Essays · Movies

The Forgotten History of Cinema’s First Pandemic

Nobody knows what happens next, but here’s what happened last time.
By  · Published on May 1st, 2020

Multiplexes have shuttered around the globe. Film festivals and theatrical releases have been thrown into disarray. Movie production has been brought to a halt. Calling the future of the film industry uncertain is an understatement. Considering there’s no shortage of people foretelling the death of cinema under normal circumstances, you don’t have to look hard to find someone declaring the COVID-19 pandemic as THE END for movies and especially movie theaters.

The future of movies is undoubtedly a giant question mark, and the film industry is taking a massive hit, but “giant question mark” doesn’t mean the same thing as doomed. It means nobody knows. That hasn’t stopped people from speculating. But one glaring absence from most of that speculation is a sense of historical perspective. COVID-19 is not the first pandemic that the movies have weathered. It’s the second.

A pandemic has profound repercussions for practically every industry, including Hollywood, and that was the case a century ago, as well, during the devastating avian flu of 1918-19. Although the media has recognized that disease, despite its differences, as the closest precedent to our current situation, historians have called it “the forgotten pandemic” for a reason. Thankfully, there are plenty of publications from the time that have been conveniently digitized and can now offer a reminder.

The world was less globalized in 1918, and the flu pandemic spread across the US more slowly than COVID-19 has. Therefore, shutdowns of cinemas, while sweeping, tended to be far patchier and more regional in nature. The first city to close its movie theaters was Boston, in late September. Originally intended to last 10 days, it went on for a month. Other cities soon followed suit, and by mid-October, most — but not all — states had mandated closures.

Some cities kept movie theaters open with modified services, such as in New Haven, Connecticut, where around a quarter of the cinemas remained open. One noteworthy safety precaution taken involved keeping projector slides on hand with such messages as “The person who sneezed and coughed endangered this whole audience. Please leave at once” to be used during screenings if necessary. Presumably, the mortified attendee would comply.

In areas where theaters were allowed to remain open, a key consideration in their favor was the value of screenings as a method of communicating flu-related information and best practices to help reduce the spread. While COVID-19 updates hit us from all sides via text alerts, push notifications, TV ads, etc., back in 1918, pre-screening PSAs and news bulletins were still among the most convenient ways to get information to as many members of a community as possible.

That being said, even where theaters stayed open, it was far from business as usual, as concerns about contracting the disease led to patronage dropping off by fifty percent or more in many places. There are a few reports of open suburban theaters experiencing slight increases in attendance thanks to an influx of people from locked down urban areas seeking entertainment elsewhere. However, they were very much an exception to the general rule.

Many exhibitors wrung their hands over the financial implications of mandated shutdowns, though a surprisingly high number used the pause to renovate their theaters, hoping various improvements would help entice audiences back to the movies later. Writing in the November 23, 1918, issue of Motion Picture News, W. C. Patterson, the manager of the Criterion Theater in Atlanta, commented on the forced closure of his cinema as “an opportunity to sit down and take a good, long think. […] It has enabled us to revive our ‘pep’ and get right behind our promotion plans to the end that we will be able, when the time comes, to put a number of ideas that have been evolved into actual practice.”

Statewide closures were mostly lifted by late November. By the end of 1918, movie theaters across the country were generally allowed to be open for business so long as they took safety precautions, although the mandated precautions varied widely. Generally speaking, all employees and patrons were required to wear masks at all times, and many theaters were required to limit attendance  — the term “social distancing” was not yet coined, but it was widely practiced.

As it was up to state and local officials to determine procedures, the specifics varied considerably, but reports from the time indicate that requiring theaters to operate at fifty percent capacity was the most common policy. Some communities went with a more lenient seventy-five percent. A ruling in Iowa, meanwhile, mandated an alternate-seat, alternate-row seating policy, effectively requiring theaters to operate at twenty-five-percent capacity. Another common restriction involved banning children from cinemas, though whether these policies were motivated out of particular concern for their health or worries that as schools reopened they might be particularly likely to spread the flu is unclear.

The longer the pandemic went on, the more regionally distinct and varied responses became. A small percentage of American movie theaters remained open the entire time. On the other end of the spectrum, one town in Illinois kept their cinema closed for over three months before finally reopening in mid-January. Most movie houses fell somewhere in between, closing when cases first skyrocketed in the fall of 1918 and then operating under a variety of restrictions and precautionary measures for months with the understanding that a resurgence could — and did in many places — require them to close their doors again for days or even weeks at a time.

Theater compliance with health authorities varied widely, particularly as frustrations mounted in the later months of the pandemic, and there were a number of instances of theater managers and industry coalitions protesting against more stringent restrictions. A handful of conflicts even went to court.

While some theater managers re-opened after the peak of the outbreak with reduced rates to help woo audiences back, others raised ticket prices, at some theaters by fifty percent or more, in efforts to counteract the financial impact of reduced attendance. According to one estimate published in Photoplay, around eighty percent of movie houses across the US and Canada were forced to close for a week or more, representing a loss in gross receipts of around $40 million (adjusted for inflation, that’s around $600 million today). It’s worth noting that this estimate was published in early January 1919, when a number of significant regional closures due to the influenza pandemic were still ongoing, a trend which would continue for several weeks more, suggesting that these numbers likely significantly underestimate the real losses.

The nationwide scale of theater closures due to the 1918 flu pandemic was unprecedented, but it was also, in a way, an extreme instance of a rather commonplace grievance. In 2020, we are decidedly unused to infectious disease impacting our daily lives, and the ongoing cataclysmic economic impact of COVID-19 speaks at least in part to the extent to which our systems are no longer built to accommodate such a threat. What we have taken for granted as normal for decades in truth represents a reprieve from the historical norm.

In the 1910s, temporary local business closures to curb the spread of disease were relatively common. Perhaps no example illustrates this more clearly than the Northwestern region “news in brief” column in the January 25, 1919, issue of Motion Picture News, which followed up a long list of local flu-related closures with a somewhat darkly comedic blurb announcing, “McMinnville, Oregon, is a freak town, for it was closed by the health board because of a smallpox scare and not because of the flu.” Another outlier town is mentioned several sentences later, only in Sheridan, Oregon, it was a diphtheria outbreak that mandated theaters close for a few days.

Film exhibition was undoubtedly the sector of the industry hit hardest, but production was also significantly impacted by the pandemic. While an estimate published in a January 1919 issue of Photoplay estimates over forty percent of US studios shut down completely for at least some amount of time, other coverage of the pandemic suggests the real numbers were higher. The November 15, 1918, issue of Variety, for instance, reports that the coming Monday will mark the end of “a voluntary lay-off of five weeks” during which time “all studio activity was curtailed.”

Although prominent industry figures continued to come down with the flu leading to significant impacts on production into 1919 — iconic D. W. Griffith leading lady Lillian Gish, for instance, caught a severe case on the set of Broken Blossoms –by the dawn of the new year, production was more or less hobbling along and aspiring towards business as usual.

Some studios, such as Triangle Film Corporation — already in economic trouble before the pandemic hit — never recovered. Anecdotal evidence suggests that East Coast studios were hit substantially harder than their West Coast counterparts. While there is no hard evidence to support a direct correlation, the timing does line up remarkably with the film industry’s move westward and California’s rise to uncontested dominance as the central hub of American moviemaking. To be clear, things were already moving in that direction and a number of major industry players were already packing up their East Coast operations and heading for LA, but there’s definite room to speculate that the pandemic might have sped this shift along.

It’s as valuable to consider a situation from the bottom up as it is from the top down, which means also taking a minute to consider the impact of the 1918-19 flu pandemic at the level of the individual. Perhaps the most striking feature of this flu strain was that it flipped the typical notion of vulnerability on its head, as young people in prime health were among those most likely to die if sickened.

The biggest American movie star to die in the pandemic was Harold Lockwood, a popular leading man who became one of cinema’s first bona fide matinee idols before his death on October 19, 1918, at the age of 31. Mourning fans caused the demand for his final films to skyrocket for months afterward. Up-and-coming filmmaker John H. Collins, who had directed more than forty features and shorts since his 1914 debut and was highly regarded for his numerous collaborations with the actress Viola Dana (also his wife), was just 28 when he died from flu complications.

In the world of film exhibition, Flossie Jones, “probably the best-known woman [movie theater] manager in the country,” also died from flu complications in October 1918. In just four years, she had gone from an industry newcomer renting a dilapidated theater to running a company that owned all four movie houses in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and she was elected vice-president and state organizer of Wisconsin’s Motion Picture Exhibitors’ Association just days before her death.

Reading through movie magazines published during the pandemic uncovers lists of up-and-comers whose promising trajectories were stopped abruptly in their tracks by the flu. There’s no way of knowing how many young unknowns might have gone on to be titans of industry in an alternate universe. There’s also no way of knowing how many productions, studios, or movie theaters never recovered from pandemic losses. But the movies went on, and while there were substantial financial losses, the most profitable period of cinematic history was still to come.

While the industry on the whole recovered, it’s undeniable that the 1918-19 flu pandemic had a seismic impact. Yet, it’s also undeniable that, in looking at a film history book or docuseries produced today, one would never know it happened at all. Regardless of what happens next, just like what happened then, there will still be an entertainment industry. There will still be audiences and a demand for new stories. There will also, sooner or later, be new viruses. Maybe next time we will remember the experience and figure out better ways to prepare.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.