On Feb 10, 2011 (rescheduled from the blizzard-plagued previous week), Gregory Waller of Indiana University presented his talk "Tracking the Non-Theatrical: The American Cinema in 1915." The response was provided by Northwestern's Scott Curtis.
In this talk, Waller takes a thorough, wide-ranging look at American non-theatrical film production and exhibition in the year 1915 to argue for a re-orientation of our conception of film history in which commercially-released films are but one aspect of “the cinema” among several. Waller focused on the circulation and exhibition of moving pictures outside of what we normally think of as the film industry and the traditional movie theater, as well as the production of educational or industrial film.
Waller argues that designations such as “non-theatrical” and “educational” must be understood in a not-so-stable dialectic with “theatrical” and “entertainment,” terms that were perpetually evolving. Particular attention was paid to the role of sponsorship (including that of corporations, government, religious organizations and other philanthropic institutions), the practice of mixed or multiple-media programming, the targeting of specific audiences, and the recirculation and repurposing of “used” motion pictures. He looks at exhibition practices in the US military (and the related, targeted advertisement of exhibition equipment), the sponsored, motion picture-reliant exhibits at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and the importance of lecturers to exhibition even in more traditional cinema venues. In the PPIE, for example, films were screened as part of an exhibit in a permanent venue called a “theater” that charged no admission, were screened several times daily with a lecture, pitched as informative and education, and were promotional in intent and clearly identified as sponsored by a company or a public institution such as a local chamber of commerce.
Waller looked closely at the Maxwell Industrial Company’s FROM MOLTEN STEEL TO AUTOMOBILE industrial film, advertised as a “$40,000 5 Reel Feature Film Sensation.” Originally presented in theaters by local merchants who distributed free tickets as a sort of entertainment despite its educational, promotional origins, the film moved to being used in more obviously non-theatrical venues such as college lecture halls and churches. By 1916, the film was made available to local YMCA’s across the country by the YMCA’s national Motion Picture Bureau. He then followed with other case studies, including that of films of Sir Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expedition. The films were presented around the United States along with an illustrated lecture by Mawson and, frequently, an extremely varied program of other educational films (such as films on tuberculosis or the Montessori educational system). Soon, they were being shown around the country with intertitles or with another lecturer standing in for Mawson for additional theatrical runs and then for university screenings. They ended up as an attraction in the late ‘teens on the summertime Chatauqua circuits of small towns across the country.
This picture of what Waller calls “multi-sited” cinema is, Waller notes, one that barely even mention important venues such as prisons, hospitals, churches and schools. Although comprehensiveness may not even be possible, the instances he presented do exemplify and also complicate some of his propositions about sponsorship, programming, targeted audiences, and patterns of circulation. These instances, Waller asserts, point us toward a more expansive sense of the terrain of multi-sited cinema, hinting at the intertwined possibilities, parameters, and trajectories of the non-theatrical and educational in 1915, the moment which arguably marks the coalescence of motion pictures into the Movies.