Wednesday Afternoon at the Movies
Movies and the Middle Class – Part Three
The Ford Motor Company
The business decisions by Henry Ford and their implementation at the Ford Motor Company would, at first glance, appear to have no connection with or influence on the motion picture industry. However, the unexpected and largely unrecognized interaction between the two industries was there from the year 1914. In that year Henry Ford’s unilateral decision to double the income of his factory employees changed the blue collar working class into the blue collar middle class. This resulted in his factory workers having more disposable income after paying for necessities; a lot more than was ever imagined. After the Ford Company raised its pay scale, other industries had to begin raising pay scales in order to keep their skilled and semi-skilled workers. The result was that disposable income for all blue collar workers began to spiral upward; shortly followed by the pay scale for white collar workers. The huge American middle class was born, loud and healthy. This additional money could be spent on better food, better, housing, an automobile, and,…… more entertainment.
Several other collateral activities were also launched, unexpectedly, by this change in allocation of the handsome profits being created by American industry and commerce.
At that time, most of Americas manufacturing industry was located in the Midwestern states bordering the Great Lakes, and the northern states on the Atlantic Ocean seaboard. However, in 1914 the majority of the American population lived in rural settings; small towns or family owned farms. The age of corporate agriculture had not yet arrived. In the early 20th century many of these farms were functioning at or near the subsistence level. The boom in wages in the northern industrial cities presented an immediate attraction to the teen age children and young adults on the subsistence farms. There was an immediate surge of immigration of young people, mostly under 30, from the farms to the industrial centers of the north.
Another, greater wave of immigration began shortly thereafter. It is well known and documented that in the southern states, the former black slaves, their children and grandchildren were living in much the same poverty level as they did as when they were slaves. And, there was no expectation of any improvement in the foreseeable future. A huge migration began, and persisted; a movement of Americans of African descent moved from the south to northern industrial cities.
Self Sustaining Serendipity
The growth of American industry was thriving and producing great profits in the last years of the 19th century and first years of the 20th century due to various global economic conditions, and one extremely important national event, the expansion west. The railroad expansion had connected the Pacific Coastal states to the mid-western and Atlantic Coast industrial areas. Arguably, an equally important invention, the wind mill, turned the vast central plains from an area only fit for range grass, to the food producing center for the world. There was and unending stream of wheat, corn, other grains, and beef from the central plains to American cities and from American ports, on to Europe and Asia.
Farmers and ranchers in the west were growing very rich and there was an ever growing demand for industry produced items, including farm machinery, trucks and eventually, automobiles. The wealth appreciating to the agriculturists, along with the wealth of the manufacturers, shippers, traders, wholesalers and retailers, began to be shared with the workers producing the commodities in 1914.
Prior to 1914, the Nickelodium was the entertainment of choice of working classes, this class supported the industry. The making of feature length motion pictures developed from about 1910 to 1913. This type of picture cost more to make, so ticket prices rose. In 1914 the middle class, with its new affluence began to emerge, and this rise in cost caused no problems. The love affair between the Middle Class and the Movies seemed, almost, pre-ordained.
Motion Picture Attendance
Through the 1920’s movie attendance continued to rise. There are few reliable statistics from that time, but in 1930 the movie industry created the Motion Picture Attendance Association and began to collect and publish data about various matters in the industry. The MPAA shows that in 1930, 26 million attended movies each week; that was 65% of the population of the country, in that year. By 1946, 80 million, 58% of the population attended movies once a week. These numbers are incredible. In that era, each week something around 60% of the population of the United States, voluntarily got up and went to a theater, paid for their tickets, and sat down to see a movie of their choosing. This was a capitalistic interaction, almost as pure as one could find. Although there was some censorship, the decision of what the industry would produce was the direct result of what the public would pay to see.
This seems a good place to mention that in 1927, the first movie with synchronized sound track, was “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson; it was a huge financial success. By the next year musicals was the leading genre of new films being produced. The American middle class had shown Hollywood what they wanted, at the box office, and Hollywood immediately responded.
“Jazz” in the first two decades of the 20th century was an urbanized version of the music resulting from the melding of African rhythms with Christian hymns and European marches, on the southern plantations in the 18th and 19th century. Although known in the north it never had an audience there until the African American immigration to the north in the 1920’s. By the 1930’s Jazz was the most popular and most recorded musical form in America. During that period Jazz was introduced to Europe where in became an important influence European popular music.
Motion picture attendance has been in slow decline since the late 1940’s and is now at the level of about 10%. This amount has remained stable since the 1950’s. I have researched a number of scholarly research reports (and some not so scholarly) on the cause of this decline in motion picture attendance. A consensus of the results is that there are a number of interacting factors that have contributed to these attendance figures. The most significant, listed in order of importance, are as follows: 1. Admission price, 2. Total number of screens available, 3. Number of feature films released at the same time, 4. Households with a TV. I found it quite interesting that TV is not the major culprit.
There is one question, unaddressed in any of these studies that comes to mind. I could find no information on the viewing of Hollywood films on pay per view TV channels; or on the rental of films from companies such as Netflix. It is probably because these numbers would not readily give information on the number of viewings, and by whom. I think it might be a good guess that the actual audience for a Hollywood produced film is at least double what the MPAA figures show.
Casual observation and common sense shows that the motion picture is an entertainment enjoyed by all classes today. The Presidential White House has it’s own motion picture theater. And I remember when Ronald Regan, while president, missed an important meeting because he didn’t want to miss the showing of “The Sound of Music.”
The typical young adult date is most often a movie; there isn’t always a concert in town. Naturally, with all those movies and all those young people with cash in their pocket, a very large portion of the movies produced target that market. However, there are plenty of production companies who are quite happy to target all those niche markets which will only generate a few million ticket sales.
Here we are in the 21st century, and the ‘love affair’ still seems pretty hot. I over heard a young man the other day; he wasn’t texting, he was talking to his young woman on his cell phone (so outré’), “And I’ll tell you what, let’s go out to a real movie, instead of watching it on my lap top.”