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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

produced.

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

film.

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

recommended read.

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.