by Eric Hoyt

I remember the experience well. My friend, Matt Charney, and I visited the local multiplex on a freezing cold day to watch the “best movie ever made.” Yes, Citizen Kane was playing in our Kansas City suburb’s largest theater (20 screens!), and we figured we ought to see it. So we did what any precocious fourteen-year-olds would do in such a situation—we asked our mothers to drive us to the theater.

At the time, in the 1990s, I was impressed by Kane’s storytelling and cinematography, which Roger Ebert’s movie guide had told me was important. But I never really reflected on how or why this vintage film reached an AMC multiplex in Overland Park, Kansas. Today, almost two decades later, I recognize Citizen Kane’s reissue as part of a long history of Hollywood monetizing its film libraries and, in the process, enabling access to works of American cultural history.

My new book, Hollywood Vault: Film Libraries before Home Video, is about the history of how old movies became valuable. I wanted to understand how business decisions about film libraries have shaped our ability to access old works from film history. I began the project assuming, like many, that new technologies—such as television, VHS, and DVD—were the primary drivers of this history.

Instead, I found in my research that film libraries held economic significance long before Hollywood features reached television. The most important technology for monetizing film libraries from the 1910s until the mid-1950s was 35mm film; the most important market, the theatrical reissue. Small-to-mid size exhibitors generally liked reissues because of their price tag—theaters could rent a four-year-old A movie for the cost of a new, low-grade B movie.

As I discuss in Hollywood Vault and the video below, the turning point in history of film libraries came in the 1940s when the number of reissues on American screens boomed (“One in Every Five Pix Showing in NY a Reissue,” announced a 1947 headline in Daily Variety).

This video is one of seven short videos that I have included in a free, online exhibit about the history of theatrical reissues. The exhibit, which I developed using Omeka, shares clippings and evidence from my book. I hope you’ll explore the exhibit, and if you find the material interesting, read the book, which examines reissues, remakes, and the television market in greater depth.

In one of the final videos in the exhibit, I ask the question: where are theatrical reissue today? I didn’t know it when my Mom dropped me off at the multiplex to watch Citizen Kane, but I now recognize I was living through a brief renaissance of Hollywood theatrical reissues. Consider the data: in 1997, the studios reissued 34 films to theaters; more than double the average of 14.7 studio reissues per year from the period of 1990 to 1996. The blockbuster reissues of 1997 were the three of original Star Wars films, which beat out new releases to be the number one movies in America. Other reissues that year included The Graduate and The Godfather, which I also saw at the multiplex, though in the case of The Godfather, my father drove me and stayed for the picture.

This renaissance did not last long. The studios reissued an average of only 3 movies per year from 2002 to 2006. By the time the studios’ trade organization, the MPAA, issued its 2010 statistical report (my sources for this data), the category of “reissue” was no longer counted.

What explains this change? Chiefly, two interrelated business factors. First, the marketing costs for releasing movies theatrically escalated dramatically during the 1990s and early-2000s. From the studio’s perspective, the major appeal of a reissue was always that the film’s cost has already been fully depreciated, so all revenue earned—after P&A costs (prints and advertising)—is pure profit. But as the P&A budgets and the costs of marketing and distributing a film increased, the economics of reissuing films became less advantageous.

Second, and more importantly, the competition for multiplex screen space has grown far more intense in the 2000s. Maximizing a picture’s ticket sales on its opening weekend is the name of the game, and studios aggressively try to open on as many screens as possible. It’s not uncommon nowadays to look at the listings for a 14-screen theater and see that only 6 movies are playing. Reissues, which generally return a lower per-screen average, have gotten pushed out alongside indie, documentary, and foreign films (all of which similarly lack the large marketing budgets).

Does this mean that all access to film history has been cut off? Of course not.

Repertory cinemas, like our fantastic Cinematheque here in Madison, continue to screen old films. And I envy the suburban Millennial who can inexpensively have obscure film and television titles mailed and streamed to her home from Netflix. But as Daniel Herbert eloquently describes in his recent book about American video stores, there is also something lost in these transitions. Outside of cities and college towns, the opportunities dwindled to experience great old movies on the big screen.

Fortunately, the landscape seems to be shifting again. Digital projection has reduced the costs of distribution, and many exhibitors are embracing “alternative content” options to show on weeknights. Some multiplexes are finding they can increase attendance and goodwill in their communities by showing old films, such as Lawrence of Arabia and Singing in the Rain, at lower-than-usual ticket prices on a Tuesday or Wednesday night.

Here we see, once again, the business of film libraries at work—buyers and sellers adapting to market conditions to monetize old content and serve their specific needs. New technologies don’t determine how these practices play out, but they can enable new marketplaces and opportunities, which in turn, can open or close opportunities for audience access.

If you, like me, have ever wondered why a particular old movie was available in your multiplex, cable box, or Netflix list (and why others, perhaps even better, were not), then the answer comes from studying the business of film libraries.

Eric Hoyt is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-director of the Media History Digital Library. He designed, developed, and produced the MHDL’s search and visualization platform, Lantern, which received the 2014 Anne Friedberg Innovative Scholarship Award from the Society for Cinema & Media Studies.