Newsreel theater

posted by Michael Zoldessy on October 1, 2009 at 10:50 am


I’m not sure if this idea would fly in reality, but I’m wondering how successful an old theater, probably a smaller, neighborhood type or smaller town theater would be if it mainly showed a huge succession of older cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, etc.) and newsreels. This begs the question about who or what has the most complete collection of newsreels from maybe the 1920s to the 1960s when they ended. The first one to come to mind is Pathe News but I’m sure there were others. I think this may work if some kind of non-profit organization were placed in charge of a theater that has been rescued and providing such a collection of newsreels and cartoons were available, could charge a minimal admission, maybe less than a dollar, to watch as much or as little of the succession of cartoons and newsreels as the viewer wished within business hours of course. I would appreciate some feedback regarding this idea and if you know who has such a collection of cartoons and newsreels I’m sure many others might be curious to know.

Thank you!

David Stear

Comments (20)

markp on October 1, 2009 at 11:10 am

Nice idea, but years too late. Anytime I mention to someone about old films, or cartoons, or something like your suggesting, all I get is, no one would come, cant find prints, film companies dont care. Its really sad, todays world.

KenLayton on October 1, 2009 at 11:21 am

When you can find prints the distributor wants an arm & a leg for rental costs per cartoon or newsreel not to mention shipping costs.

William on October 1, 2009 at 11:27 am

Currently Warner Bros. licenses their cartoons in packs of 6 cartoons at a time on two reels in 35mm. As for Newreels there a limited number available in 35mm film format. Film archives hold many of the major Newreels collections. Most of the collections are in need of major money to restore.
A single screen could not last to long, playing that type of format in 35mm format. In 35mm you have to pay for the licenses to play the cartoons and newreels, plus shipping to and from the theatre. And not everything is available to show. Even if you showed the films in a video format, you still have to pay the studios. The next question you have to ask. Why would someone pay for a ticket to see it at your theatre, when it can be seen on dvd format. You would have to offer something extra. And Extra always costs money. I’m just saying that cause it’s a interesting idea. In the long run you would run out of product.

danpetitpas on October 1, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Newsreel theaters existed before the advent of television. They were usually small, slipped into storefronts, sheds, etc. They seem to have been near bus stations and railway stations and were designed to help people kill time while waiting for a bus or a train. TV put them out of business.

You really need a good business plan if you’re planning to do anything with an old theater. The heating and air conditioning costs have been brutal lately, and any older structure will constantly need fixing and repairing. Plus a lot of landlords are crazy, demanding high rents, yet perfectly happy to keep theaters vacant (making no money) for years until someone can meet their price.

If you scan through old news stories here you will read about people who have spent their life savings to re-open an old theater, only to be broke and out of business anywhere from six to 18 months later. So you have to think things through carefully and have a solid strategy.

Simon Overton
Simon Overton on October 1, 2009 at 7:08 pm

PSSSST… Save your money!

Everyone above has basically hit the nail on the head. The truth and facts are very demoralizing to say the least; Rental and shipping, both ways, are brutal, and here’s hoping you’ll receive a “vault print.”

I was screwed by occasional old, faded, poor colour and scratchy prints. Also, distributors and libraries are NOT too keen on their film stock being spliced up for platter use -reel-to-reel is best in my books! They are also fussy about your projectionist being a trained “union pro” (a dying breed) and not some “green” kid just out of high school.

I found an interesting website from dear old England; BRITISH MOVIETONE NEWS.

A few cinemas, like Disney’s El Capitan in Hollywood, will, once in a while, add a cartoon to stretch a short program.

Ron Carlson
Ron Carlson on October 1, 2009 at 9:33 pm

This all rings true, Great idea to try something different, but will anyone come? Also you might draw an audience at the beginning because of the novelty but I don’t see that it will be self sustaining. Also the above comments are very true with reguards to product, most of the newsreels are not available and costs will be prohibitive. In the really old days the theaters were owned by the studios and they provided all this extra programing to stretch the programs out and provide information ( news ) to their patrons but the need is just no longer there.

irishcine on October 2, 2009 at 9:07 am

Even when newsreels came as part of a programme, there was regular moaning by cinema goers about newsreels, – too much foreign coverage, too little foreign coverage, too much sport, not enough for women, too many fashion shows in the newsreel. They also, of necessity, covered fixed date events and often missed the “real” news. As the British Pathe archive is freely available on line, you can see for your self how true that might be. There was also something of a tension between news, more interesting to adults, and cartoons, more interesting to kids in the business plan. Adults and kids more rarely do things together now than in the past and the cinema market is heavily dominated by teens and young adults, likely to be interested in neither genre.

quasimodo on October 2, 2009 at 9:57 pm

I have a lot of cool 35mm techicolor cartoons that I used to occasionally run before a feature. I stopped playing them when it was apparent that people did not appreciate it – especially kids, who actually complained. This stuff can be found everywhere and it will not bring people to a theatre.

byrdone on October 3, 2009 at 2:15 pm

The only ‘toons people will watch are Warner Bros. and they come as mentioned above, the price is around $300. If you’re intent on opening a single screen, play second run, the advance money is less, the percentages are lower, the minimum play is usually only a week, and you can see how well movies did in first run and only play the best performers. Don’t accept scratched or damaged prints, just because the price is lower. Your patrons deserve the same quality. Don’t chintz on sound quality either. You’ve got to have at least Dolby SR analog.

byrdone on October 3, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Also, even if you own a print, you still have to pay licensing fees, and don’t think that because it’s old there is nobody who claims ownership, VERY little is public domain.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on October 4, 2009 at 1:17 am

Sounds a bit like the old Off the Wall Cinema in Cambridge, MA, which showed a wide variety of short-subject and animation programs.

tinlizzie on October 5, 2009 at 1:01 am

Sometimes I think the worst mistake people make is asking other people what they think of their idea – if it’s your passion and it excites you enough to stay with it and work through the problems of making it happen, it will happen, and because you are excited about it, you will make it happen in your own unique way with special ideas that no one has even thought of! And you will find others who are interested and excited too!

quasimodo on October 5, 2009 at 1:13 pm

With respect, Tinlizzie, passion and enthusiasm do not pay bills. And in this business nobody is going to reinvent the wheel. So why not draw on the experience of exhibitors and other business people who have tried such ideas before launching an expensive execution?

tinlizzie on October 5, 2009 at 2:40 pm

Quasimodo, sometimes passion and enthusiasm can reinvent the wheel. I was thinking about a silent movie organist I know who in the 70s had a passion and a vision to play for silent movies – it came to him at university like a vision while he was playing the organ, in the middle of the night. Now I’m sure people said things to him about it, about the fact that silent movies weren’t profitable anymore and spend your time doing something else. But he was on a mission to bring silent movies back to the masses, and he did just that, and along the way he’s had many adventures, too! He got to stay in Harold Lloyd’s home for a summer when he was in his twenties, having access to his limousines, and all his staff – even though Harold Lloyd had passed away, his family kept the staff and the house up, and the family so appreciated his love for the silent movie industry, and he did alot of research about Harold Lloyd while he stayed there (that he has passed on to everyone who sees the movies he plays for) that the family gave him some Harold Lloyd memorobilia which he cherishes and shows to his audiences, too! He got access to the music that Lillian Gish “really” wanted for her movie “La Boheme” (she couldn’t have it at the time because it wasn’t under public domaine)and invited her to a screening he was playing for so she could see the movie with the music she wanted, and she was so happy, she came on stage and hugged him and cried. And he’s been on tour with other silent movie stars who really appreciated him bringing their movies back to life. He’s written many new scores for movies because many of them were thrown in the garbage when silent movies left movie screens, and he’s continued to bring movies back to today’s movie audiences, and he has had so many amazing synchronistic adventures along the way. He took a side road one time when he was going somewhere to play for a movie, and he came to a drugstore in a small town, and when he was talking to the person who worked in the store, she said her mother was in the back room, and that she was an extra in a silent movie that was filmed there, and she had all the photos there, too, that he got to see and he got to hear her stories. He travels over in Europe now, too, and all along the way he tells people what he has learned, and he ignites his passion in other people, too. I am one of those people who has learned so much from his movies and his talks to us and I wouldn’t have missed any of them! And he has huge audiences, too, always a full house! Anyway, that’s the kind of passion I’m talking about, and, yes, I’m sure it was, and continues to be hard for him sometimes, but I, for one, am very glad he keeps on with his passion, and I have learned so much from his experiences and he ignites the passion in me, too, and I will always remember the movies he showed us and what I learned from him.

I was just thinking, David, that maybe something you could do when you show the movies is do the research and give talks to people about what they are about to see, and maybe you could even bring in people who know about the cartoons and news reels to talk to the audience so that they can learn and appreciate what they are looking at, the history and development of them, and even how they are/were made. That’s often what brings people in is the learning aspect of what they are seeing. I really think there are people who want to learn about them out there and who appreciate the history and interesting facts. Well, I would certainly like to see something like that! I love learning about movies, cartoons, newsreels, and it would be very interesting to me to hear the history, too!

Quasimodo, I’m not saying that he can’t learn from everyone here and learn from their experiences, too, about what to do, not do, people to talk to, places to look for things. And I love this site and all the interesting information here and so many knowledgable and interesting people and experiences, too – it’s a great site and I
tell people about it, too!

David, I’m

of those people who has loved going to his movies and listening to his adventures, meeting people in the business, hearing their stories that he passes on to us, and it really is a silent movie history learning class when you go to his movies because he has such a love and passion for what he does, and he will continue doing it because it is such a passion for him.

tinlizzie on October 5, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Sorry, I’m still learning about this site, I should have previewed what I wrote before I submitted it – is there any way to go back and fix it?

Dramatrauma on November 5, 2009 at 4:03 am

tinlizzie whos this friend of yours? I wanna follow him from town to town like the grateful dead!! Or at least keep up with him online and read the books hes (hopefully) written about movies!!

Dramatrauma on November 5, 2009 at 4:14 am

David, the project you propose is prone to the pitfalls everyone has mentioned. Its why most toons and silents are presented by festivals. So the faithful can travel and gather to enjoy (and pay enough to cover the costs) and the festivals can raise money for restoration and research.

I still shake my head remembering how nearly 20 years ago my dad and I eagerly attending a showing of the only Bugs Bunny 3d cartoon produced (it was an early 50s late 40s experiment if I remember)at the local indie house (the beloved Dream Theater in Monterey CA). here it is a saturday afternoon in fall) so its too cold to be at the beach) and we were 2 of maybe 10 people in the house. this is years before such a thing would be available for home viewing and home viewing in 3d at that and still it played poorly for the whole weeklong run.

Maybe you should approach your local indie/historical/small chain theater and see if a variant of your idea could be a once a month experiment? That would give you a chance to try it out and learn the ropes of rental/publicity/licensing and showing these gems. The theater hosting would probably not provide much more than the venue so rental cost would be up to you, so the 1 dollar idea may not work. But how bout a matinee price for all performances and the cinema keeps the larger share (or all for the first attempts) of concession sales? Also tying with a local childrens (or seniors if you want to show newsreels) Charity or historical society is soemthing to consider. Giving them a portion of the door as a fundraiser would cut down on profits btu they maybe willing to pay for soem advertising or at least let you use their mailing lists for a mail campaign.

Cfisher23 on November 16, 2009 at 11:44 pm

This idea could work if you did that during the day when most of the seniors came to watch old time things they remember. But also remember that they don’t buy concessions. You would be better to get a small digital projector (the kind you get at Best Buy, and yes the throw would be good under 200 feet) and show them on DVD, saves you power costs and build up time. But after your afternoon run of this you would than have to show movies to make up your cost and bring up your numbers. If you can do this it would great i would love to see it, but the probability of this working is rare.

DavidZornig on December 1, 2009 at 9:26 pm

Chicago and Evanston Illinois had a number of theatre’s that tried the revival house concept in the late 70's & early80’s. The Parkway, Varsity, Coronet, Music Box & others.

They would run different double features every day and/or every other day of old Sci-Fi, classic comedy’s, Hitchcock thrillers etc. Even midnight shows at some. Some had old cartoons & newreels deliberately added in for schtick.

They would print & place full color calenders in the Reader newspaper each week. With all the old taglines blazing across each page.

As someone else posted, the novelty crowds were there at first. And mind you this was also the era when the VCR & VHS rental was starting to go full steam.

It was great for just a few years. But eventually the theaters couldn’t hang on with only that. It seemed that was the last gasp for some of them.
The Varsity, Coronet & Park West for sure. The Music Box is still around, but is more of a true arthouse theater now. With occasional revival films and/or hometown premieres.

If there was a way to sell the movie tickets far in advance like stage plays & musicals, maybe someone could get a revival house to fly full time. But whose going to buy tickets to an old movie, and then remember to go on a regular basis?

tinlizzie on January 7, 2010 at 2:11 am

DramaTrauma, I’m sorry I didn’t see your question before this but the silent movie organist I was referring to was Dennis James and you can see his silent movie schedule on one of the pages on here under the title “Nationwide Historic Theatre Silent Film and Concert performances by Dennis James” – if you ever get a chance to see him, it is a great experience because he is a fountain of knowledge about silent movies and he could tell you so many stories and he’s so talented! He doesn’t play where I live too much anymore because his schedule is so busy, but I never miss any of his movies when he is here and I will always remember the ones I saw and the things he told us!

I don’t think he’s written any books yet, but I could be mistaken about that – I’m sure he will some day, though! Another thing he does is play some long lost musical instruments like the glass harmonica and I even have one of his cds he recorded using that instrument. And I will never forget when he used some of those instruments to perform for the silent movie “Metropolis” – I will never forget the sounds of those instruments and the atmosphere he created in that theater for us. Anyway, look up his schedule under the title I mentioned – it’s on one of these pages, and maybe he’s playing somewhere near where you live!

And that’s a great idea you have to try out the concept of the cartoons and newsreels in someone else’s theater first on a monthly basis and see what response you get!

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