In the typical form of modern film exhibition, movie theaters buzz with the attraction of single feature films. These films are preceded by eight to ten minutes of trailers brandishing other single features arriving in the next couple of months. With the exception of the midnight release or the celebratory Sunday marathon, the presence of single motion picture screenings has become the movie theater’s undisputable standard.
Paying to see two or more films back-to-back has since been limited to the end of trilogies and the festival cycle. There was a time, though, where the presence of the double feature appeared in more than 75% of all major and independent theaters across the country. The double bill first flourished initially in our very own New England before circulating the rest of the nation. They have since been limited to repertory and art house theaters for the most part. As for the Boston area in particular, the Brattle Theatre is the only establishment still showing these bills on a regular basis.
The formation of the double feature began as the exhibitor’s response to financial stress, mainly planted on audiences by the Great Depression. While instances of two consecutive screenings for the price of one did arise in the 1920s, particularly with Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill’s Wild West compilation (hence the “double bill” term, initially intended for good humor), this type of exhibition did not gain notable popularity until the 1930s. Theaters wanted to acclimate the financial hardships of their audiences by offering two films for the price of one, while still keeping their business standards in mind and bringing bodies into the seats.
For both of these reasons, the start of double features existed simultaneously with theater gimmicks such as trivia and bingo nights, giveaway drawings, and the chance to win household luxuries such as glassware and brand new cars upon attending. Out of all these marketing attempts the double feature became the most popular, if not the most tactful, especially considering the competition going on between major and independent film studios. The powerful studios at the time – RKO, MGM, Paramount, Fox, and Warner Brothers, while more successful at showing single features, found themselves profiting off the double bill as independent studios did.
While the double feature communicated with the financial woes of audiences, this type of screening also worked alongside the process of block booking. The act of block booking was a form of distribution that offered a collection of A and B movies—“A” movies typically having better known casts, production value, and withstanding budgets, and “B” movies fitting the lower half of the bill. Exhibitors were able to buy a lump sum of films combining these categories through block booking. Titles were only distinguished by a number and an overall prize bracket for the exhibitor to choose from. While this form of purchasing had become illegal by the 1940s, the double bill served as a response to this form of distribution that grew controversial to exhibitors.
By the mid 1930s, up to 75% of all cinemas were showcasing double bills as their main attractions. These features typically began with an “A” film, sometimes following a short animated break or newsreel footage, and then a “B” film following shortly after. “B” movies were initially understood as simply being the less quality, but that was not the only factor adhering to this title. A work could be labeled a “B” film depending on the theaters it screened in, the amount of marketing efforts during distribution, and the marketing tactics used to get the title to the public attention. The reason for popularity of the double bill depended on the area they were screened; smaller towns had a difficult time making money off single features, so double bills established an effective two-for-one attraction. Larger cities with more popular cinemas were more concerned with pushing the “A” movie versus the “B” movie hierarchy to its audiences and surrounding exhibitors.
By the 1950s the popularity of the double feature began dwindling in more expansive, urban areas. Controversy always existed for this form of exhibition, but audience complaints were beginning to reach a new high. This downfall occurred especially in light of the drive-in movie and the “combined” double bill. Following the banning of block booking in 1948, theaters began constructing more sensible tactics for pairing films together in these combined bills. Some pairs included sequels or prequels of each other, films belonging to the same specific genres, or on the contrary, films of completely different genres in an attempt to satisfy entire family audiences.
None of these decisions generated much popularity with audiences, despite exhibitors’ attempts to work around their complaints. For example, guests felt like double features were too long for one sitting. As a response, theaters began applying sloppy edits and cuts to the films, typically the “A” film, to make sure all double features lasted an appropriate amount of time. These edits made the viewing jumpy and distracting. Audiences also felt like films not directly involved with one another were never paired correctly. Completely mismatching genres in the attempt to satisfy all viewers ended up frustrating audiences, especially when the “B” genre chosen were age-specific to children or teenagers. In trying to diversify and expand audiences, exhibitors of the double bill only ended up decreasing the popularity of these features.
By the 1960s, theaters became dependent on the simple success of the feature film. Without the dependence on block booking and the muddled definition of the “B” movie, a single motion picture became the operating standard for theaters. The double feature quickly became an endangered exhibition process. Decades later during the peak of 1990s VHS sales, some films were sold as “double features” if they shared lead cast members, directors, or were direct sequels to one another.
Today, the presence of the double feature is sporadic but still regularly appreciated in art or repertory house theaters. This form of exhibition tracing back to the 1930s makes the viewing of film less of a two-hour time consumer, and more of an appreciative event and session of entertainment. In an age of shorter screen attention spans and blockbuster sequels at rapid, impatient paces, houses like the Brattle Theatre still prefer to stick to the roots. The double feature provides a lingering piece of film exhibition nostalgia for audiences, assuming that being in that seat a little longer will not be a problem.