Special by Jerome Lachenbruch
from Motion Picture News March 1, 1924 p.957
WITH the gradual, but sure economic recovery of Austria, a revived market for American photoplays presents itself to enterprising producers. The recovery of Austria has been due to direct aid by the League of Nations and a group of international bankers. Business men can now borrow money easily; pictures can be financed ; and all legitimate enterprises can find financial support. This does not apply only to Austria proper, especially when one speaks of Austria as a film market. In a business sense, one thinks not only of the comparatively small territory known as Austria, but also of the several states (some of them new), that lie geographically close to her. The Austrian territory consists of Austria proper, Hungary, Zcecho-Slovakia, Poland, Jugo-Slavia and Roumania, with their clearing house and commercial capital in Vienna. This is quite a large territory, and now supports 2,200 motion picture theatres. It can support a great many more. Vienna, with its 200 theatres, is the centre of trade for all these states, and what is successful there usually is successful in the surrounding territory.
There is business to be done in this territory, now at last reawakening to full commercial activity after the sterile days of the war and the slow reconstruction period.
Unfortunately for American business interests in Austria, our producers have not exploited this market with the care and the diligence it deserves. They have contented themselves with local Austrian agents who have disposed of American pictures for whatever they were able to obtain; and in pursuing this policy they have been laying down a principle of low prices. Heretofore, Austria has not been as good a market as it should have been; and that for two reasons which react upon each other. Concisely stated, these reasons are poor theatres and low admission prices.
The theatres, for the most part, are about ten years behind those of other large countries. They are sloppily run, not nearly as clean and as well decorated as they should be, and charge admission prices ranging from 7 cents to about 25 cents. Consequently, they draw only the poorer population and exclude the large middle class which would attend better kept theatres and better conducted shows. The interest of this large body of the public has not been sufficiently engaged, and the film business suffers thereby. By not asking slightly higher admission prices, the theatre owners and managers are unable to pay higher prices for pictures. The few exceptions to the rule have found that it pays to cater to the middle class ; and these progressive managers can pay good prices and make good profits.
That the attitude toward their public is a false one is being proved daily by the splendid beginning which Mr. P. N. Brinch, the American manager of the newly opened Paramount branch office in Vienna has already made. He has actually created a demand in certain localities for Paramount Pictures, and at prices that are extremely high for the Austrian territory. Together with his selling campaign, which is conducted through a selling arrangement with the large Sacha concern, Mr. Brinch is conducting a heart to heart educational campaign for better theatres.
Paramount has again demonstrated its business sagacity by sending over a personal agent to study the field and to adapt its selling campaign to the conditions he finds. Nearly, if not all the other Americam companies represented in this market, depend upon Austrian agents who have not the detached vision of a representative trained in the world’s best film school. Besides, if an Austrian agent writes to his American headquarters, his report- are not taken with the seriousness they merit. The American parent concerns often conclude that their Austrian agent is apologizing for his own poor salesmanship when he reports that certain American pictures are not suitable for the Austrian market.
In the matter of theatres, Austria lags far behind Germany. And so far as presentation goes, she is a novice. A pianist, and occasionally one or two additional instrumentalists, furnish all the music. No special care is given to the selection of a- musical program, to the decoration of the house, or to the comfort of the audience. With real understanding of the situation, Mr. Brinch, in an interview, hit the nail on the head when he said that Austria and the surrounding territory is showing 1924 pictures in the 1912 manner and in 1912 theatres.
So far as the city of Vienna is concerned, there is a very good reason for not building new theatres now or remodeling old ones. Building restrictions are innumerable. The housing situation is deplorable; and all efforts to rebuild old theatres or to construct new ones are turned aside by the authorities who urge the building of apartments and other dwellings instead. The housing shortage is the result of the large influx of population from Hungary, Germany, Zcecho-Slovakia and other neighboring states, a condition resulting from changed business and social conditions which have their causes in the war. In time, the shortage of theatres will be remedied.
What is more important than temporary difficulties, however, is the fact that Austria and the surrounding countries are overcoming their former psychological antagonism to American films. Everyone in Vienna speaks or is learning to speak English; through the banking affiliations with England, the relations with English speaking peoples has become very close, and you can always delight an Austrian by talking English to him. And when the housing conditions improve and new theatres are built, I look for a very active consumption of American films.
Heretofore, all Central Europe has been hostile to our films because their subjects and treatment did not correspond to the thoughts and the depressed conditions of the people. They had lost a war; they were starving; their thoughts played with scenes of violence and excesses of all kinds. (We have seen this in America in various German pictures that have been sent over.) It is quite understandable, therefore, that they should turn away from lighter, more cheerful and hopeful subjects, however well presented, with the comment that life as America presents it, is neither true nor real. Their own sorrows made the glamour of American pictures seem false. However, the Austrian nature is fundamentally gay and pleasure loving; it is elastic and rebounds quickly from sorrow to gladness; and now that material conditions have improved tremendously, Austrians are now beginning to look forward to every new American production.
Demand for American Films
American pictures for Austrian consumption must nevertheless be selected with care, for European psychology, hound up as it still is with conceptions of monarchy, cannot grasp our indifference to titles of nobility. Consequently, American pictures which ridicule the ancient order of things are likely to injure other American productions that might be highly acceptable.
One indubitable advantage that American films have over all continental ones is in the superior prints we use. A picture printed on Eastman stock is incomparably better than anything I “have seen in Germany, France and Austria. American producers who want to break into the Austrian territory should bear this in mind and not send over negatives, but first class Eastman prints.
The few large Austrian producing companies, chiefly Sacha and Vita, know their local markets thoroughly and are well established. There are fewer fly-by-night companies in Austria than in America or in Germany; and the solid companies have no trouble in obtaining financial backing from the banks. Last November, the Vita concern, whose American agent is Alfred Weiss (formerly with Goldwyn), reorganized on a large scale, and it is now exploiting the European market with considerable success.
None of the Austrian companies pursue a definite policy of underselling one another in a mad scramble for business supremacy. It is done, to be sure, but not to any great extent. And I hold it extremely unwise for any American company to enter the field and try to compete by underselling. In conclusion, let me emphasize again that price cutting to kill competition will not bring business to American producers who are seeking a Central European market. It will merely place all film prices on a level so low that no one can obtain a satisfactory return on his investment. No single concern is strong enough to inaugurate a price-cutting policy in the hope of killing off competition. The company that pursues such a course will chalk up a big deficit as a result of so poorly advised a program.