|Reviewer(s):||Haupert, Michael J.|
Published by EH.NET (August 2001)
John Sedgwick, Popular Filmgoing in 1930s Britain: A Choice of
Pleasures. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000. x + 316 pp. ?45
(hardback), ISBN: 0-85989-660-9.
Reviewed by Michael J. Haupert, Department of Economics, University of
Wisconsin – La Crosse.
John Sedgwick (Principal Research Fellow, University of North London) has
produced a book that is thorough and engaging, if not terribly sophisticated.
This is not to say that it is superficial. The model he has developed to test
the popularity of movies in Britain during the 1930s is easily applicable to a
much wider range of the industry. He also attempts to measure film
profitability without the aid of complete financial statistics. In this
regard, his efforts are laudable, though they fall somewhat short. None of
this however, detracts from the fine piece of research that Sedgwick has
The subject matter of the book in general should be fascinating to a wide
range of scholars and students. And despite its title, there is a lot of
general material covered therein. In addition, it features a terrific
bibliography that will allow any scholar or reader wishing to delve into the
motion picture industry an easy leg up on the literature. His work does focus
rather specifically on the British motion picture industry, and for that
reason may not initially appeal to as wide an audience as it should. This is
unfortunate, because while the rich data set that Sedgwick uses is from 1930s
Britain, the points he highlights are general and should appeal to anyone with
an interest in the economic or social history of the movies.
Chapter one is a nicely developed theory of film choice, which would make an
interesting example for a microeconomics lecture on consumer choice. The
theory as it is laid out seeks to explain the Hollywood marketing and
distribution strategies, particularly for mainstream, big-budget films, as the
lowest risk method of determining what the consumer really wants. He presents
the consumption of film as an ex-ante gamble, in which consumers don’t really
know what they are buying when they purchase a ticket, but have only limited
information that attempts to signal a variety of qualities relating to the
He develops this concept more deeply in chapter eight, “Genres, Generic
Lineages and ‘Hits,'” by suggesting that filmmakers created films to fit
genres to signal qualities that made it easier for consumers to make
purchasing decisions. This theory is further developed in the following
chapter in which Sedgwick argues the same thing for movie stars, who
essentially serve as signaling devices to consumers about the satisfaction
they will achieve by viewing a movie starring a particular actor.
In between, Sedgwick uses his data set of movies and play dates in theaters in
three British cities (London, Bolton and Brighton) to develop a model to
measure the popularity of films. He is careful to distinguish popularity from
profitability, and even attempts to create a separate profitability measure
out of the limited financial data available to him. This is the weakest part
of his work. He does not display great comfort with financial concepts, at one
point mixing up rate of return with operating revenue and variable costs.
This is but a minor quibble however, since this issue is more of an aside.
Chapters 2, 10 and 11 are summary chapters, drawing heavily upon the work of
others. Direct quotes from other authors are numerous and lengthy. As such,
they offer little in the way of novel ideas or additions to the literature,
but do serve as handy summaries of some of the extant motion picture industry
research. For this reason they are interesting reads for anyone looking for a
brief overview of the British film market in the 1920s (chapter 2), the
Gaumont-British production company (chapter 10) or the particular difficulties
facing the British film producers in the late 1930s (chapter 11).
In his introduction, Sedgwick claims to write a book about popular cinema in
Britain during the 1930s. While this is certainly true, he manages to do so
much more than just provide a narrow view of a specific market in the film
industry. The theories he proposes and the models he creates to test them are
general in scope and leave lots of room for future scholars to follow his path
and extend his research. In the end, he has produced a top-notch study of an
industry that is under-explored in the economics literature. While focusing on
a narrowly defined data set, he manages to produce a volume that cuts a wide
swath through the history of the motion picture industry. It is a highly
Michael Haupert is currently working on a history of the American
entertainment industry, but has had little luck thus far in marketing the
movie rights to the book.
|Subject(s):||International and Domestic Trade and Relations|
|Geographic Area(s):||North America|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: WWII and post-WWII|