Cultural Capital: Ross Melnick Explores Exhibition History in “Hollywood’s Embassies: How Movie Theaters Projected American Power Around the World”

How has Hollywood exported American values, including its ideals of consumerism and luxury, to the rest of the world? Through American movies, of course, but, more surprisingly, as discussed by Ross Melnick in his new book, through global American movie theaters. Melnick, a professor of film and media studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a prominent scholar of theatrical exhibition history, reveals the history of these lavish movie theaters, owned and operated by the major American film companies, and how they allowed audiences from Buenos Aires to Johannesburg to watch American movies in a distinctly American way. Spanning six different global regions from 1923 to 2013, Hollywood’s Embassies: How Movie Theaters Projected American Power Around the World looks at how the exhibition of Hollywood films became a conduit for political and consumerist messaging, selling American ideas, products, and power, especially in contentious times. A global history of movie theaters and moviegoing as an American cultural export, Melnick’s book is a fascinating and important read. Boxoffice Pro spoke with the author in a wide-ranging interview covering 90 years of exhibition history.

I’d like to start our conversation by citing a different work of exhibition history, Richard Abel’s The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896–1914. His book describes how early cinema left the fairground and started modeling itself after the theater. That’s probably best exemplified with the opening of the Gaumont-Palace in Paris in 1907. Your book starts in 1920, the year this magazine was founded in Kansas City, when movie theaters were popping up all over the United States. What happened in that gap, between the 1910s in Paris and the 1920s in the United States, as the concept of the movie theater begins to materialize?

At the risk of self-promotion, I should mention my previous book, American Showman: Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry, 1908–1935, which precisely looks at the changes in exhibition from 1908. Specifically in New York, with the Regent, the Strand, the Rivoli, the Rialto, the Capitol, and the Roxy and essentially, the genesis and development of theatrical exhibition as it moved from the sort of smaller nickelodeon movie house and into the grand entertainment of cinemas that were growing from having 1,500 to 5,960 seats. That happened in about a 15-year period from 1913 to 1927, in which a number of exhibitors—Sid Grauman, Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel—were working across the country to change the way people went to the movies. It wasn’t just a screen and projection of motion pictures, but it was a short newsreel as well as a stage show, live music—classical and otherwise—and what we would call an evening’s entertainment. Moving out of a fairground and into smaller venues, vaudeville houses, then becoming a purpose-built motion picture theater and eventually a deluxe motion picture entertainment in what we now refer to as the movie palace.

Suddenly you have everyone going to the movies: lower, middle, and upper classes. Motion pictures are ascendant, vaudeville is receding. A lot of it has to do with the way empresarios drove people to movie houses in the period of transition from the 1910s to the 1920s. World War I changed distribution overseas, leading to the decline of the European film industry and the rise of the American film industry, especially as its infrastructure grew around the world. The other thing that happens, too, is that you have another pandemic, which comes between 1918 and 1920. Coming out of that, there is a huge influx of Wall Street capital that builds these vertically integrated companies that are not just producing and distributing film, they’re also exhibiting it. Suddenly, you have the entertainment stream we know today. You have vertical and horizontal integration, you have multimillion-dollar companies bankrolled by banks and other financiers, and you have a global industry that is concentrated in just a few companies. At that time, because we didn’t yet have a consent decree, movie theaters are owned by the same companies producing all the major motion pictures, which are then distributed around the world.

What were the business reasons behind Hollywood studios’ decision to introduce America-style movie theaters overseas?

Hollywood studios—MGM and Paramount first, then later Fox and Warner Bros.—had a two-pronged idea about operating cinemas overseas: First, they wanted to secure first-run venues in key international cities, they wanted to upgrade exhibition standards, and they also wanted to pressure local exhibitors to raise their prices and the standards of presentation. They realized they could export this American idea of deluxe entertainment from New York and Los Angeles, charge a certain dollar figure for it, and keep all the money. If you own the cinema, you get the distribution dollars and you keep the box office. The problem that would happen is that there were certain markets—Argentina was one, South Africa another—where local exhibitors were enormously powerful. They owned or managed most of the theaters in a given city—Buenos Aires, Johannesburg—so MGM and others couldn’t get in. Or if they did, they had to take very, very bad terms. Studios realized they needed a beachhead.

One method was to open a “shopwindow cinema,” which was essentially a shopwindow display to show people in a given country how films should be presented. If you are a smaller exhibitor who was in Leeds, you would come into London to see how Paramount would present its own films at the Plaza. By 1928, you’d go to the Empire to see how MGM would present their films. It was a display model, like a shopwindow, that would allow exhibitors to see how they could do their lobby, how to present a film.

Studios would get the money from their own box office, secure a first-run venue, and begin to pressure local exhibitors to either charge the same amount or present the same kind of projection technologies. Then you start thinking about sound, later wide-screen, infusing these cinemas with technologies that will attract moviegoers.

In certain countries, there would be very few prints of any given film available. If you went to one of the “shopwindow cinemas” in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, or London, you got to see the film before it got scratched, which means the best presentation was at the American movie house. If you look at what MGM did in places like Bombay (now Mumbai) or Cairo, they developed kids’ clubs—what they called the “Cub Clubs”—and it was a chance to inculcate a new generation of moviegoer by getting the kids interested in Coca Cola, Nabisco chocolate cakes, Saturday matinees, and Tom and Jerry cartoons.

The U.S. State Department was very clear about the value of American films and American movie theaters overseas: Nothing sold a Ford automobile like seeing it in a movie. Cinemas were often the first American buildings in a major city. Before you had McDonald’s, before Disneyland, you had the movies. We don’t always think about American things as exotic, but it is worth remembering that if you lived in Barcelona in 1923, the American movie house was exotic—and people were excited to experience this idea of Hollywood. It was marketed as a way to visit your dreams and fantasies. If you love Charlie Chaplin, if you want to see Mary Pickford, you could only visit them at this one place.

When and where does this export of the American concept of a movie theater begin?

During the 1920s in Germany, you have people like [cultural critic, and film theorist] Siegfried Kracauer saying, “We have this influx of American movie theaters; these are not like German cinemas. These fantasylands have all of this kind of entertainment. They’re very different than what we’ve had before.” You have a very British conception of “Here comes this American movie house concept. They’re bringing in variety, and they’re bringing in all these kinds of very American techniques.” Architecture plays a role, bringing very stylized Art Deco cinemas. But really, it’s about management. These companies always sent American managers, whether it was in Calcutta or Tel Aviv, to operate their shopwindow cinemas, which acted as cultural embassies for American values. You had an American citizen operating overseas theaters who would manage local staff that understood local customs. They brought in American projection equipment, sound, air-conditioning, concessions, even American usher outfits—they brought in everything that would replicate the moviegoing experience from the U.S. in a way it could appeal to local audiences. You felt the excitement of going to an exotic institution, [a foreign experience] at home. It had the ability to capture people from the outside but make them feel very comfortable and familiar at home.

In your book, you detail the political ideology behind this effort, something that becomes more pronounced during World War II and later as we enter the Cold War.

Germany and the United States were playing a cat-and-mouse game around exhibition. They saw movie theaters as not just the transmission of feature films; they saw them as embassies to transmit local information and entertainment media directly to the citizens of a given country. They fought this out around the world, where UFA [the leading German film company, founded in 1917] was building Nazi-oriented cinemas while the United States was building Hollywood-oriented cinemas. Remember that at this point, in the 1930s and 1940s, it was not just about feature films: we also have shorts and newsreels.

Looking at this from today’s perspective: A contemporary 12-screen multiplex is probably only showing eight films, maybe six, on any given day. When you look at streamers like Netflix or Amazon, there are hundreds of films the algorithm is serving you. The curation model of a movie theater means that somebody has very cleverly and carefully selected what is right for that market. When we talk about single-screen theaters, which is what they were in the ’30s and ’40s, the major movie houses around the world had a very important role in defining what people saw as mass entertainment. UFA cinemas had the ability to transmit Nazi-sympathetic or even Nazi-promotional information directly to moviegoers.

If you go back to something that the famous movie theater architect S. Charles Lee said, “The show starts on the sidewalk.” The moviegoing experience starts as you’re walking up to the marquee. The neon bulbs, the lettering on the marquee, the lobby display, everything inside the movie theater—including how the audience reacts to the movie—everything is programmed and organized. That’s giving you an opportunity to curate a feeling, a sentiment, and an ideology. My book looks at six regions around the world and studies how the American moviegoing experience plays out differently across every region and from country to country within those regions.

During the postwar era in the United States we see a massive population shift, with people leaving urban centers, abandoning these historic cinemas built in the previous decades. The movie palace falls into disrepair in the late 1960s and the ’70s. Eventually, suburbanization comes the U.S. exhibition business, introducing multiplexes in suburban shopping malls through the 1980s and ’90s. It changes the American conception of a movie theater here at home. What impact does that have on international markets?

These massive movie houses built in the ’20s and ’30s go into a steep decline around the world as well. You see that in places like Johannesburg, in Rio de Janeiro, and across countless markets. A lot of it is because of rising real estate values, changing distribution patterns, and desires among audiences who don’t want to see Paint Your Wagon but actually want to go see Shaft instead.

Suddenly, you have the desire of the multiplex, which can program different kinds of films for different kinds of audiences. Instead of having this Hollywood conception of a general audience that will see everything, you now have films that target a fragmented audience catered to by a multiplex. This doesn’t just happen in the suburban multiplex; in many cities you see the old movie houses get split up to accommodate more screens. Balconies walled off into their own auditorium, splitting the downstairs into three screens, and now you’ve got terrible sound bleeding through the walls and bad sightlines. People get upset with that experience and instead opt for the new four-plex out in the suburbs.

I should clarify that although studios divested their domestic chains in that period between 1948 and 1959 because of the consent decree, they were still allowed to operate theaters internationally. Studios kept their foreign cinemas long after they closed their domestic chains. But Hollywood starts to move away from foreign exhibition by the 1970s. Fox sells all of its African theaters by 1975; it’s already out of South Africa and colonial Zimbabwe by 1969. You begin to see more and more of this transition to these new companies like Cinema International Corporation (CIC) and UGC, which eventually turn into exhibition conglomerates backed by studios.

They reach a point where they’ve amassed a huge amount of debt and need to sustain a ton of overhead for aging cinemas that require upkeep as people begin desiring the new, big suburban cinemas. The transition from the “shopwindow” and single-screen model into the multiplex was jarring for everyone. But that transition was also a good way of getting a lot of debt off your books and making a good bit of money by selling your real estate holdings in downtown urban centers.

The multiplex itself, however, is no less an American experience. If you look at the Latin American exhibition business today, cinemas in countries like Brazil are wholly reliant on building a new American-style shopping mall or retail center. The contemporary movie theater in Latin America is part of an American shopping experience, and a mall in Costa Rica is indistinguishable from one in Connecticut.

Street cinemas, unfortunately, went away quite quickly in that period of the 1980s to the 2000s. The way these new shopping malls attracted people, not just in the U.S. but also overseas, is that there was the perception of privatized spaces—sticking movie theaters on the top level of a mall—to get this perception that within the wholly enclosed private building you have an element of security that a street cinema cannot provide. What’s lost in that moment is that [cinemas’ identities] are subsumed within the larger real estate project. You are often named for the name of the mall of the real estate complex. You’re no longer the Paramount or the Regent—you’re now the “Name-Your-Chain Crossings 12.”

Once that happens, you begin to lose that architecture of fantasy, the idea that the show starts on the sidewalk—because it no longer starts on the sidewalk, and it may not even start on the escalator. The show now starts when you’re standing at the box office next to a department store. It’s a very different kind of model. The real excitement of the American movie house overseas, whether it was in Sydney or Tokyo, is that it was a Hollywood edifice, which often stood in contrast to either colonial architecture or the local aesthetic. You had an exotic Hollywood experience right on your street that was calling people’s attention to it.

Your book closes its study in 2013, which ironically is when we see the reverse happening in the exhibition industry. Since 2013, there has been a massive wave of investment and acquisition from foreign exhibitors entering the United States. Now we have foreign models of the moviegoing experience staking a claim in the United States as parts of these foreign-owned multinational circuits.

It was a very interesting irony that one of Warner Bros.’ earliest partners in China, Dalian Wanda, became at one time the owner of AMC and helped drive some of their acquisitions around the world. But there are many different companies that have come into the United States for all kinds of reasons. You had an Indian company like Reliance work with Phoenix Theatres to manage an Indian concept of cinemas in the United States. South Korea’s CJ CGV operates a number of Korean cinemas—which they very interestingly refer to as a “cultureplex”—with the idea that these are a way to engage with Korean culture. You have Cinépolis, a Mexican company that has been a huge player in the Latin American market, entering India and many other markets. As American studios shed their exhibition divisions, you see groups like Cineworld rise to prominence and eventually acquire Regal in the United States.

We’re in quite a different moment, because the periods that I’m looking at in my book, 1923 to 2013, that’s a 90-year period where film is the primary entertainment for mass entertainment in the world. Right now, we have a real question about exactly how film functions in the U.S. We have so many films that are distributed immediately to streaming services that are not getting a theatrical run. It’s a very strange thing to have written a book dealing with 90 years of history and have it end just before this huge fissure in the industry. We’re seeing glimpses of a world where theatrical can return to its moment of glory. I still think there are a lot of questions about exactly how this is all going to shake out.

Hollywood’s Embassies: How Movie Theaters Projected American Power Around the World by Ross Melnick is now available from Columbia University Press.

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