Waller’s new book explores history of non-theatrical cinema before 1920
Provost professor Greg Waller published a new book detailing the early history of where films were shown outside of traditional movie theaters. The book, “Beyond the Movie Theater,” explores four main themes of non-theatrical cinema: sites, sponsors, uses, and audiences.
“I’ve specialized for quite a while in what’s called film exhibition, how movies are shown in the U.S. and especially in the silent period, that’s to say through the 1920s,” Waller said. “One of the aims is really to suggest that even by this early point, the 1910s, movies are an extraordinarily deep part of American culture.”
The inspiration for this book came when Waller started wondering, “If it was 1915, where were movies being shown outside of movie theaters? How were they being used? Who was using them?”
One of the biggest challenges in writing this book was the research process, Waller said. Because the book focuses on early cinema, much of Waller’s research was done through print newspapers.
“I actually got copies of newspapers if I could on microfilm,” he said. “I just rolled through page after page because they were not searchable, so the only way to find examples is to read 20 years of a newspaper, one page at a time.”
Digital newspaper archives eased the process some, but this topic still posed research challenges. The book’s focus is on movies that were shown outside of movie theaters, which could be anywhere from churches to schools to labor halls to individual homes.
This wide range of possibilities meant that there was no one search term that Waller could use to find examples of movies being shown outside of theaters. So, he started with terms such as “film,” “motion picture,” “moving picture,” “photoplay,” and “cinema” and went from there.
“It’s basically finding individual instances and then trying to from the ground up build a history based on that,” he said.
In addition to researching where non-theatrical films were shown, Waller’s book also focuses on what movies outside of theaters were used for and what audiences watched them.
Inside movie theaters, “every movie was supposed to be for every person, young, old, white, Black, educated, uneducated, Southern, Northern,” Waller said.
But movies shown outside of theaters could be targeted to specific audiences. For example, “I make a film to teach people who run streetcars how not to get into accidents, and then my target audience is really specific, which is something we associate with media later in the century, like certain kinds of television,” Waller said.
Similarly, non-theatrical films were sponsored by people outside of Hollywood, in contrast to movies shown in theaters.
“Films outside the movie theater were sponsored in a whole bunch of other, different ways, either by who set up the screening, by who paid for the film to be made, by who introduced the film, under whose auspices the film was presented,” Waller said.
Waller received a grant from IU to make the book open access, meaning anyone can read it for free. IU and the University of California Press, which published the book, are both part of a consortium of university presses that provide grants to allow books to be published open access.
Waller said one reason he wanted the book to be open access is because now it will likely be taught a lot more than it otherwise might have.
“I also like the idea that if you do that, somebody can immediately teach it, or they can teach one chapter of it if they want to teach one chapter, or they can send students to read it as background stuff and not feel bad because it cost them $35 to do that,” he said.
Waller said he hopes people read his book and learn about another side of early American film.
“It’s really trying to uncover this other history of American film, which people sort of associate with maybe the 1950s, and this is taking it way back further than that,” he said.