April 6, 2009
Gregory A. Waller (Indiana University), “16mm Hollywood”

Additional support for this event came from ARTHEMIS.

Gregory A. Waller teaches in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University.  His publications include Moviegoing in America (Blackwell, 2002) and Main Street Amusements: Film and Commercial Entertainment in a Southern City, 1895-1930 (Smithsonian Institute Press, 1995). His current research projects are a history of 16mm in the 1930s and 1940s and “Japan-in-America: The Turn of the Twentieth Century,” a study of the representation of Japan across American media, 1890-1915.

Event report: The work of Gregory A. Waller considers how 16mm film fits into the wider history of twentieth century media forms. This talk focussed on the period of the mid-1930s through the 1940s when the increasing prominence of 16mm sound film, cameras, and projectors significantly affected the practices, the products, the public profile, and the presence of cinema in the United States. Waller explores several of the ways that Hollywood—then at the height of its professional, commercial, theatrical, 35mm power—faced the challenges or seized the opportunities of 16mm. The 1930s saw the dissemination of 16mm in schools and other non-theatrical venues, while itinerant exhibitors threatened Hollywood’s supremacy by offering an inexpensive (sometimes even free) and accessible sound cinema alternative. Throughout this decade and the next, the established film industry sought and found various ways to harness the potential offered by the new equipment’s portability, adaptability, and durability. While the traditional account of the rise of 16mm emphasizes its rivalry with Hollywood, Waller pointed out numerous ways in which the industry embraced 16mm and used it to enhance promotional, distribution, and exhibition strategies. Through examples of representations of cinema in popular culture, including advertisements and a commemorative postage stamp, Waller suggests a more complex understanding of the place of the 16mm format in the cinema landscape. For example, 16mm was used to promote upcoming commercial feature films and to circulate prints for the growing foreign film market. Also, 16mm material from the 1940s became the earliest programming for television in the 1950s. In an unexpected instance of the industry’s treatment of 16mm as a valuable window of exhibition for already-existing content, California’s Keliher Commission on Human Relations excerpted Hollywood feature films and distributed the clips on 16mm for the purpose of teaching interpersonal and human relations values to adolescents. Images of overseas 16mm exhibition were even used to illustrate the film industry’s commitment to America’s war efforts. Waller’s talk suggested a point of entry into a colourful and largely unexplored history of 16mm cinema.