How popular was Things to Come?

While I'm on the topic of Things to Come, I should correct a mistake I made in the talk I gave at the summer school. I said that Things to Come didn't do particularly well at the box office. I still haven't found any actual figures for that, but I've found what may be better, a ranking of its popularity out of all films shown in Britain in 1936. It turns out it was the 9th most popular film that year, out of over a hundred shown, so obviously it should actually be counted as a success. (Given that it was also an expensive film to make, it may not have turned much of a profit, if any, and that may have been what I was thinking of.)

This information comes from a very interesting exercise in quantitative history, John Sedgwick's Popular Filmgoing in 1930s Britain: A Choice of Pleasures (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000). What Sedgwick did was take a sample of cinemas and go through their programmes to see how many weeks each feature film was shown for, and whether it had first or second billing, to be used as a weight. He also came up with a weighting for each cinema, based on its capacity to earn revenue (more seats and/or higher ticket prices means more weight). The number of weeks a film was shown for at a given cinema is then multiplied by the billing weight and the cinema weight, and this number was summed across all cinemas the film was shown at, to arrive at a popularity statistic, POPSTAT, for the film. Just in case that explanation failed to confuse you, here's the equation defining POPSTAT, from p. 71 of his book:1

POPSTAT equation

To the extent that POPSTAT actually means something, I suppose it is the potential total earnings of a film, and this in turn reflects the judgement of cinema managers as to whether cinema patrons would actually come to see the film, which in its turn would have been based upon how well the film was actually doing (ie, is it worth keeping it on for another week?) So in the end, assuming that cinema managers were responding to market forces, POPSTAT does indirectly measure something of a film's popularity.2 For the record, Things to Come has a POPSTAT of 40.65, just behind Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time (40.95 -- so close as makes no difference) but comfortably ahead of the Dickens adaptation, A Tale of Two Cities (34.18). The most popular film of the year was Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (83.26). Most films in the top 100 had POPSTATs in the teens. (The results for 1934-6 are actually online as an appendix to a seminar given by Sedgwick.)

And if you don't trust all that number-crunching, then here's one data point Sedgwick mentions, relating specifically to Things to Come: its run at the Leicester Square Theatre (where it premiered, as it happens) was 9 weeks, with the longest run for that cinema in 1932-7 being 11 weeks. So, I think it can safely be said that it wasn't a flop (contra me). I stand by my other point, however, which was that Things to Come is actually very singular, at least in British feature films: there are very few depictions of a city being turned to rubble by air attack, as in the clip in the previous post. In fact, I don't know of any. So however successful Things to Come actually was -- and it should be remembered that this may have been due more to the visually stunning scenes set in 2036 than the more depressing scenes set in 1940 -- it's not something film producers rushed out to emulate.

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  1. You can create your own using a LaTeX-based generator. Try it, it's fun! []
  2. The exact numbers should be taken with a grain of salt -- I doubt four significant figures can be meaningful with such a dataset. One important caveat is the cinema sample. Not every cinema in Britain is used but only a selection of West End and first-run provincial cinemas. But unless films were markedly more popular in their second runs, I don't think this would matter too much. []

8 thoughts on “How popular was Things to Come?

  1. Roger Todd

    I have never been avle to find out what it took at the box-office, but in sheer terms of bums-on-seats, your finding that it was the ninth most popular film in Britain that year is probably as good as any other indication as to its popularity. Christopher Frayling, in his marvellous BFI Film Classics book on Things To Come, says:


    Although 1936 was the year of London Transport’s Constructivist air-brushed poster ‘By Bus to the Pictures Tonight’, not too many people seem to have gone by bus to see Things to Come. It was a critical success, but only did moderately well at the box-office. Alexander Korda tried to put a brave face on things: when asked if the film would ever break even, he would reply, ‘Of course. It was an expensive effort but we’re only a few thousands out at the moment.’ An American film distributor was more blunt about it. ‘Nobody is going to believe,’ he said, ‘that the world is going to be saved by a bunch of people with British accents.’


    The design press was divided, the Architectural Review devoting a double-page spread and praise to the film, the Architect's Journal being less effusive, and Design Today being fairly unimpressed, especially with the portrayal of the future artist, Theotocopoulos.

    Film critics, too, were divided, and Frayling says:


    Outside the design world, newspapers were fairly evenly divided as to the merits of Everytown 2036. Graham Greene, in the Spectator (28 February 1936), thought the first third of the film was ‘magnificent’ but judged the ‘vision of the world peopled by beautiful idealistic scientists’ to be sentimental and strangely old-fashioned. The Times (21 February) thought ‘the new world, with all its machinery and vistas of glass and steel, is so large and glittering, and so obviously a working model, that one cannot imagine how it could have been done.’ Alistair Cooke, in the Listener (18 March) - the best-known review of the film, today reckoned that ‘it must be heartbreaking for Mr Wells to be told that the costumes he predicted they’d be wearing in 2030 are to be the very thing in beach-wear this summer. ... Things to Come shares with most Utopias the primary error of making today the premiss.’ But he did concede that ‘Vincent Korda is the hero of the piece... When it comes to considering what sort of rooms we shall be living in in forty years (mine’s in oak, just six feet by three) your guess is as good as mine. But it could hardly be as good as Vincent Korda’s. By a few imaginative strokes on his drawing board he has made the piece a lovely thing to look at.’


    Note that Green was more impressed by the near-future section at the start than by the far-future of the last part of the film.

    Frayling also has interesting things to say on the public reaction to the war section:


    Disturbing stills from the blitz sequence were subsequently published in a book called Aerial Wonders of Our Time, which warned the government and anyone else who might be listening of the imminent danger of ‘death from the skies’. When Things to Come was reissued as a second feature, in suburban cinemas, in 1940, Mass Observation reporters noted that the shots of squadron after squadron of enemy planes flying unharmed over the white cliffs of Dover were greeted with laughter, but that the sequence of panic in the streets following the air-raid were watched in complete silence. The anti-war discussions in John Cabal’s house also ‘aroused interest’. One witness reckoned that in retrospect the film had proved to be ‘a provoking prophecy’.


    Finally, the BIS (British Interplanetary Society) was horrified by the Space Gun!

  2. Chris Williams

    My ha'pporth: once the release gets outside the city-centre cinemas to the suburban ones - many 'fleapits' catering to an almost exclusively working-class audience - any attendance figures have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Not least because many cinemas didn't count the customers that they got in on Sundays for allegedly non-profit-making 'benefits' which got round the Sunday trading laws. More info on this might be found in Jancovich and Faire's _The Place of the Audience_.

  3. Post author


    Thanks for the quotes, I would have looked up Frayling before the talk except the BL would give it to me! I have Aerial Wonders of our Time -- actually a partwork -- and in fact I used those pictures in my talk. I think they are publicity stills though, as they don't seem to be actually in the film (unless they've been cut from the subsequent edits).

    I agree with the BIS. What is it with pioneering SF and using cannons for space travel? Verne did it too.


    The advantage (and disadvantage) of Sedgwick's method is that it doesn't rely on attendance figures (which it doesn't seemed were widely compiled anyway). It basically assumes that if people still wanted to watch a film, then cinemas would show it; conversely, if they stopped coming to see it, then cinemas would drop it (and pass it down the chain). But it is possible to imagine scenarios where that isn't always the case. For example Leicester Square Cinema, where TTC premiered, was owned by (from memory) United Artists which seems to have had an arrangement with Korda's London Films to promote their films. So the fact that it was on for 9 weeks there may have been a loss-leader to help persuade other cinemas to keep showing it. Or something. But again with a large enough cinema sample that sort of problem would be minimised.

  4. Roger Todd

    "I agree with the BIS. What is it with pioneering SF and using cannons for space travel? Verne did it too."

    Aye! It was excusable for Verne writing in the 1860s, and even Wells used it in 'The War of the Worlds' in 1897 (the Martians appear to have fired their cylinders at Earth from a giant gun on their planet).

    In 'Things To Come', however, he appears to have done it as a sort of metaphorical effect. The Space Gun paraphrases the anti-aircraft guns in Everytown Square. The anti-aircraft guns point up at a threatening sky, the Space Gun points up at a sky full of opportunity. It's all a bit 'swords into ploughshares'.

  5. Post author

    Oh, I hadn't thought of it like that -- it does make sense.

    I'm not inclined to give Verne a pass though -- the science was available to tell him that after firing, the occupants of the Columbiad would have been smeared into a thin paste covering the floor ...

  6. Roger Todd

    I'm sure Verne knew that his Columbiad passengers would be turned to mush. He did, IIRC (it's years since I've read it, and I don't have a copy to refer to), devise multiple collapsing floors on hydraulic springs in the projectile to absorb the shock of firing. Of course, they wouldn't have worked, probably delaying mush-time by about a hundredth of a second, but it indicates he realised the problem. To be fair to him, the solid-fuel rockets of his day were simply too primitive to be regarded as a solution (though he used manoeuvring rockets on the projectile, probably along Congreve lines), and not until Tsiolkovski decades later would liquid-fuel be considered.

    Incidentally, Things To Come was on telly earlier this afternoon, on BBC2 - I had a quick peep and it was the restored version on the new DVD.

  7. Post author

    It's probably even longer since I've read it! But even granting that the rockets of his day were primitive, you'd think a half-baked propulsion system along those lines might seem more plausible than the intricately worked out but still self-evidently bogus he came up with. Somehow Wells's Cavorite seems less silly to me.

    I'm not sure why I'm objecting so strongly though, given that just over a month ago, on this very blog, I stated that "The degree to which science fiction accurately predicts the future is not really the point ..." Perhaps giant cannons are to scientific romance as warp drives are to modern science fiction? And since I'm happy enough to accept warp drives as necessary plot devices to allow the author to tell the story they want to tell, I should probably just accept Verne's cannon on that basis. But I still wish he'd gone with something he wasn't quite sure wouldn't work, rather than something he knew would not.

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