Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol. 2(3) Fall 2014
Jonah Horwitz and Andrea Comiskey
University of Wisconsin – Madison
In 2012, we developed a research assignment for a large undergraduate lecture course, taught by Jonah, on US film history since 1960. For this project, students researched and wrote five-to-seven page argument-driven histories of film exhibition in assigned cities, towns, and neighborhoods. Each paper was accompanied by at least one original chart, graph, or annotated map.
This assignment added depth to a major theme of the course: the ways that film exhibition and consumption changed in the “post-studio” era. But just as important, it gave students an opportunity to conduct historical research using a rich mix of sources and to construct an argument based on that research. Though many of their sources were online, students also had to use offline reference materials that contemporary undergraduates too often never encounter.
This project was structured but exploratory. We gave students a set of objectives and a set of core sources but encouraged them to allow their findings to determine the particular focus and structure of their papers. The result was an interesting, sometimes revelatory, variety of observations about historical film exhibition. This article describes the assignment, its outcomes, and how it might be adapted for any course, large or small, in US film history.
Locations and Sources
Each student was assigned a location, a series of years—one for each decade from the 1940s through the 1990s—and the name of a local newspaper. For example, one student was assigned “Cedar Rapids, Iowa / 1949, 1959, 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999 / Cedar Rapids Gazette.” Most locations were large towns or small cities such as Greenville, Mississippi; North Adams, Massachusetts; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. (We couldn’t resist giving one student Paris, Texas.) Some students were assigned a neighborhood of a large city, such as Chicago’s “Loop.” Our goal was to select locations with enough theaters to keep the students busy but not so many as to overwhelm.
The locations, dates, and newspapers were not chosen at random. Doing our own preliminary research was crucial to the success of the assignment. We did not want to send students down any dead ends, so we assigned only locations and years for which we could verify that newspaper coverage was available online in proprietary databases (such as Newspaper Archive and ProQuest Historical Newspapers) or on free websites (such as Google’s Online Historical Newspapers). Our selections ensured that each student would find something.
We also gave students a list of essential print and online sources. The former included annuals like Film Daily Yearbook and International Motion Picture Almanac, which contain lists of US theaters by location, with information on their ownership and seating capacity. (Relevant volumes were placed on reserve at the library.) In addition to the newspaper databases listed above, recommended websites included Cinema Treasures, a user-generated trove of information on individual theaters past and present, and the American Film Institute Catalog, which offers detailed information on individual films.
The Research Process
Beyond providing students with key sources, we suggested some initial questions: Where in town were theaters located? Who owned them? How large were they? How many screens? What were the admissions prices? What sort of films did they show? What clientele did they cater to? And, above all, how did these variables change over time? Students were not researching in a vacuum. Lectures and readings had provided them with a basic understanding of the history of US film exhibition and its relationship to broader media-industrial and social changes. They knew crucial terms and concepts: the picture palace, the multiplex, drive-in, art house, rate of program change, saturation booking, exploitation.
Because historical research was unfamiliar to many students, we sought to guide the initial stages of their work. One lecture walked through a sample project on Madison, Wisconsin, showing how data might be gathered, cross-referenced, charted, and ultimately used to craft an argument. We also created video tutorials on using Newspaper Archive and other online databases and posted them to a course website.
Students were advised to first create synchronic “snapshots” of their locations’ film-exhibition ecosystems. To do so, they would select a particular week—say, the third week in September—and look at that week’s movie listings for each of the years assigned. One student discovered that Kokomo, Indiana in the 1940s was dominated by the Alliance Theater chain, which owned five of the town’s six movie theaters (all downtown). The smallest theaters specialized in “B” Westerns, while the largest theaters showed star vehicles like A Foreign Affair and often featured live acts as part of an evening’s entertainment. Programs typically changed every two or three days.
Students could then build diachronic surveys of film exhibition in their locations by comparing these “snapshots.” A student discovered that Chicago’s “Loop” boasted nineteen theaters in the mid-1940s, including one specializing in newsreels. By the 1990s, only one commercial cinema, showing mostly foreign films, remained. Observing the changes across decades would give rise to new, often more expansive, research questions: When did this theater close? Why did that one start showing foreign films? Why did screens move from downtown to the suburbs?
Such questions governed the next, more open-ended phase of students’ research. They were encouraged to look beyond the initial sources and expand their research backward and forward in time. They searched for coverage of individual theaters and their owners, found books and magazine articles about their towns, and discovered the online work of amateur historians documenting local exhibition. Some contacted local historical societies; others interviewed the managers of surviving theaters.
All the students’ papers offered synoptic histories of local film exhibition, which they were expected to compare to the more general histories offered in lectures and readings. Some localities fit the broader patterns, but others bucked trends—for example, a downtown single-screen picture palace showing first-run features well into the 1990s.
Beyond the synopses, students isolated problems or topics specific to their assigned location. Some focused on the diversity of programming in a particular decade and how different theaters carved out niches in the exhibition ecosystem. Several considered how theaters, faced with declining admissions and shifting demographics, searched for alternatives to mainstream exhibition with foreign films, exploitation films, and pornography. Others discussed how studios’ divorcement from theater chains and later attempts at re-integration were reflected in shifting patterns of local theater ownership. One student crafted, by means of scattered references in “ethnic” newspapers, books, and websites, an alternative exhibition history of Galveston, Texas—that of a handful of African-American and Spanish-language theaters that thrived mid-century: the Booker T, the Dixie, the Carver, and the Teatro “Rey.” Students’ visualizations included maps of theater locations, pie charts depicting market shares, and animated graphs illustrating the interaction between theater size and the number of screens. In their discussion sections on the assignment’s due date, students compared and contrasted their findings.
Challenges and Opportunities
On the whole, students appeared to find the assignment rewarding. It was evident from their papers and from personal interactions that many took pleasure in their discoveries. In end-of-semester surveys, many students responded that they appreciated the opportunity the assignment afforded for creativity and originality. A few were critical, expressing frustration that not all of the needed information was in the recommended sources. Both reactions are apposite. The assignment was designed to encourage and reward critical thinking and problem solving. Those dead ends, unanswerable questions, and incomplete data presented opportunities to exercise these essential skills. Jonah and his teaching assistant, Leo Rubinkowski, encouraged students to meet one-on-one for advice on refocusing their research, seeking out new sources, and finding new ways to make use of the available data. Witnessing students encounter obstacles, overcome them, and, in the process, find new purpose and direction in their research was gratifying.
The assignment added depth to students’ understanding of the history of film exhibition and consumption. Their research demonstrated how such history is written as well as how local histories reflect—or resist—general trends. Near the end of the semester, as the course approached the present day, students were asked to reflect on their personal histories of film consumption: How did they see movies as children? What about today, as college students? How did their experiences of cinema relate to the historical forces they had studied? In this way, students’ research helped them understand themselves as historical subjects.
As noted, this project was assigned in the context of a large lecture course on US cinema since 1960. It could be adapted for a course in studio-era or even silent-era cinema, with the added resource of the many materials available at the Media History Digital Library, such as the trade journals Variety and Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin. It could also be adapted for a smaller class or seminar, with students asked to produce class presentations in addition to, or instead of, written papers. Similarly, students might present their research and conclusions as a web site, which could incorporate interactive maps, photographs, and video clips. The assignment also lends itself to collaborative work, with students in a group tasked with researching different periods in a particular location’s exhibition history. Instructors might set up a Wiki to which students could contribute data and observations.
The shape of the assignment depends to a great extent on the resources available to students at their particular campus. Instructors whose schools do not subscribe to proprietary newspaper databases may have to restrict students to researching towns whose papers are available in print or on microfilm. Other schools’ holdings may afford greater opportunities for students to research exhibition histories of their hometowns.
We hope that other instructors choose to incorporate this assignment into their US film history courses. We encourage anyone who does so to share their experiences, questions, problems, and creative adaptations here.