? There are some cult silents – Pandora’s Box is an obvious example – but for the most part silent films get billed as classics and tend to attract audiences that are a mixture of cineastes and nostalgists, augmented at specialist festivals by film archivists and academics. Silent films are understood to appeal to a very select taste, though there are some efforts to bill the comedies of the era as being the equal of those today and hence as having appeal for a general audience (of course they are frequently hugely superior to the comedies of today, but that’s not quite my point).

But it seems to be a rare thing to promote silent films as cult viewing – not as something that it would be worthy to experience, but something word-of-mouth cool. I was wondering why this wasn’t attempted more often as I went to the Prince Charles cinema in London’s Leicester Square last Thursday to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The Prince Charles is London’s home of cult cinema. It specialises in picking up on films just out of general release which it can offer at cheaper prices to the impoverished students that make up a large part of its audiences. As well as these recently recent releases it has repertory seasons of cult films, retrospectives, ‘films to see before you die’, audience participation singalonga films (Sound of Music, Grease) and the inevitable Rocky Horror Picture Show.

And now it has silent films. On the last Thursday of every month the Prince Charles is showing a silent film, and is attracting the sorts of audiences you just don’t see at any other sort of silent film screening. The initiative has only just started, with The Cameraman shown last month, Hunchback last week, and Aelita in February. So an audience is still being built up, but it looks like word-of-mouth is working already, because the reasonably-sized cinema with its curious reverse raking was nearly full, with those attending being young, enthusiastic, cine-literate to a degree no doubt, but also just keen to have a good time.

Lon Chaney as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, from

It was a great audience to be a part of, with a palpable sense of discovery in the air. Unfortunately, if you are going to build up a cult reputation, films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame are not the way to do it. It looks spectacular, of course. It is the archetypal historical screen romance. It has an iconic performance from Lon Chaney. But the direction (by the obscure Wallace Worsley) is sluggish and uninspired. There is no real human feeling to it (aside from Chaney, of course). Moreover the film looked terrible (I believe only poor elements survive), and I think it was a DVD that they were projecting. If you had prejudices against silent films before you went in, you would have gone out having had them confirmed.

On the plus side there was John Sweeney playing the piano in bravura style, with a marvellous set of dissonant chords mimicking the ringing of bells to open the film, and he brought out the best of what was on the screen. Sometimes the audience laughed at its quaintness, sometimes they laughed with it. Certainly they stayed with it. You got a good sense that they would be coming back for more, and Aelita on February 24th is a good choice for the next screening, with live music acompaniment by Minima.

I hope very much that this experiment continues, and that silents start to be billed as films that you have to see before you die (alas, the Prince Charles lapses into the bad habit shown by others and bills the films as ‘classics’ – we shouldn’t want to see these films just because they are worthy). With Metropolis having broken out of the cinematheques to reach some general theatres, there is something in the air about silent films, which suggests that there are new audiences out there eager to discover the best in them. The films just need to go to where those audiences are. The Prince Charles is showing the way.

The London Project

Next up for Catalogue Month (our survey of online catalogues and databases, selected for inscription in the Bioscope Library) is The London Project. I did write about this in the very early days of the Bioscope, in a very cursory manner, and it is high time that we returned to it. It’s a work I know quite a bit about, since I produced half of it, and it’s something of which I’m quite proud, even if the database has become a little compromised since the time when it was published in 2005, because it has not been possible to update it since. Databases should never be allowed to stand still. It is contrary to their nature.

The London Project database documents the film venues and film businesses to be found in London during the period 1896-1914 – around 1,000 venues and 1,000 businesses all told. It was the major output of a year-long project (2004-05) sponsored by the AHRB Centre for British Film and Television Studies, hosted by Birkbeck, University of London, and managed by Professor Ian Christie. The two researchers were Simon Brown (working on film businesses) and myself (working on cinemas and audiences). As well as the database we produced several essays, conference presentations and a touring exhibition (‘Moving Pictures Come to London’). But the star of the show was the database.

Interior view of Hale’s Tours (a film show set inside a mock train carriage) on London’s Oxford Street, which first opened May 1906

The London Project documents film businesses in London 1896-1914 and film venues (a more inclusive term than cinemas) from the date of the first identifiable cinema in London (The Daily Bioscope, opened May 1906), again to the start of the First World War. The information is taken from a wide range of sources, including film and stage year books, film trade papers, street and business directories, the records of the London County Council, local newspapers, published and unpublished memoirs, police reports and company records. The database allows searching by name of venue or business, address, London borough (as they were pre-1914), by business type (e.g. production, distribution, production, exhibition, venue), and by person (including notes relating to people).

A typical film business record will give you name, address (and any secondary addresses), category and tp of business, original share capital, trading information, the names of directors, and sources. Names and sources are hyperlinked to other records, making the pursuit of such links a fascinating business as you discover that, say, Cecil Hepworth was not only the managing director of the Hepworth Manfacturing Company, but a director of Film Agency (Russia) Ltd. You find all sorts of unexpected additional business interests and alliances in these lists of directors, especially as we chosen to interpret the film business quite broadly and to include equipment manufacturers, cinema uniform suppliers, electrical engineers, vending machine suppliers, musical instrument suppliers, and so on, reflecting the larger picture of what the cinema business really was (as indicated by the lists of such companies provided by the film trade year books of the period).

Film venues covers every sort of entertainment place in London which showed film on a regular basis betwen 1906 and 1914. That means cinemas, of course, but also theatres, music halls, town halls, sports arenas, converted shops, public baths and amusement parlours. The records are not as extensive as those for businesses (more’s the pity) but they do give you name, address, audience capacity, notes, related businesses and people, and sources of information. So it is possible to trace every cinema managed by Montagu Pyke or by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd, or to pursue every film show surveyed by the Metropolitan Police in 1909 at a time of social alarm at these new dens of vice which allowed the young of either sex to mix unchaperoned in the dark.

The Bioscopic Team Rooms, aka The Circle in the Square, the first true cinema in Leicester Square, opened June 1909

One feature we were particularly pleased with is the map of London boroughs, which allows you to search for businesses and venues in say Chelsea, Wandsworth, Lambeth or Poplar. It was an important part of the project that we were able to connect cinema history to social history and in particular to the many other histories of London. Geographical data is a good way of helping to achieve this, though we had neither the time nor the resources to take this further and use GIS data or mapping software.

Indeed there is much about the database that could do with an update, as new information has come in and there are plenty of corrections that need to be made. And if only we could have added pictures. But the project money ended in 2005 and it has not been possible to add to the database since. It is hosted by Birkbeck, and I hope that the university continues to do so and to maintain the URLs as they are – each individual business and venue has a unique web address with its ID number included in the URL, essential for citation and future reference.

If you want to pursue the project’s work further and look at what we wrote, four of our essays are freely available online (at present):

The London Project website itself has background information on the project and on the London of the 1896-1914 period. The database is a freely-available resource, and even if the website is not being updated there is still an email address on the site to which you can send fresh information. It’s being collected, somewhere, and maybe one day a fresher, more extensive London Project database will emerge, one that might even go beyond 1914 or beyond the confines of London. We can but hope.

Kinematograph Year Book

Here’s some really welcome news from those sterling people at the British Film Institute. The BFI National Library has started digitising some key reference works that either are BFI-produced or sufficiently ancient enough to be out of copyright. They are being made available as PDFs and are free for anyone to download. Top of the pile and particularly pleasing to see is the Kinematograph Year Book for 1914. The Kine Year Book (The Kinematograph Year Book Diary and Directory, to give it its full name) was one of two British film trade annuals established before the First World War, the other being the Bioscope Annual and Trades Directory, first published in 1910. The Kine Year Book was established in 1914 to accompany the Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly trade journal and is an invaluable directory of the British film business, listing every producer, distributor, equipment manufacturer, cinema, representative body and much more, in the country. It’s necessary to qualify that a little, because the existence of two film trade year books meant that some businesses registered with one and not the other, but you are not going to miss much. It also supplied a detailed account of the previous year’s activity in British film (in this case 1913). Here’s a list of the book’s contents:

A Retrospect Of The Year
Kinematograph Finance in 1913
Survey of the Year’s Technical Progress
Important Film Subjects of the Year
Picture Theatre Music during 1913
The Law and the Kinematograph
Interesting Social Functions
New Theatres Opened in 1913
New Companies Registered in 1913
Review of Decisions made under the
Cinematograph Act 1909
Important Law Cases of the Year
Pictorial Reminiscences extending
over 40 years – 1873-1914
Exhibitions during 1913
Trade Associations
Useful Tables and Recipes

Film Manufacturers and Agents
Film Renters
Apparatus and Accessory
Picture Theatres in Great Britain
– London
– Provincial
Supplementary List of Provincial
Picture Theatres
Picture Companies and Theatre

A slight downside is that the book has been digitised as plain images i.e. without any word-searchability, which is a great shame. it is to be hoped that the BFI can revisit the digitisation with fresh software to make the ebook all the more useful to researchers – and to do the same for any other silent era books is has in the pipeline. However the individual section are bookmarked in the PDF, which is a help.

Among the other publications the BFI has made available, do look out for Linda Wood’s British Films 1927-1939, a key catalogue and statistical information source for the period, originally published in 1986 (and much used by me ever since). The other books and booklets that have been made available this way are:

  • The Stats: an overview of the film, television, video and DVD industries 1990-2003
  • Producing the Goods? British Film Production since 1991
  • Back to the Future; the Fall and Rise of the British Film Industry in the 1980s
  • British Films 1971-1981
  • British Film Industry (1980)
  • At a cinema near you: strategies for sustainable local cinema development (2002)
  • A Filmmakers’ Guide to Distribution and Exhibition (2001)
  • How to Set Up a Film Festival (2001)
  • Lowdown: the low budget funding guide (1999)

The Kinematograph Year Book 1914 is available in PDF format, size 30MB, and has been lovingly placed in the Bioscope Library.

From silent screen to digital screen

The Bioscope on the pier at Weston-Super-Mare, c.1910

From Silent Screen to Digital Screen: A Century of Cinema Exhibition is a two-day conference to be held at De Montfort University, Leicester, 10-11 July 2010. The conference, to be hosted by the Cinema and Television History (CATH) Research Centre in DMU’s Faculty of Humanities, will celebrate a century of cinema exhibition since the Cinematograph Act 1909, the first major legislation relating to moving pictures in Britain, coming into force on 1 January 1910.

Keynote speakers will include Richard Gray of the Cinema Theatre Association, and others to be confirmed.

Proposals are invited on any aspect of cinema exhibition including:
audiences, technologies, cinema design and building, programming,
legislation and other aspects of the cinemagoing experience. If interested you should sent abstracts (500 words) with a short biography including contact details to Stuart Hanson (shanson [at] and Steve Chibnall (schib [at] by 23 April 2010. There isn’t a web page for the conference as yet, but I’ll add one to this post just as soon as one appears.

The conference gains its title from Stuart Hanson’s recent book From Silent Screen to Multi-screen: A History of Cinema Exhibition in Britain Since 1896, a commendable and rather useful work, which was covered by the Bioscope (a little too nitpickingly, I fear) here.

Update: The deadline for abstracts has now been put back to 14 May.


‘An odd type of theatre front’: illustration from Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting

One of the indications of the speculative, exploratory nature of early cinema is the uncertainty felt at the time over what it or its products were to be called. Living pictures? Animated photography? Cinema? Kinema? Kinematography? Motion pictures? Moving pictures? Photoplays? Bioscope? It’s worth bearing in mind such terms when searching for early cinema subjects in digitised book and newspaper sources (alongside such other handy terms as kinetoscope, biograph, electric theatre etc.). One term you might not think to use is ‘motography’. I’m not sure how long the lifespan was of this word, but for a short period it was used by some seeking for a distinctive, all-encompassing term for the new art – indeed it was the title of an American film journal of this period (it ran 1909-1918 and was originally called The Nickelodeon).

The term was certainly favoured by John B. Rathbun, author of Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting: A comprehensive volume treating the principles of motography; the making of motion pictures; the scenario; the motion picture theater; the projector; the conduct of film exhibiting; methods of coloring films; talking pictures, etc. (1914), the latest volume to go into the Bioscope Library.

John B. Rathbun was a technical writer (and an associate editor of Motography, which helps explains his attachment to the term). His book is yet another of those all-purpose guides to the new industry of motion pictures, a blend of potted history, social history, technical explanation and marvelment at the rise of this extraordinary business and the huge sums that it was starting to earn. As indicated by its subtitle, Rathbun’s book takes us through the principles, production processes and exhibition of motion pictures up to 1914. It is addressed to a reader with a general interest in the phenomenon, though it sometimes forgets this.

The book starts with the familiar pre-history of the medium, from Zoetropes to Muybridge to Edison to motion picture projection. The principles of the taking and projecting of films are covered, with practical information on film stock itself, including development, printing and colour tinting. Film production follows, covering both studio and non-fiction work, then the almost obligatory chapter on the mysteries of scenario writing with suggestions on how to sell your scenario to the studios. If the lay reader did not fancy his or her chances as a scriptwriter, then they might consider opening a motion picture theatre as the best way to make money out of this new business, and advice follows on setting up a cinema, putting together the programme (with handy advice on dealing with different ages of film reels), advertising the show, an interesting discussion on whether to include vaudeville acts or not, and operating profitable sidelines.

The filming of an ‘industrial’, with Cooper-Hewitt mercury vapour lamps on the right, from Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting

A long chapter on the technicalities of projection seems to belong to another book, and might have been enough to scare off one or two would-be speculators. Rathbun follows this with guidelines on local censorship laws and regulations, then rounds off matters with an interesting chapter on colour (covering stencil colour, the Friese-Greene process, Kinemacolor and Gaumont Chronochrome), stereoscopy and synchronised sound films.

Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting is rather muddled in the guidelines it provides, as it is unsure at what level or precisely to whom it is directing its advice. Buyers at the time might have been less than satisfied, but for us now it has plenty of handy information on how the industry was perceived and some useful data and social observations relating to the exhibition sector. There are illustrations of studio interiors, laboratories, wardrobe rooms, camera operators, cinema floor plans, projection booths and so on, to add to its value as a reference source. It’s available from the Internet Archive, and into the Bioscope Library it goes.

Scotland’s cinemas

The Hippodrome, Hope Street, Bo’ness, Scotland, which opened in 1912, is now a listed building, and re-opened as a cinema in 2009, from

The Scottish Cinemas and Theatres Project is a website dedicated to recording and archiving the historic cinema architectural heritage of Scotland. It also acts as a information resource on Scottish cinemas as a subject for social history. Supported by a network of volunteers, the website aims to provide a photographic and historical record of all surviving cinema buildings in Scotland, including those whose purpose and appearance have changed from when they were first cinemas.

This is a fine resource which shows the power of networking in building up a valuable resource collectively. It has a great deal to interest the silent film researcher, as many of the cinemas and former cinemas that it documents have histories that stretch back to our era. Unfortunately there’s no searching by year or time period, so you’ll just have to browse.

At the heart of the website is the Scottish Cinema Database. This contains details of over 1,130 cinemas from over 240 different places, well over half of which are illustrated by photographs (often of the building as it is now rather than in its heyday). As indicated, the database option itself is a little limited in that there is no browse option – one simply enters a keyword for searching across name, address, town, architect etc., with results refinable by all cinemas, surviving cinemas, demolished cinemas or open cinemas. This is fine if you know what you are looking for, but for most the A-Z option will be more helpful, while the website puts a special focus on the cinemas of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. The information supplied varies widely, from a one-line description, to detailed, authoritative and well-illustrated accounts, including many historical images from the collection of the Scottish Screen Archive. Collectively the accounts document not only the rise and fall and sometimes rise again of the cinema as a place of entertainment, but the mutability of such urban spaces, as they move in social purpose from places of screen entertainment to become restaurants, garages, hotels, shops and banks. The unevenness of the data makes it of limited use for the systematic study of Scottish cinemas, since one would want consistency of dates, ownership, capacity etc., but as a general finding guide and social record it serves its purpose admirably.

The website also provides a selection of articles on cinema history, a section on listed cinemas and another on cinemas at risk (taken from Scotland’s Buildings at Risk register). There is a somewhat selective links page, and a section showing images of unidentified cinemas. There’s even a section which casts its eye further afield to include some cinemas elsewhere in the UK and worldwide.

All of which is a prompt for the Bioscope to produce a post which surveys cinema databases around the world. The team at Bioscope Towers is already working on it.

The Regent Street cinema project


The BBC News site has just put up one of its excellent audio slideshows, in which a short sound interview with someone is accompanied by a series of related images. The latest slide show is The first silver screen, and comprises an interview with the Vice Chancellor of the University of Westminster, Professor Geoffrey Petts, talking about the university’s lecture theatre in its Regent Street, London campus, which in 1896 when it was known as the Marlborough Hall was the venue for the debut of the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe. A campaign has been launched to restore the venue as a multimedia facility and teaching space for our students and the wider community. They have already received a million pound donation from the MBI Al Jaber Foundation – a Saudi billionaire, according to the BBC site. The target is £5m.

Well, it is good to know that there are Saudi billionaires out there who care about the restoration of early cinema venues. The BBC piece says that the venue counts as Britain’s first cinema, because it was where the first public show of moving pictures took place in the UK. Unfortunately this is wrong on three counts. Firstly, it was not a cinema – it was a lecture hall in what was then known as the Polytechnic, home to many a magic lantern show and popular lecture on discoveries and new technologies, with the Lumière films being introduced as a new scientific attraction on 20 February 1896. Secondly, the first showing of moving picture films in Britain has taken place a year and half before then, about ten minutes’ walk away at 70 Oxford Street, when on 17 October 1894 the Edison Kinetoscope (a peepshow device showing celluloid film on loops) had its debut. But even if you are talking about projected film shows, then the Regent Street Polytechnic still isn’t first, because the photographer Birt Acres had already given a projected film show to members of the Lyonsdown Photographic Club on 10 January 1896 and to members of the Royal Photographic Society at 12 Hanover Square, London on 14 January 1896.

But setting aside such nitpickery, the Polytechnic was the venue where motion picture films on a screen truly took off in the UK, and it is a marvellous, evocative venue with an important history that the present university clearly values highly.

There is further information about what they are calling the Regent Street cinema project on the University of Westminster’s website, including the above promo video which knits together the cinema of the 1890s with the filmmaking of today by the university’s students. If you want to contribute to the fund, or you know any other Saudi billionaires who might be encouraged to do so, visit the site (which has the bold URL and read on.


Interior of the former Marlborough Hall, at the University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London

  • There’s a timeline for the Polytechnic on the University of Westminster site, which gives the basic history of the site.
  • The Lumière brothers weren’t actually there for the debut shows – instead they were hosted by their friend, the magician Félicien Trewey – read his story on Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema.
  • The Polytechnic, established was established in 1881 (out of the old Royal Polytechnic Institution) by Quintin Hogg – read about him on
  • Information on the pre-cinema projection of lantern images at the Poly is on the Magic Lantern Society site.
  • There’s a well-illustrated documentary from 2007 on Louis Lumière made by University of Westminster students Alexander Marinica and Mamoon Ahmed on YouTube – part one and part two – which has some very thoughtful contributions from historian Deac Rossell on the Lumières’ achievements.