By LESLIE HALL! WELL
CINEMA-MANAGEMENT had not figured prominently among the means of profitable employment detailed in the extensive files of the University Appointments Board; yet it was to Cambridge itself that I returned, four months after going down, with the unlikely task of redeeming a vast suburban white elephant of a cinema by transforming it, if I could, into England's largest "specialised hall." In no other town, excePt possibly Oxford, would it be possible to fill 1,100 seats a show for the programmes of oldies and oddities which I visualised. It soon proved, in fact, to be impossible in Cambridge, for few among even the most ardent film enthusiasts have time to go treasure-hunting twice or three times a week. But with strong university support the venture is succeeding, and has provided for me a refreshing initiation into the dark mysteries of "the trade," a world as unknown to the streams of aesthetic two-and-sevenpennies as to the hordes of sheeplike Saturday-nighters. , The most charming and the most exasperating aspect of the Wardour Street bureaucracy is its insane logic. I have been refused The Lady from Shanghai because it was felt a revival of an old Rita Hayworth picture might be detrimental to the success of her current vehicle. I have been given incredulous looks and fatherly advice when I have asked for classic films which were also box-office poison. I have been offered all kinds of sleazy rubbish with sub-titles on the well-established Wardour Street assumption that any one French picture is as good as another. Renters have inundated my office with pompous - pamphlets stressing the fact that their movies are better than ever, but, when later a bargain has come to be struck, we have invariably come to blows over their efforts to foist on to me immense and appalling accumulations of cheap quickies. For the renters do not like to supply two good films in one programme. Once when I tried to couple a modest Bob Hope comedy with one of the vintage Marx Brothers extrava- ganzas, both films being over ten years old, I received a stormy letter from head office : "We cannot depart from our definite rule not to couple important pictures. It is obviously not in your interest or ours. If you start doing this sort of thing you will make your public always want it, and then they will never be satisfied with whatever you give them."
So the renters go on making their conditions of sale, and, even when one is allowed to buy the film one wants, it is at the renter's price, which is often higher for an old film than for a new one. As in all businesses, a poker-face is a thing to be cultivated, for it is when one reveals one's enthusiasm for some long-forgotten picture that the price begins to soar. Most programmes are booked on a percentage basis, and, if it is likely that an old film- will still take good money, then the renter will ask the original price for it, namely forty or fifty per cent of the net takings. Thus if a film booked at fifty per cent. should take a hundred pounds, forty pounds tax would immediately be deducted by the Customs and Excise authorities, and a half of the remainder would go to the renter, leaving the exhibitor with little more than a quarter of his takings with which to run the business and make a profit (on which he will again be taxed). Occasionally, it is true, one can pick up for a small flat rental a film which "never did anything" on its first release and of which its makers are consequently not very proud. Such films may often be found in the critic's lists of the best ten ever made, but it is a wise exhibitor who keeps the salesman in ignorance of this fact. The films I have chosen during my first six months of estab- lishment have been a haphazard and exploratory collection. Films rejected by the circuits as uncommercial, such as Death of a Salesman and Mourning Becomes Electra, have filled up the back rows even though the " bobs " were-empty, and most Continental films have had a similar reception. Some of Holly- wood's " prestige " pictures, including Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, have been surprisingly thinly attended, whereas the J. Arthur Rank art-collection, headed by A Matter of Life and Death and Henry V. were enthusiastically received by crowded houses. Some names will attract all heights of brow : the Marx Brothers, Gene Kelly, Mr. Magoo, Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, John Ford, Bob Hope, Orson Welles. For the record, the most profitable ventures so far have been On the Town, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Philadelphia Story, Fantasia, Destry Rides Again, Citizen Kane, Blithe Spirit, Duck Soup, Quartet and Bicycle Thieves, a list which seems to reflect quite creditably both on the enterprise and on its audiences.
The frustrating part of the job is that, despite a seven-days- a-week dedication to films, I seldom have time to see one through. Besides, there is the danger that one's enthusiasm for pictures may be sapped by the mass of petty administration which is involved in their showing—controlling the staff, con- trolling the queues, controlling the temperature; ventilating, disinfecting, advertising; listening to complaints, ordering trailers, repairing seats; keeping one eye on the box-office, the other on the fire-regulations; working out the running times, the wage schedule and the profits. After a daily dose of these and other high-pressure activities one's taste has become slightly jaded, and the films one has so carefully, booked and arranged seem a minor consideration unless one of them turns out to be too long, too short or in too dangerous a condition to be put through the projectors.
Suppose the day's work is more or less done and I settle down in the back row for a languorous half-hour with Dietrich or the divine Katie. The odds are two to one that I shall be jolted back to unromantic reality by the advent of a film- traveller or two. These gentlemen are by nature rogues, but genial ones. Working usually on commission, they present the unsuspecting exhibitor with an expensive cigarette, a flashing smile, a natty line in sales talk and a heap of atrocious films at high prices. Once the contract is signed there is no retreat; but a salesman does know when he is beaten. A recent con- versation ran : " Here's a smashing little British Quota picture you ought to book while you can. The circuits are crying out for it, but we're offering it to independent exhibitors first. It's fast and funny and Well made, and it's got loads of sex appeal and. ..." " I've seen it."
"Say no more. I agree with you. It stinks. Now, what about . . . ."