And for that matter, were double bills at the cinema only a North American thing or were double bills common in other countries?
In the summer, we frequently go to the drive-in, and it’s always a double show.
I think the Drive-In theater the next small town over from me still does double bills.
The drive-in here, in Visalia, CA has 2 double-bills year-round. In San Fran, where we just moved from, there are several indoor theaters that show doubles on a daily basis…The Saint Francis used to show doubles of releases from about 12 weeks prior for $3.50, before they closed 2 or 3 years ago…
Just last year I saw a double-bill of the second Star Wars and Men in Black II.
IIRC distributors used to offer an A movie along with a B second flick. I’m not sure if they do it anymore. Those that do it now probably just rent two or three movies to show together.
As you can see, it never really stopped. It just gradually became less and less common over the decades.
It was still common in the 1960’s, when my father was seeing them. I think that they declined as a result of actor’s salaries and production costs going up, which raised the price of tickets, and made double bills not worthwhile.
The decline in the double features was probably the result of the rise in TV. Who wants to spend all afternoon or evening at a movie theater watching a “B” grade movie, when you can watch the tube at home.
A WAG, but the rise of the 4 screen, then the 10 screen and now the 30 screen multiplex probably also had something to do with it. If there’s only one screen at your local Bijou a double feature is a good way to offer viewers a choice of picture. When there’s 30 screens, there’s not much point .
The end of the common double bill happened long before the rise of the multiplex. It happened for all the reasons given above and more.
The heyday of the double feature was during the Depression. Movie culture was very different then than it is today. Movies were by far the dominant form of entertainment in the country. Every neighborhood in every city has its own theater. Attendance was 90 million visits a week, at a time when the total population was 130,000,000. (Today visits are about 20% of that in a country twice the size.) Even the neighborhood theaters were larger than multiplex boxes today and the major downtown palaces sat thousands.
Going to the movies was an inexpensive way of passing time. People did not go to a particular movie at a particular time, except as a special event. You went to the movies. You would walk into a theater at any time and expect to see something on the screen. Theater owners, then as now, made much of their money from concession sales, so they wanted to keep people in the seats. Newsreels, cartoons, trailers (shown after the movie), a main feature and a b-movie (or serial), played continuously. You could walk out any time as well, but many people would stay for hours. They might have nothing else to do and theaters were often the only public building that was air conditioned. Giveaways were another feature: come every week to amass a complete 1197-piece set of dishware, for example.
Because people went so often, movies did not stay in theaters very long. Other than the most major blockbusters, movie bills played for a week at most, and some theaters changed bills twice a week.
Movie studios were production factories that cranked out footage to meet this demand. Major studios like MGM put out a movie a week. Minor studios, like Columbia or Republic, ground out oaters and serials by the dozen. Disney and others put out hundreds of cartoons.
Stars would appear in as many as six movies a year, but they were under seven-year contracts and the studios wanted to use them as much as possible to get their money’s worth. Same with sets, costumes, production people, and every other bit of property. Studios were about amortization, not culture.
The majors owned enormous chains of theaters that were required to show the movies of that studio, although they could trade showings back and forth. They actually cut the country up into sections, with each major dominating certain areas so that their showcase theater had the best downtown location. The minor studios had to wrangle to get their wares in at any price, which kept them in poverty.
Everything changed in the 1950s. Antitrust rulings forced the movie companies to divest themselves of the theater chains that they had owned and operated. Television took away much of their audience. A more affluent society gave the public many more choices of entertainment. The smaller movie companies either went out of business or switched to making shows for television, which used up product at an enormous rate.
Theaters went out of business too. People didn’t spend time in then like they used to. They also lacked the continual feed of product. What product they did have wasn’t competitive in many ways. The majors tried to combat the tube by making movies bigger, longer, and in color, but not necessarily better. (Think of the stinkers in 3-D, Odorama, various wide-screen formats etc.) They also used block booking, which meant that a theater owner, now an independent, who wanted to bid on a big blockbuster had to accept a package of second rate movies from the studio in addition. Stars went from being contract players to independent corporations, able to negotiate for much larger sums of money with any studio or independent they wished. Movies got more and more expensive and every studio put out far fewer of them even while needing to make more money from each individual one.
The bigger, longer movies meant that showings were limited. The lack of product meant that good movies stayed around longer. I remember that The Sound of Music played for more than one full year at one theater in my city.
But the movie watching experience had changed forever by the early 60s. Movies were events, not a continual part of the background.
Smaller theaters, town and village theaters, drive-ins, and any other places where first-run movie events could not be staged kept on with the only possible strategy for them - showing as much product for the money as they could possibly afford. Where I live we still have a second-run old neighborhood theater that shows double features where I live for $3.00, but it can’t afford any amenities, not even replacements for ancient, lumpy seating. Why would anyone go there for two movies when you can see one three-hour blockbuster in stadium seats with a cappuccino in your hand and then go play in the game complex afterward?
Double features were, like most everything, a marketing ploy to get the most money out of customers. The world has changed so that there are better ways of getting your money. Multiplexes are a response to this changed world, not the cause of it.
Superb analysis Exapno.
Thanks, Chuck. Now how about that commission I’m bucking for in the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board?