In the first of a series of articles about the origins of inflight entertainment, Michael Childers discusses how IFE began, who owns IFE rights, and the concept of “nontheatrical public performance” exhibition, which includes IFE, hospitality, military, marine, school and institutional audiences.
Whether on a cruise ship plying the waters of Glacier Bay in Alaska or a ferry transporting passengers from England across the North Sea to Amsterdam, in a hospital bed in California’s Loma Linda University Medical Center or at the Student Union at the University of Wisconsin, people watch movies.
On an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf populated with US Navy personnel, at a movie theatre at the Fort Hamilton Army Base in Brooklyn, or on a trip from Paris to Madrid on the train called The Talgo, people watch movies.
In prisons, in pubs, on oil rigs and busses, in corporate lunchrooms and hotel rooms, on things that float and things that fly, on things that orbit the earth and things that don’t move at all, people – you guessed it – watch movies.
But we’re not talking about people watching movies on television, or using Blu-ray Disc players, or streaming Netflix on iPads – we’re talking about nontheatrical public performance exhibition – in places that aren’t theatres, and aren’t homes, but places in between where viewing is more often still accommodated on purpose-built content delivery platforms, where hardware and content is provided by service providers, and where such viewing is specifically defined and regulated under copyright laws.
If you’re new to the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) or inflight entertainment in general, you may not know that IFE is one of these nontheatrical public performance markets. Then this series of articles is your tutorial.
CLASS IS IN SESSION
The first theatrical projection of a motion picture took place in the Opera District in Paris on 28 December 1895, courtesy of the Lumière brothers, Louis and August. But it was on 18 December 1903 that the motion picture industry was said to have been born with the exhibition of The Great Train Robbery in the US in Manhattan’s ramshackle movie house, the Luban’s Museum on 14th Street.
From that night in 1903 until 1948 – the last year before the establishment of network television in the United States – movies were made for theatres. But in 1948, motion picture attendance in the US peaked at 90 million people a week. Some 18,000-neighbourhood movie houses were in trouble and within a decade, one-third of them would be gone.
In 1948, the 53-year-old actor William Boyd – better known to preteen boys as cowboy Hopalong Cassidy in 54 “B” western movies – was furiously acquiring all of the rights to those movies and to the Hopalong character. He and his wife Grace sold or mortgaged everything they owned to raise the needed US$350,000 and borrowed US$2,000 against their Cadillac to finance a trip to New York to acquire the television rights to the character from writer Clarence E. Mulford, the original creator of Hopalong Cassidy in short stories and 28 novels.
The original movies began airing on the new Los Angeles TV station KTLA that year, and in 1950 one hundred million dollars would be generated on Hopalong Cassidy merchandise – the equivalent of a half billion dollars fifty years later – driven by the TV audience. The primacy of the movie theatre as the most pervasive form of entertainment in America was gone. But the revenue-generating capability of movies beyond theatres was just beginning.
The Hopalong movies were played inside KTLA on a 16mm film projector with a TV camera aimed at the screen. Twelve years later – at a cost of a million dollars – a 16mm projector capable of playing movies onboard commercial aircraft was developed and IFE industry was born.
Until a few years before 1948, little thought was given to television rights. But when television displaced theatres in America, ownership of television rights suddenly had value, and by the early 1950s, movie studios were generating significant new revenues from the exploitation of their pre-1949 movie libraries on television.
And since it was television that drove merchandising sales, actors like Leonard Slye – better known to preteens as Roy Rogers – changed their acting agreements to give them ownership of their own images to adorn milk cups, lunch pails, jackets and caps as their movies moved into living rooms and spawned successful Saturday morning television series and a plethora of merchandise.
What do Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy have to do with inflight entertainment? They typify the emergence of multiple rights sets out of single rights as technology expanded the exhibition platform for filmed entertainment. These cowboys – and other motion picture characters – moved out of the theatres, which had been their sole platform for decades and into homes onto television screens and into variety stores on branded merchandise.
But to a far lesser extent, these cowboys had slipped out the back doors of theatres even decades earlier. Innovative entrepreneurs like P. Ray Swank, along with his wife Lucille, had – as early as the 1930s – driven from rural town to rural town in the Midwest with a 16mm projector and two-reel films, projecting cowboy movies on the sides of barns and churches in communities on the Chautauqua Circuit too small, or poor, for theatres.
THE IFE CHAPTER
The technology that underpinned nontheatrical entertainment was 16mm film. Most theatres used 35mm film, and 35mm projectors were too large and heavy to be easily moved about. But a single person could carry 16mm projectors, and the typical theatrical film could be reduced to two, three or four 16mm reels.
16mm projection onboard aircraft, however, faced a few more challenges. In theatres, and in nontheatrical venues, a projectionist started and stopped the projectors, changed film reels at appropriate times, and made sure the lens was in focus. On board commercial aircraft it was impractical to have a projectionist. And even though the first inflight movie was shown onboard Aeromarine Airways in 1921 with a projectionist, inflight movies did not become commercially viable until 1962 when the first onboard projection system not requiring a projectionist was born.
As John Norman White wrote in the very first edition of Airline Passenger Experience magazine in September 2011, the 16mm projector at the heart of Inflight Motion Pictures’ projection system was a ‘Kodak Pageant’. [If you were in IFE prior to September 2011, you will have known John Norman White as the publisher of AVION magazine, predecessor to this publication, and as historian extraordinaire of the IFE industry.]
The nontheatrical motion picture business was once aimed at local organizations, schools, churches and a few upscale households. Studios like Disney distributed their family-friendly movies and shorts via dozens of neighbourhood distributors. But as film societies proliferated on college campuses, demonstrating an interest in not only major Hollywood motion pictures, but also foreign films and cult films, companies like Swank Motion Pictures, Inc. – founded in St. Louis by Ray Swank – Films, Inc., and Audio Brandon distributed 16mm entertainment to more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the US and took primacy over neighbourhood distributors.
New Line Cinema was created in 1967 by Bob Shaye and Michael Lind as a nontheatrical distribution company, operating from Shaye’s apartment on 14th Street and Second Avenue in New York, and distributing cult films like Reefer Madness to college and university film societies. In the 1980s New Line entered film production and successfully exploited such franchise movies as The Nightmare on Elm Street before being bought by Ted Turner in 1993 and merged into Warner Bros in 2008.
The US Army/Air Force theatres uses 35mm film prints – the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) theatres survive to this day – and the US Navy used 16mm movies before eventually migrating to Beta and then DVDs.
In addition, many other markets originated in 16mm. The US Department of Education carried on a programme of 16mm captioned films for the deaf, the US Information Agency used 16mm films at US embassies around the world, and U.S. oil companies used 16mm films to entertain workers in camps in the Middle East and oil rigs around the world. Cruise ships used 16mm and 35mm film in the days when Movies En Route was the principal distributor, but have moved into closed-circuit systems under today’s distributors, Onboard Movies and Sea Movies, and Seachoice in the UK still provides a theatrical experience on board ferries, but via video projection rather than film.
TEST OF TIME
As home video markets led to the proliferation of videotape, many of these markets, including IFE, migrated from 16mm film to VHS or Beta – which led to considerable growth in the hospitality entertainment market – and eventually discs or digital file distribution. Today, nontheatrical markets are being impacted by mobile technologies, but are still protected by the copyright laws that define and regulate them.
Every major studio has a nontheatrical division whose job it is to fully exploit these copyright-protected public performance rights. Most often today, hospitality rights - i.e., hotel pay-per-view (PPV) - are managed along with television PPV in specialty PPV departments, and the Army/Air Force theatres may be handled by theatrical departments.
While studios handle their IFE rights in-house, markets like schools, colleges, cruise ships, ferries, busses, trains and libraries are sub-distributed under the supervision of the nontheatrical departments. Even though these avenues may account for a very small percentage of a motion picture’s overall gross, their rights collectively generate hundreds of millions of dollars each year - even more than Hopalong Cassidy’s merchandize did back in 1950.