Ahead of the 2020 Oscars, there is talk of the threat that streaming poses to traditional forms of cinema-going. This, however, is nothing new. The cinema industry has long been subject to fluctuations in audience figures, as Dr Sam Manning discovered in research for his forthcoming book, Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom: Decades of Decline, 1945–65, published by the Institute of Historical Research and University of London Press on 31 March. Moreover, as Dr Manning explains, better historical understanding of these trends can help today’s owners respond to the latest challenge to cinema attendance.
Last month, the Financial Times published an article detailing the increasing power of streaming services and the recent struggles of cinema exhibitors and the Hollywood film industry. Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Cinema Association, responded to this article stating that in 2018, the UK enjoyed its highest cinema admissions for 50 years. He claimed that while commentators have often predicted the decline of cinema, the refurbishment and opening of many new UK cinemas provides evidence of the industry’s health.
Clapp was correct to counter the doom mongering and pessimism of the original article. But it also led me, as a cinema historian, to wonder what historical research can add to the debate on contemporary cinema audiences.
My forthcoming book, Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom: Decades of Decline, 1945–65, explores the changing nature of post-war cinema audiences, considering how exhibitors responded to the dramatic post-war decline in cinema attendance. It doesn’t provide a blueprint for how to tackle contemporary issues, but it does show that cinema exhibitors need to respond to these challenges by considering broader social, economic and cultural developments.
The Financial Times article argued that a recent decline in box-office takings has forced big cinema chains to consolidate their interests. But this is hardly a new phenomenon. UK cinema admissions fell from their peak of 1.6 billion in 1946 to 750 million in 1958. In the latter year, the Rank Organisation introduced a national rationalisation policy and then closed many of its cinemas, merged the Odeon and Gaumont circuits, and converted some venues into dance halls.
The company observed how post-war population shifts and changing consumer spending habits were creating new patterns of cinema attendance. It understood that people were no longer happy to attend ageing ‘fleapits’ and were prepared to spend more money on better equipped venues. Despite cinema closures, Rank built several new profitable venues in more attractive areas.
These tactics were far more successful than the establishment of the Film Industry Defence Organisation, which used a levy from the sale of cinema tickets to purchase film rights and prevent television screenings. Both then and now, one of the key issues for exhibitors is the declining appeal of the cinema in relation to the growing appeal of the home. If attendances are declining, historical research shows that perhaps it is better for cinema exhibitors to improve the service they offer and to respond to broader social developments, rather than to compete directly with a rival whose economic strength will only continue to rise.
Many box-office commentators fail to mention those cinemas that don’t typically show the blockbuster films which cinema chains so heavily rely on. By ignoring the smaller venues that screen a broad range of independent and international films it is impossible to fully understand cinema culture. It is easier to quantify the health of cinema through attendance figures and box-office data than it is to qualitatively assess the social and cultural importance of cinemas to the cities and towns where they are located.
In 2018, I researched the fifty-year history of Queen’s Film Theatre, Northern Ireland’s only full-time cultural cinema. It was only by consulting archival material and through speaking to audience members and staff from the cinema’s past that I gained a sense of what the venue meant to the local community and the various ways that it contributed to Belfast’s cinema culture. In this case, looking at the cinema’s history allowed me to understand the important role it plays in the present.
I am currently a researcher on the European Cinema Audiences project, which investigates historical audiences and cinema culture. Over the past two years, I’ve recorded oral history interviews with people who went to Leicester cinemas in the 1950s. When talking about their memories and experiences of cinema attendance, audience members often compare the past to the present, discussing the ways they continue to engage with the films first seen in their youth.
The large majority of these interviewees watch Talking Pictures, a free-to-air television channel that draws 2.6 million viewers a week with screenings of films from the 1930s to the 1980s. This generation may not visit their local multiplex or stream content on Netflix or Amazon Prime (which offer very few older titles), but they do engage with cinema by other means. And platforms such as Talking Pictures often encourage viewers to attend cinema screenings aimed specifically at older audiences.
It is impossible to draw direct parallels with the past. But thinking historically warns against overstatement in light of recent declines in cinema attendance. Looking back encourages us to take a broader view of the reasons why people attend the cinema and how exhibitors might engage different audiences.
Dr Sam Manning teaches at Queen’s University Belfast and is a postdoctoral researcher on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded European Cinema Audiences project. Previously an AHRC research fellow at Queen’s researching the fifty-year history of Queen’s Film Theatre, he has published articles in Cultural and Social History and Media History. His forthcoming monograph, Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom: Decades of Decline, 1945–65, will be published on 31 March by the University of London Press, as part of the Institute of Historical Research and Royal Historical Society’s New Historical Perspectives series.