Upon glancing through a vintage Hollywood trade publication, the film writer may see a page or two consisting of three columns of text with no pictures or artwork of any kind. After spending a few minutes reading these few pages, the writer realizes that these are film exhibitor reviews, containing very basic information about a newly released movie.
So what exactly is a film exhibitor’s review? Basically, it is a review of a newly screened film by the movie theatre owner – who was often called the exhibitor many decades ago – and submitted to a Hollywood trade publication such as Moving Picture World or Exhibitor’s Herald.
In Moving Picture World July 24, 1926, one regular column was titled “Straight from the Shoulder Reports” and in a small box beneath, the text: “Our motto: ‘It is my utmost desire to be of use to my fellow man.’ Our method: ‘We send these tips on pictures we have played, as exhibitors, reporting pictures, performance and audience reaction without bias toward any producer. Book these tips and help is in your turn by sending reports.'” This column was edited by A. Van Buren Powell. The listed reviews were frequently organized by film studio they were made for, such as FBO, Universal, Fox, and First National. Each exhibitor review would be followed by the theatre owner’s name, name of the theatre, and the location. Sometimes these exhibitor’s film reviews appeared as part of a sponsored ad, such as in the case of silent film leading man Tom Tyler, seen below:
Why use one of these very brief exhibitor reviews in an article or film review? One good reason is to provide insight on the movie’s initial reception, in addition to demographics and value appeal. Including minor but vital information as this is also helpful to other film writers who might come across exhibitor reviews and ask themselves, “Might this be useful in an article I’m writing on ‘The Arizona Streak’?”
Locating a silent film bearing the “lost” status can be a challenge to the researcher who is interested in finding out if a print of the film does in fact exist, whether it be in a film archive or a private collection. A film archive, like any other museum archive, constantly accessions and deaccessions objects in its collections. Trying to locate a lost silent film can be a challenge, since silent film loss is around 75% according to a study conducted by the Library of Congress. This high percentage is due to many reasons, from the film reels being melted down for their silver nitrate content, to the flammability of the nitrate material that 35mm film reels were made of. There was also the problem of a number of these silent films being considered “disposable”, regardless of who made them, as in the case of Edwin Thanhouser. While the American Silent Feature Film Database at the Library of Congress is to some degree a useful tool, it is not always updated regularly, thereby necessitating contact with the film archive supposedly holding a print of the film in question, whether it be EYE in Amsterdam, British Film Institute (BFI), George Eastman Museum, or another of the many film archives throughout the world. In some cases, silent films made between 1928 to 1930 may have a higher survival rate. For example, our subject, Tom Tyler, has three silent films made in 1930 which have not only survived but been restored and digitized for DVD. There is also the issue of his later silent films – those made for Syndicate – which are more likely to exist in the United States, compared to his earlier FBO films, nine of which exist in western European film archives.
So what is the best way to seek out a lost film?
It helps if the film being sought has the primary basic information, which includes title, year released, major star, and production company. In fact, when conducting an inquiry about a particular lost film to a film archive, the more brief and concise the inquiry, the better. Film archivists do not have a lot of time to waste on log email inquiries and so far as finding a lost film or two, there really is no need for a lengthy inquiry. As for online tools, the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) is an excellent source containing a list of major film archives globally, although Wikipedia also has an extensive list of film archives. Many universities in the United States have films archives too, like UCLA and USC (Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive). The individual inquiring about the existence of a lost film may not gain an immediate result, but should not give up either. Actively seeking out new sources that might provide leads to locating a lost film, whether it is a forum like Nitrateville or a membership in an organization like The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) may turn up the lost film when it is least expected.