The Daily Telegraph
A ‘SCREEN-WISE’ PUBLIC
By W. A. DARLINGTON.
Much lamentation and gnashing of teeth was heard in the land some time ago because this, that, and the other playhouse had been turned into a picture palace and because of the alleged risk that the theatre generally was running of being ousted by “the movies” and of perishing. At that time both stage and screen were suffering from slumps. There seem to be signs that the theatre slump is coming to an end. At any rate, there are quite a number of plays at present playing to “capacity” – which was certainly not the case in the summer. The picture-theatre slump will prove, I imagine, more lasting. The reasons for it are more deep-seated. Both screen and stage – screen especially – are in a transition period. The transition is from a condition of highly artificial prosperity to whatever is to be the normal, I say “screen especially” because nobody yet knows what the normal in the film trade is going to be. The films have practically no pre-war past. The scope and the technique of picture-making made its greatest advance during the abnormal years when every place of amusement was crammed, no matter what fare it provided. As a result all such places had a tendency to provide bad and cheap fare. There was such a rush to buy films of any and every description that the picture-theatre owners booked themselves up blindly, months and even years ahead, to produce films they had never even seen. This was a mad policy. As the public got over its war excitement and lost its war prosperity, it began to discriminate. It would only go to the picture theatre if the programme was good; and the exhibitors found that the “block booking” policy had ensured that the programme was only good now and then.
The technical film-trade adjective (I love film-trade English) for a spectator who has learnt to discriminate between a good film and a bad one seems to be “screen-wise.” Nowadays you have only to go to a picture-theatre when an inept, machine-made film is being run through to realise how many people are becoming “screenwise”. There is a heavy, bored atmosphere all round the house. You hear a buzz of conversation about you, which resolves itself, if you listen, into a caustic flow of sarcastic criticism. People only sit such a film out because there is another one coming afterwards which may be better. Not so long ago, the average frequenter of the picture-theatre would rather see a bad film than no film. Now, he would rather sit at home than pay money to be bored by a bad film. In fact; the novelty of the film has begun to wear off. It is no longer a popular craze which everybody followed for a while and then dropped (like rinking). It has got to make its way on its merits as an art. One result will be that the gentry who rushed into film-making as a speculation, much as they or their predecessors rushed into rink-building, will have to close down and find a new field for their activities; because it is on their ability to make good, interesting pictures that success will depend – an ability for the most part nonexistent. This weeding-out process has begun; its effects are seen in the published reports of the number of speculative film-producing firms which have failed recently, especially in America.