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.
Honda, 1954, Godzilla (Original title Gojira), Feature film, Toho Film (Eiga) Co. Ltd, Tokyo, Japan.