By Sarah Myles.
The perfect double bill is an elusive, mythical thing. A single entertainment event comprised of two unique artistic expressions. A tradition steeped in social history and Hollywood controversy, the evolution of which has shaped our cinema trips for decades and shapes our home-cinema experiences today.
First becoming popular in the 1930s when economic struggles were rife and the world was at war, cinemas boosted ticket sales by essentially offering a “2 for 1” deal. For the price of a normal single feature movie ticket, the audience would be treated to trailers, a newsreel (invaluable during wartime), a cartoon or short film, a lower budget “B” movie and finally, the main, higher budget “A” feature. This type of presentation became so popular that major movie studios responded to demand by commissioning and producing their own “B” movies.
This was the era of the “Studio System,” which saw major film studios making and distributing movies using only long-term contract personnel and controlled distributors. Studios engaged in manipulative booking techniques with cinemas, dictating which of their “B” movies should be purchased along with the more commercial “A” features. This proved highly restrictive for exhibitors, and when the US Supreme Court ruled that this was illegal in 1948 (United States vs. Paramount), exhibitors in most countries began to enjoy more freedom in the movies they screened. The Studio System as it was faltered and eventually came to an end, evolving into a new, more flexible work method. Smaller, independent cinemas continued the double bill trend to boost their ticket sales, often pairing a commercial new release with a re-release of an older feature.
The Astor Theatre in Melbourne, Australia was established in 1936, on the original site of The Diamond Theatre which began showing movies in 1908. This spot has seen the evolution of film exhibition from its inception, through the rise of movie double bills as a popular form of entertainment, to those becoming a nostalgic treat. As the last single screen cinema of its kind that has continuously operated in Melbourne, the theatre has retained the charm of the double bill heyday, with its original art deco features, soft lighting and overstuffed chairs. With an overall seating capacity of 1,150 and varied programme, the theatre strives to bring great cinematic art to its audience in the double feature tradition.
George Florence has been running The Astor Theatre since 1982 and has purposefully ensured that double features remain at the core of its programming philosophy. “I suppose The Astor Theatre is now quite unique, as I know of few other movie theatres doing exactly our sort of eclectic programming mix of mainly double features of classic and new titles, with daily changes. We run hundreds of movies a year, and in my time at The Astor I reckon we’ve screened something like 20,000 movies.”
The programming philosophy at The Astor Theatre is not as straightforward as it may first appear, with many factors influencing the selection of movies to be paired and screened. Legal restrictions still binding exhibitors in Australia mean that both films in a double feature must come from the same distributor – not usually the case in most other countries. As George Florence explains, “This presents some challenges as the obvious ‘perfect’ double is not possible because movie A is from Fox and movie B is from Paramount, for example.
“We choose movies that complement each other, either by theme, stylistically, director or just by the notion that an audience coming to see one movie will probably appreciate the other. Sometimes it is just not possible to strike a good mix, and we do run some odd doubles.”
Further restrictions apply in the form of available theatrical rights. The existence of a movie – even one with a Home Entertainment release – does not guarantee valid theatrical screening rights and where those are not available, the movie cannot be shown. Likewise, with film formats, some prints are “junked” or destroyed, and are therefore unavailable until new, re-mastered prints are produced.
“The running times of movies must also be taken into account,” George Florence explains. “Sometimes we do run some very long doubles – over 2 and a half hours each, which means with a twenty minute intermission, our patrons are with us for up to five or six hours. This is a big time commitment in today’s frantic, time-starved world.”
Ultimately, commercial considerations can also restrict the choice of programming at repertory establishments such as The Astor Theatre, as well. For example, a recent Astor screening of very rare prints of early 50s Sci-Fi films Cat-Women Of The Moon (1953) and Robot Monster (1953) was relatively poorly attended with an estimated 80 people in the audience. George Florence comments, “If this was on at some major film festival retrospective, there should be thousands clambering to experience rare screenings like this.” A similar situation arose during a John Waters mini-retrospective held at the venue. Striking an effective balance between commercial viability and the provision of a unique cinematic experience is essential to the survival of cinemas such as The Astor Theatre.
George Florence highlights the dissonance between the audience and the programmers involved in his endeavour to continue to bring the double bill experience to cinema-goers. “Most patrons don’t understand the restrictions on placing doubles, and from a broader perspective, most patrons don’t understand the limitations to theatrical programming, period. In order for a movie to be screened in a theatre, both rights for that territory have to be held by a local distributor, and there must be either a film print or digital file available. This severely limits the range of available options.”
The Astor Theatre holds a very special card up its sleeve when it comes to selecting films to pair and screen, however. Proprietor George Florence also runs a film distribution business – Chapel Distribution – co-founded with Mark Spratt. The company holds many hundreds of classic film prints, which are readily available to screen. As a result, The Astor Theatre is at the forefront of the continued preservation and exhibition of rare film prints. Their enviable collection, coupled with a range of projection equipment, enables them to provide a mix of film and digital screenings. While the intention of such an organisation is to ensure that rare film prints remain available for future generations and are not lost to film history, it also aids the future of the theatre itself, at a time when technological advances mean movie-viewing no longer needs to be restricted to the theatre.
As our options to experience film have evolved from solely theatre viewing to include viewing at home and even on our mobile phones, so our viewing preferences have determined the evolution of film-making, exhibition and marketing. As our leisure time has reduced, we have become more selective about how we spend that time. We want to see the “A” movie and move on, so cinemas and exhibitors have followed suit moving from double features being the norm, to single features. Movies tend to be longer now, since the prospect of the audience having to watch two movies in the cinema is no longer a consideration. Short films are now rarely seen in a cinema setting – with the exception being most Pixar presentations – but advertising has developed to be more cinematic in nature. Now that we spend less time in the movie theatre, the emphasis is on impact.
Possibly the clearest example of this cultural shift was the 2007 film Grindhouse. This highly anticipated project by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez featured two films (Planet Terror and Death Proof) edited together with fake 1970s exploitation trailers, with the purpose of recreating the “Grindhouse” style double feature experience. The result was critically acclaimed, but the presentation was a commercial failure in US movie theatres. Audiences simply did not want to invest the time. Consequently, the two films were split and screened individually for their international releases. Ironically, this homage to a specific type of double feature theatrical experience could then only be seen as intended in the film fan’s own home, or at special screening events.
With so many restrictions on which movies can be successfully paired and screened at a cinema, it is tempting to stay in the comfort of your own home and make your own selections. However, being at the other extreme, with perhaps no restrictions at all, how does the perfect pairing come about?
Just like creating a mix tape, selecting the perfect movie double bill at home can be a treacherous endeavour. While the easy solution is to pop in discs one and two of a popular franchise, a little creativity can lead to a much more satisfying viewing experience for the film fan.
As Tara Judah, staff member at The Astor Theatre, explains, the dream double bill is a very personal thing. “I’m not sure what my dream double bill would be – sometimes the doubles that work the best are the ones where you’ve never seen either of the films before and you’re not sure if you’re going to enjoy both or either of the films, but you put your trust in the people who have put it together.”
“I think the most important aspect of a double bill – again, from my personal perspective – is that the films complement one another in some way – be it tonally, aesthetically, thematically or even through a more obvious link such as director or star. A double feature is one event and so the experience needs to feel connected.”
This philosophy seems obvious at first, but looking a little deeper opens up a whole new world of possibility. Of course, you could follow True Romance (1993) with Natural Born Killers (1994), or Mary Poppins (1964) with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). But wouldn’t your evening become much more interesting if you followed Bullitt (1968) with Drive (2011)? Or Office Space (1999) with Horrible Bosses (2011)? You could very easily play it safe and enjoy a one-two of Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995), but expand your vision and you could team Troll Hunter (2010) with Cloverfield (2008). The potential of home cinema for winning combinations is endless. The main ingredients are there – just add a dash of imagination.
The relationship between home cinema and theatre is not so simple, however. While the demise of the double feature as a regular theatre experience is indelibly linked with the cultural and technological changes in society in general – at one time pitting the theatre and home cinema experiences against each other – it seems a further shift is taking place. In a bid to survive, repertory cinemas across the globe have adapted their programming philosophies accordingly. Whereas, in the 1930s, we would have enjoyed the full double feature experience during any trip to the cinema to see a new release, we now seek it out specifically for the purpose of an unusual experience.
The Prince Charles Cinema in London has operated in its current form since 1991, and is the only non-subsidised repertory cinema in the UK. Its survival, outside of screening the “usual” big releases, depends on its seasonal programming and festivals. Regularly, patrons are able to view interesting double-bill pairings, and spectacular movie events. Sing-A-Longs to The Sound Of Music (1965) or The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) are immensely popular, along with Quote-A-Longs to films such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) or Ghostbusters (1984), and fancy dress is most definitely encouraged. This is audience participation at its finest for any avid film fan, and it is what the repertory cinema experience offers that home-cinema simply can’t achieve: the excitement of sitting in a darkened auditorium, surrounded by lots of like-minded people, enjoying a rare collective experience. Anyone can wear a basque and suspenders in the comfort of their own home, but do it at a repertory theatre, and you are Dr Frank-N-Furter – cinematic icon.
Even the unlimited choice of a DVD collection or digital streaming can’t compete with that.
Sarah Myles is a freelance writer based in North Yorkshire, UK.