People Longing for Movie Theaters During the 1918 Flu Pandemic Feels Very Familiar in 2021Historians in the News
tags: public health, movies, pandemics
After being closed for almost exactly a year, New York City plans to partially reopen movie theaters on Mar. 5. While many questions remain as theaters slowly reopen across the county, one thing is certain: people have missed going to the movies in the past year as much as they did during the 1918 pandemic.
Newspaper articles in the digital archive of the Influenza Encyclopedia, produced by the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, reported elation about the reopening of theaters. Back then, if people weren’t watching movies in theaters, they weren’t watching them at all. Unlike film buffs in the early 20th century, most people in the COVID-19 pandemic have been able to watch movies the entire time, streaming them from home or even going to outdoor screenings. But just like today, there was trepidation about heading back to an enclosed theater, along with great excitement about seeing movies again.
From around 1905 and 1908, movies became the premiere form of entertainment for the masses. Dubbed the nickelodeon era because films usually cost a nickel, theaters ranged from a storefront to setting up chairs and a projector and a screen. Filmmaking itself was also more diverse, where virtually anyone with a camera and a couple of actors could make a movie, according to William J. Mann, author of 2014 book Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood.
But from 1908 to 1917, movie palaces noted for their gilded and red velvet interiors opened to cater to a more affluent clientele, and the studio system started to emerge.
“1918 to 1920 is a turning point for the industry,” says Mann. “There was already a move within the industry to consolidate and create a more structured production system and more efficient distribution and exhibition system, and the fact that the pandemic happened in the midst of that made those changes even more profound. Movies had been just novelties in 1910, but by 1918, they’re huge moneymakers, a vital part of the economy.”
As the deadliest wave of the 1918 flu pandemic hit in early fall on the East Coast, movie theaters closed for several weeks, and as the virus made its way West, pictures houses in those regions shut-down too.
On Oct. 9, 1918, the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry announced it would stop sending new releases to America’s 17,500 movie theaters from Oct. 13 to Nov. 9 until “the grip crisis” has “subsided”—a move that impacted more than a million employees, the New York American reported. About 60% of film production in California came to a halt. The movie industry worried it was “the beginning of the end,” Benjamin Hampton wrote in his 1931 A History of the Movies, and filmmaker and writer Lewis Jacobs said insiders feared “seemingly imminent ruin” in his 1939 The Rise of the American Film.
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