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
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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- You can create your own using a LaTeX-based generator. Try it, it's fun!
- 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.