This is an analysis of the social aspects of film viewing based on discussions between Greg Usher and his son Danny. Greg was born the year the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built, during the depths of the Great Depression and Danny in the year decimal currency i.e. dollars and cents replaced pounds and pence. For Greg, cinema as a child was the social highlight of the week. One significant movie moment for Greg was seeing the original Japanese version of Godzilla (Honda 1954) when it first released in Tokyo. Danny’s cinema experience was more of an event to see the latest blockbuster film on the big screen. The following aspects of film will be discussed: the social importance and relevance of film attendance; social influences and impact; how movie producers marketed their films towards audience based on this influence; the effects of segregation and discrimination on film attendance.
Social aspect of film attendance
From the 1930s to the 1960s, Australian cinemas were the social centre for many a suburb and town. While movies like Gone With The Wind (Fleming, Cukor and Wood 1939) held sway across the country, it was often the latest instalment of Tarzan (1932 to 1948) with Johnny Weissmuller that appealed to Greg and his friends. During the 1940s and early 1950s, attending the cinema or ‘going to the flicks’ on the weekend was the social highlight of the week, as Greg observes that it was “the social aspect of getting out of the house away from Mum and Dad” and “always with my mates and/or my brothers and sisters.” Pautz (2002, p. 1), cites U.S. data that in 1930 over 80 million Americans attended a cinema once a week, nearly 65 percent of the population where in 2000 the figure was 27.3 million, about 9.7 percent. Contemporary viewing habits reveal that cinema still appeals mostly for young people and women yet it is not a weekly event. According to a recent A.B.S. (2011) report on Australian cinema attendance, 93 percent of young people aged 15 to 17, saw film at least once a year while women outranked men, with 70 percent compared to 64 percent who went to the movies at least once a year.
While contemporary media is largely fragmented with it competing mediums of television, the internet and game consoles, cinema is still a dominant form of socialisation particularly among teenagers. Wyatt (1994, p. 9) observes “the connection between marketability and ‘high concept’ seems to be very strong within the entertainment industry.” Hollywood recognised the importance of market segmentation of its audience and developed within its mainstream of films, “an emphasis on style” or high concept: films that have a set of predictable elements that can be easily sold to a particular audience. One of the most sought after audiences are the teenage/youth market. Films from the 1950s such as Rebel Without a Cause (Ray 1955) and The Blackboard Jungle (Brooks 1955) were influential in their depiction of teenage angst yet it was The Wild Ones (Benedek 1953) that was a seminal film on teenage/youth rebellion. Greg cites Marlon Brando on his Triumph in a leather jacket as influential to his lifestyle of bike riding saying, “One of my first motorbikes was a Triumph Tiger.” The teenage based film genre is still popular both with producers and audiences when you consider the popularity of the Twilight (2008 – 2011) series of films with box office receipts nearing two and half billion US dollars worldwide according to the Box Office Mojo website (2012).
Effects of Segregation on Film Attendance
Racial segregation of audiences not only occurred in the Apartheid era of South Africa or in the USA where it was a legal requirement in the Southern states (Bordwell & Thompson (2003, p. 162), it was also prevalent in outback and rural Australia (NMA Exhibition 2012 website). As Greg observed that “working as an Usher in the Darwin Open Air Theatre in 1950, Aborigines were made to sit on the bare ground in the open, while the whites sat in chairs sheltered at the rear. So when it rained the poor Aborigines got wet while the whites kept dry undercover.” Currently laws such as the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 make it illegal to openly discriminate based upon race and it is an anathema to contemporary audiences you could be segregated based on the colour of your skin. Yet accessibility to cinemas for the disabled is a contentious issue even with the Australian Federal government working with movie chains on a Cinema Access Implementation Plan (2010) to improve access. This is particularly so when Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott caused uproar with disabled groups in a TV interview (NineMSN, 2010), with his remark that Federal Parliament “go straight out of Question Time into the matter of public importance debate without waffly ministerial statements on things like the accessibility of cinemas.” Tony Abbott later apologised for his remark but it did raise awareness of the issue with able-bodied Australians, who take cinema attendance for granted, failing to appreciate how measures such as captions and audio description means that people with hearing impairment or impaired vision can also share the big screen experience.
Movie attendance is for the majority of people a social experience to be shared with friends and family. This experience harks back to the 1930s when films held greater prominence in people’s lives especially during World War Two when radio was the only other affordable form of entertainment and news for most people. Following the introduction of television and the diminution of cinema attendance, movie producers were forced to look at their market and so sought to produce films that would attract segments of their audience to the cinema especially teenagers and young people. The consequences of that action was the influence certain films had in their depiction of teenagers and the creation of the ‘teen’ flick market that still dominates within the movies industry today. Lastly, cinema was also subject to social mores and laws concerning racial segregation that prevailed in USA, South Africa and Australia until the latter part of the twentieth century. Even today, cinema has to confront discrimination of the disabled over access by creating technologies to expand its audience reach to the hearing and vision impaired.
This is an edited transcript of interviews between Greg and Danny Usher from 2 Jan 2012 to 10 Jan 2012.
Danny: What can you remember most about going to the movies as a child?
Greg: I looked forward to going to the movies on a Saturday afternoon, meeting up with my school mates as you’d never go during the week due to school. I enjoyed the shorts or short films before the main feature.
Danny: Was there any films that stood out for you as kid? Did you ever go by yourself?
Greg: Tarzan with Johnny Weissmuller was popular with us kids. I didn’t go on my own as it was always with my mates and/or my brothers and sisters and get out of the house away from Mum and Dad for a few hours.
Danny: I remember talks with you and mum that before TV in 1956, from the 1930s, 40s and early 50s, there was only radio and film. So where did you see the movies?
Greg: Mostly locally in Enfield and Strathfield where I grew up. Sometimes we’d go to Burwood by bus that cost tuppence.
Danny: What were the reasons for going to Burwood?
Greg: Partly to see a film not showing locally or to take a girl and avoid being ribbed by your mates if you took her to your local.
Danny: So what were the theatres like? How clean were they?
Greg: They were that as there were no complexes like today as it was a single screen. Most were clean but some like Croydon Park were flea pits as we called them. There were three sections divided up in into the mezzanine or upstairs, main theatre and front stalls and were priced accordingly. I mean that the most expensive seats were the mezzanine, main theatre then the front stalls.
Danny: Did you go into the city say the State Theatre?
Greg: Hardly, but I do remember how ornate and decorative it was especially with the organ at the front with its grand stairwell and entrances. In the late 1950s, there were two cinemas that showed foreign films, the Galaxy in the city and the Vahalla in Glebe. I can’t remember much about the Galaxy except for seeing a re-run of Fantasia
Danny: What did it cost for a ticket when you were a kid?
Greg: Prices start from a shilling for front stalls to one and three for the main theatre and one and six pence for the mezzanine.
Danny: Were their Ushers in the cinemas?
Greg: Yes there were. I was an usher in the Darwin Open Air Theatre in 1950/51. The front section was open to the elements so that where the Aborigines were made to sit on the bare ground, while the whites sat in chairs sheltered at the rear. So when it rained the poor Aborigines got wet while the whites kept dry undercover.
Danny: So it was racial segregation?
Greg: Yes it was. Just like in America with the coloureds in one section and whites in another.
Danny: Now that’s something to explore. Did you attend other cinemas in your travels around Australia?
Greg: No I was mostly working hard laboring jobs like cane cutting or droving cattle before I went to the Korean War in 1951.
Danny: What do you recall of movies in Korea?
Greg: Korea, not very much as I was in the frontline or ‘the theatre of war’. Occasionally in the mess hall back behind the lines there was a film shown on a 16 mm projector, usually a Bob Hope comedy.
Danny What like the ‘Road to Morocco’?
Greg: Yes, something like that but remember too, we had just come off the frontline and were more interested in R n R.
Danny: Rest and relaxation?
Greg: Well we called it rape n raving.
Danny: So watch out you local girls then?
Greg: Most certainly.
Danny: So back to the movies, you were in Japan after Korea, what can you tell about the Japanese movies you saw there?
Greg: I did see some films there but the problem was they were in Japanese and no subtitles. At that time in the early 1950s there was little in the way of movies and theatre was far more popular. Remember to this was only less than ten years after WWII so there was a lot of reconstruction going on. However I did see Godzilla (Honda 1954) in Tokyo when it first came out in 1954, all in Japanese.
Danny: That would have been great seeing the Japanese release on the big screen.
Greg: Yes it was as I was fascinated with it.
Danny: Was there any star or movie that was influential in your youth?
Greg: Marlon Brando in The Wild One (Benedek 1954) especially on his Trumpy and all the other British bikes they rode. One of my first motorbikes was a Triumph Tiger then a BSA.
Honda, 1954, Godzilla (Original title Gojira), Feature film, Toho Film (Eiga) Co. Ltd, Tokyo, Japan.
Fleming, Cukor and Wood, 1939, Gone With The Wind, Feature film, Warner Bros, Los Angeles, USA.
Tarzan films, 1932 to 1948, MGM, Sol Lesser Productions, Los Angeles, USA.
Pautz, M, The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930 -2000, 2002, Elon University report, website accessed 10 Jan 2012. http://org.elon.edu/ipe/pautz2.pdf
Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011, Cinema Attendance: Attendance at Selected Cultural Venues and Events, Australia, 2009-10, website accessed 10 Jan 2012.
Ray, 1955 Rebel Without a Cause, Feature film, Warner Bros. Los Angeles, USA.
Brooks, 1955, The Blackboard Jungle, Feature film, MGM, Los Angeles, USA.
Benedek, 1953, The Wild Ones, Feature film, Stanley Kramer Productions, Los Angeles, USA.
Twilight Saga films, 2008 to 2011, Feature films, Summit Entertainment, USA.
Box Office Mojo, website accessed 10 Jan 2012.
Wyatt, J, 1994, ‘A critical Redefinition: The Concept of High Concept’, High Concept and Marketing in Hollywood, University of Texas Press, Austin.
Seats of Segregation: National Museum of Australia, website accessed 10 Jan 2012.
Thompson, K & Bordwell, D, 2003, Film History: An Introduction, McGraw-Hill, New York.
Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cwlth).
Cwlth Govt Dept of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, 2010, Cinema Access Implementation Plan, 2010, website accessed 10 Jan 2012.
Channel Nine’s Today Show transcript, 1 Aug 2010 of Laurie Oakes interview with Tony Abbott, website accessed 10 Jan 2012.
New report, NineMSN, 2010, Disability Does Matter: Shorten, website accessed 10 Jan 2012.