The Fall of The Century: The Cinema History Factor

If you've rented a VHS or DVD movie, or watched a broadcast of a film, or gone the Pay-Per-View route, or purchased movies to add to your library, then you're part of the reason that the film business changed.

By M Adrian Brassington
Published January 20, 2010

In light of the brouhaha over The Century's demise (as I type these words, its bricks are being separated and sent tumbling to the ground), I believe some deeper reflection is in order.

Not so much to further process the sadness of losing one of Hamilton's remaining historical theatres/cinemas, but rather to assemble and consider a more accurate set of facts - this time from the general cinema history category - so that we can better answer the question 'Why did The Century fall?'

Often, and certainly in this instance, concentrating on the small picture - Hamilton's lack of direction regarding the downtown, lax by-law enforcement, suspect property owner motivations - prevents us from appreciating the big picture, such as other, bigger-than-Hamilton contributing factors.

(If in fact 'understanding' is what you're craving, and not just another excuse to get righteous and feel you're living a valid existence. Whoops; I think I just dripped some sarcasm down my shirt.)

Appropriately, given that we're examining history and heritage, let's go back in time.

Back to the Heyday

It's 1940. Hamilton's population is about 170,000, taking into account a retroactive regional amalgamation. We're in the arguable 'heyday' of moviegoing. The cinematic landscape of Hamilton is broad and deep.

Its largest auditorium, its premier 'cinema palace' is aptly named: The Palace. It seats well over 3,000. The Capitol, several doors down King Street, seats 2,000-plus.

There are others, of course: The Tivoli, The Savoy, The Regent, The Royal, The Grenada, The Strand and The Westdale, amongst others. These 'others' of course, include The Century.

During this era, the average North American goes to their local cinemas roughly thirty times a year. (Allow me to indulge myself here and submit that this figure can be adjusted for those people who don't see any movies ever - both the elderly and the very young - to approach a 'once a week' figure.)

Importantly, all of Hollywood's revenues from its product comes from cinema receipts alone. One hundred percent. If you wanted to take in a movie, going to the cinema was your only option.

Moreover, going to the cinema was it, entertainment-wise. Yes, there was the theatre. Yes, there were restaurants, dances, sporting events and other options. But a night at the pictures, the movie-house, a silver-screen date ... it was a big deal, a foundation of people's social lives.

Going out to the flicks was an event. Movie-houses were packed on the weekend, and matinées had far more appeal than they do today, which is why there were so many truly amazing cinemas built from 1925-1935 the world over.

To properly understand the cachet that films had back then, Google the box office figures for the most popular films of this era. When inflation is factored in, the results are truly astonishing.

Or check out YouTube for videos of New York City, showing cinemas strung together, busier than beehives, people flocking to their local palace or nabe.

It was an amazing world. But that world no longer exists.

Fast Forward

Let's return to Hamilton in 2010. Its regional population has tripled to over 500,000. And the cinema-going landscape? Well, the options below the Escarpment are The Empire Cinemas at Jackson Square (six screens), and The Westdale. That's it.

Above? Two Cineplex SilverCity multiplexes containing a total of 18 screens (at the peripheries of the city), and The Movie Palace at the Mountain brow.

Other changes are substantial. The average North American now goes to the cinema about six times a year. Most of his or her viewings of film are experienced on screens of another type entirely: television, home projection, computer, iPod.

Cinema receipts now only account for between ten and twelve percent of Hollywood's revenues. Yeah, I know; that's an unbelievable stat, incongruous when you consider that 'Box Office Numbers' may as well be a popular game, the extent to which people drool over them on message boards.

The rest, the overwhelming majority of revenues generated by the medium? Broadcast rights for television and DVD sales.

In fact, it's quite possible that when simultaneous releases arrive (when a film will be released at the cinema, available for online download and rental at the exact same time), the box office figure could eventually go as low as five percent.

In Hamilton today, there only one single-screen cinema now exists, a contemporary of The Century, albeit a much younger one: The Westdale.

In the downtown, where there used to be enough cinemas to require two hands with which to count them, again only one remains, the aforementioned multiplex of six at Jackson Square.

So What happened?

Many things changed over the interim between 1940 and today; but in the name of brevity, these factors, in chronological order, are the most critical:

  1. The breakup of the production and distribution monopolies.

  2. Television.

  3. The blockbuster release.

  4. The VCR.

  5. Multiple-screen cinemas. The 'multiplex'.

  6. The DVD.

When the monopolies were dissolved (it used to be that studios owned their own cinemas, exerting complete control over their product from conception to exhibition), the game changed.

Additionally, the first death-knell of the single-screen movie palace (such as The Century) was sounded.

On another front entirely, from the moment television appeared, the very paradigm of entertainment began to shift. No longer did you have to go outside the home to get your visual kicks. And with the advent of the 'blockbuster' in the mid-70s, studios began rethinking how and when they produced films, rejigging the very strategies of the business.

By 1980, Hollywood's receipts from cinemas (again, in relation to the entire revenue pie) were down to fifty-five percent of the total, thanks to the VCR and its cassettes as well as television broadcast rights.

By 1985, this figure was twenty-five percent.

To pound the truth home regarding the final item in our list: in 1997, DVD sales were zero, but by 2002, they accounted for over $10 billion.

(It's important to note that Hollywood doesn't care where it gets its revenue. They no longer own the cinemas, so they don't care how the revenue stream is comprised, only that it continues to grow. While this is germane to the discussion at hand, it's nevertheless another one entirely.)

While all of the above was unfolding, film exhibition companies in Canada such as Famous Players and Cineplex-Odeon cut their costs to the bone: single-screen cinemas were closed, replaced with multi-screen facilities - or not replaced at all.

As first the VCR and then DVDs had hit the market, people had begun 'cocooning', staying home rather than taking the time - and spending the money - to go out, viewing films at their convenience, relishing the power to press 'Pause'.

We Have Seen the Enemy

So although many people curse the companies that decimated the movie-going landscape with their restructuring and closures, here's a generally unspoken truth:

And here's something else, another component rarely considered: the very idea of being in a huge auditorium with other people, having a communal experience had gradually lost its appeal, its lustre reduced substantially over the decades.

With so much unfolding 'out there' in the world, a movie screen's power in delivering larger-than-life entertainment lessened with each passing year: World War 2. The Cold War. Korea, Vietnam, a president's assassination, moon landings, the oil crisis, a recession, personal computers, mobile phones, the Internet...and on and on and on and on.

Certainly, spectacle still sold tickets, but as the world had changed, so had the way in which people saw it, and how they viewed their entertainment. Literally.

Indeed, individualism and a certain paradoxical insularism (the World Wide Web and all its wonders be damned) rule the day now, not the 'shared' experience. (And to think that the Walkman may have been the initial culprit in these escalating 'death by 1,000 cuts' infractions.)

Falling Cinema Capacity

Within the past three decades, five major cinemas existed in downtown Hamilton, with a combined seating capacity of over 8,000. (I'm not saying they were being used to capacity.)

Today? The Jackson Square facility has less than a quarter of that number.

1973 proved to be a pivotal year in Hamilton. Both The Capitol and The Palace movie palaces were demolished that year, while The Odeon (twin-screened) opened just down the street, as did Jackson Square Famous Players twin-screens.

In less than two decades, The Tivoli and The Century would join The Odeon in mothballs.

Hamilton suffered horribly from the film exhibition business shakeups, the downsizing by both Cineplex-Odeon and Famous Players, in combination with the general downturn of the economy, especially when considering the steel industry's travails. A refocusing of development attention from the downtown to the peripheral areas surely didn't help.

So. In response to 'Why did The Century fall?', insofar as the cinema-related reasons go, the answer to me seems like it was a 'perfect storm' of circumstances: unpredictably changing entertainment habits in concert with powerful, ever-rising-stakes business forces.

We're all at blame to one degree or another in this 'crime' being committed, just as those people who decided to close cinemas and then demolish them, only to have parking lots replace them, or beauty supply stores or wing 'n beer restaurants or condos played their parts.

What's interesting to me is that I doubt anyone here, if they're old enough, would have changed any of their behaviour at the time to prevent these ends, even had they been warned. But then, we do live in a free-market, capitalistic democracy, where everyone casts their votes by way of their dollars.

M Adrian Brassington is a Hamilton writer.


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By Tsuchiya (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2010 at 18:03:45


I think the theater industry has declined because it hasn't evolved. When I think back 50+ years ago, and think about what the theater has to offer me now, I see the same thing.

Except now, I have options. If i wait about 4 months I can rent the DVD and watch it on my big plasma for about 6$. I can pause, eat whatever food I want, drink alcohol, take a smoke break, wear whatever I want etc... No hassle in planning or choosing a show time, No hassle in finding a parking spot. Just easy movie watching.

As for an outing. I'm not opposed to a night out. As a single guy it's inexpensive to go to the movies, but I can't imagine what it'd be like for a family man. Movies cost me about 10-20$ depending on munchies when I go out. A family of 4 would be about 50$ or more? I don't' see the value in going to the movies shelling out that kind of dough just for a movie that I'm not even sure if I'd enjoy.

Avatar 3D has caught on. It was good experience using those 3-D glasses. This kind of innovation is what should help bring theaters back onto people's radars as something to do.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted January 20, 2010 at 22:24:52

Fascinating and well-written article.

This article, and the one you wrote prior to it, both seem to make the same point: if the world were a different place, the fate of the Century would also be different.

But isn't that kind of obvious?

Books - the physical ones, made of paper - are also heading towards extinction. Most people read fewer than one book per year. E-books are increasingly popular. The end result may be that our libraries are no longer as needed as they once were. But if people purchased our libraries and then let them collapse, would it really be the fault of the people who read less?

The Century was a building worth saving that could have been used for a number of purposes, such as for condos, which was the supposed intention of its owner. That he did not build condos and instead let the building decay to the point of collapse is not because the 1940s were better for cinema than the 2000s.

I agree with you that there are more factors to consider than simply the behaviour of the owner, but I think it's a stretch to say that television viewing habits are the culprit here. Times change. Buildings, and their owners, need to change with them.

More on that in a separate article, perhaps.

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By Webster (registered) - website | Posted January 24, 2010 at 11:57:12

Okay Brassington you may know the difference between 'bring' and 'take' but do you know the 5 uses of the comma without having to google the rule? Then don't brag!

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By kevin (registered) | Posted January 25, 2010 at 22:23:59

Hi, statius. Remember me?

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