Empty Seats: The Missing History of Movie-Watching

By Corbett, Kevin J. | Journal of Film and Video, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Empty Seats: The Missing History of Movie-Watching


Corbett, Kevin J., Journal of Film and Video


Despite the historical and cultural importance of the movies as both a creative medium and an area of academic study, we know relatively little about a central component of the filmic experience: movie-watching as a social act. We are moving into the era of digital television, when TV screens will supposedly approximate the shape and clarity of screens in movie theaters-a change that poses a threat to traditional motion picture theaters the way the VCR did in the 1980s and television did 30 years before. Those changes were not as serious as predicted, and the theatrical motion picture industry has proved to be remarkably resilient over its century-long life span.

This resilience may have as much to do with cultural values and the meanings movie audiences ascribe to/construct from movie-watching as it does with efforts by the film industry to attract and hold audiences. We know little about how movie audiences historically have used the act of movie-watching in their everyday lives, how symbolically important the act was within their lives, or how it has contributed to forming, maintaining, and transforming their interpersonal relationships. Without this understanding, it is difficult if not impossible to predict with any degree of certainty the economic impact of technologies such as digital television. Nor can we know how media audiences may use such technologies or the cultural meanings that may emerge or be transformed as a result of that use.

The purpose of this article is to suggest an alternative way of studying film history. This alternative involves combining traditional historical surveys of industrial practices and information about film producers, stars, and content with both critical analyses of the medium and ethnographic analyses of movie audiences. The goal in presenting this alternative is to understand how the movie-going practices of a particular audience-married and dating couples-have interacted with a variety of social, economic, technological, political, and geographic conditions since the birth of the film medium. That interaction has transformed the medium over its more than 100-year history and has resulted in specific, identifiable social practices today. In delineating this process, this article reviews four important studies involving film history and/or criticism. It also discusses a fifth project-my own-which both draws from and seeks to extend these studies.

Shared Pleasures

Douglas Gomery's Shared Pleasures provides a well-integrated look at the development of motion picture exhibition. He describes four periods in film history-the nickelodeon era, the rise of the movie palace, the diffusion of multiplex theaters, and the advent of the VCR-and the technological transformations that led to each of them. Gomery goes beyond simple technological determinism, however, adding important insights concerning social, economic, and geographic issues that contributed to these transitions. He notes, for example, how the Great Depression led theater owners to experiment with "gimmicks," including cash and other prize giveaways, designed to attract audiences to theaters.

Gomery also discusses the relationship between mass transit-specifically the subway-and the rise of the movie palace. He traces how post-World War II suburbanization contributed to the rise of the shopping mall and multiplex. These examples reveal how the motion picture industry interacted with, rather than drove, larger economic and social trends. Movie theaters and other forms of motion picture distribution have changed, Gomery suggests, because of sociocultural/economic changes, not the other way around, and every innovation or change in motion picture distribution represents evidence of the ways theater owners were responding to socioeconomic changes, not instigating them.

Shared Pleasures is important because it reveals the interrelatedness of social phenomena and at least the motion picture distribution and exhibition process.

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