DRI-190 for week of 12-30-12: Stereotypes Overturned: Race, Hollywood and the Jody Call

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Stereotypes Overturned: Race, Hollywood and the Jody Call

The doctrine often referred to as “political correctness” ostensibly aims to overturn reigning stereotypes governing matters such as race. Yet all too often it results in the substitution of new stereotypes for old. Economics relies on reason and motivation rather than political programming to provide answers to human choices. Nothing could be more subversive of stereotypes than that.

What follows is a tale of Hollywood, race and the American military. At the time, each of these elements was viewed through a stylized, stereotypical lens – as they still are to some extent. But in no case did this tale unfold according to type. The reasons for that were economic.

The Movie Battleground (1949)

In 1949, Metro Goldwyn Mayer produced one of the year’s biggest boxoffice-hit movies, Battleground. It told the story of World War II’s Battle of the Bulge as seen through the eyes of a single rifle squad in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. In late 1944, Germany teetered on the edge of defeat. Her supreme commanders conceived the idea of a desperate mid-winter offensive to grab the initiative and rock the Allies back on their heels. The key geographic objective was the town of Bastogne, Belgium, located at the confluence of seven major roads serving the Ardennes region and Antwerp harbor. Germany launched an attack that drove such as conspicuous salient into the Allied line that the engagement acquired the title of the “Battle of the Bulge.”

The Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne were the chief defenders of Bastogne. This put them somewhat out of their element, since their normal role was that of attack paratroopers. Despite this, they put up an unforgettable fight even though outnumbered ten to one by the German advance. The film’s scriptwriter and associate producer, Robert Pirosh, was among those serving with the 101st and trapped at Bastogne.

Battleground accurately recounted the Battle of the Bulge, including an enlisted man’s view of the legendary German surrender demand and U.S. General McAuliffe’s immortal response: “Nuts.” But the key to the film’s huge box-office success – it was the second-leading film of the year in ticket receipts – was its continual focus on the battle as experienced by the combat soldier.

The men display the range of normal human emotions, heightened and intensified out of proportion by the context. Courage and fear struggle for supremacy. Boredom and the Germans vie for the role of chief nemesis. The film’s director, William Wellman, had flown in the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I and was one of Hollywood’s leading directors of war films, including the first film to win a Best Picture Oscar, Wings.

Some of MGM’s leading players headed up the cast, including Van Johnson, George Murphy, John Hodiak, and Ricardo Montalban. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two, for Pirosh’s story and screenplay and Paul Vogel’s stark black-and-white cinematography. In his motion-picture debut, James Whitmore was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and won a Golden Globe Award as the tobacco-chewing sergeant, Kinnie.

Whitmore provides the dramatic highlight of the film. Starving and perilously low on ammunition, the men of the 101st grimly hold out. They are waiting for relief forces led by General George Patton. Overwhelming U.S. air superiority over the Germans is of no use because fog and overcast have Bastogne completely socked in, grounding U.S. planes. Whitmore’s squad is cut off, surrounded and nearly out of bullets. Advised by Whitmore to save their remaining ammo for the impending German assault, the men silently fix bayonets to their rifles and await their death. Hobbling back to his foxhole on frozen feet, Whitmore notices something odd that stops him in his tracks. Momentarily puzzled, he soon realizes what stopped him. He has seen his shadow. The sun has broken through the clouds – and right behind it come American planes to blast the attacking German troops and drop supplies to the 101st. The shadow of doom has been lifted from “the battered bastards of Bastogne.”

1949 audiences were captivated by two scenes that bookended Battleground. After the opening credits and scene-setting explanation, soldiers are seen performing close-order drill led by Whitmore. These men were not actors or extras but were actual members of the 101st Airborne. They executed Whitmore’s drill commands with precise skill and timing while vocalizing a cadence count in tandem with Whitmore. This count would eventually attain worldwide fame and universal acceptance throughout the U.S. military. It began:

You had a good home but you left

You’re right!

You had a good home but you left

You’re right!

Jody was there when you left

You’re right!

Your baby was there when you left

You’re right!

Sound Off – 1,2

Sound Off – 3,4

Cadence Count – 1,2,3,4

1,2 – 3-4!

At the end of the movie, surviving members of Whitmore’s squad lie exhausted beside a roadway. Upon being officially relieved and ordered to withdraw, they struggle to their feet and head toward the rear, looking as worn out and numb as they feel. They meet the relief column marching towards them, heading to the front. Not wishing for the men to seem demoralized and defeated, Van Johnson suggests that Whitmore invoke the cadence count to bring them to life. As the movie ends, the squad marches smartly off while adding two more verses to the cadence count, supported by the movie’s music score:

Your baby was lonely as lonely could be

Until he provided company

Ain’t it great to have a pal

who works so hard to keep up morale?

Sound Off – 1,2

Sound Off – 3,4

Cadence Count – 1,2,3,4

1,2 – 3-4!

You ain’t got nothing to worry about

He’ll keep her happy ’till I get out

And I won’t get out ’till the end of the war

In Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-four

Sound Off – 1,2

Sound Off – 3,4

Cadence Count – 1,2,3,4

1,2 – 3-4!

The story of this cadence count, its inclusion in Battleground, its rise to fame and the fate of its inventor and his mentor are the story-within-the-story of the movie Battleground. This inside story speaks to the power of economics to overturn stereotypes.

The Duckworth Chant

In early 1944, a black Army private named Willie Lee Duckworth, Sr., was returning to Fort Slocum, NJ, from a long, tiresome training hike with his company. To pick up the spirits of his comrades and improve their coordination, he improvised a rhythmic chant. According to Michael and Elizabeth Cavanaugh in their blog, “The Duckworth Chant, Sound Off and the Jody Call,” this was the birth of what later came to be called the Jody (or Jodie) Call.

Duckworth’s commanding officer learned of popularity of Duckworth’s chant. He encouraged Duckworth to compose additional verses for training purposes. Soldiers vocalized the words of the chant along with training commands as a means of learning and coordinating close-order drill. Duckworth’s duties exceeded those of composer – he also taught the chant to white troops at Fort Slocum. It does not seem overly imaginative to envision episodes like this as forerunners to the growth of rap music, although it would be just a logical to attribute both phenomena to a different common ancestor.

Who is Jody (or Jodie)? The likely derivation is from a character in black folklore, Joe de Grinder, whose name would have been shortened first to Jody Grinder, then simply to Jody. The word “grind” has a sexual connotation and Jody’s role in the cadence count was indeed been to symbolize the proverbial man back home and out of uniform, who threatens to take the soldier’s place with his wife or girlfriend.

Already our story has turned certain deeply ingrained racial stereotypes upside down. In 1944, America was a segregated nation, not just in the South but North, East and West as well. This was also true of our armed forces. Conventional thinking (as distinct from conventional wisdom) holds that a black Army private had no power to influence his fate and was little more than a pawn under the thumb of larger forces.

Yet against all seeming odds and expectations, a black draftee from the Georgia countryside spontaneously introduced his own refinement into military procedure – and that refinement was not only accepted but wholeheartedly embraced. The black private was even employed to train white troops – at a point when racial segregation was the status quo.

Pvt. Duckworth’s CO was not just any commanding officer. He was Col. Bernard Lentz, the senior colonel in the U.S. Army at that time. Col. Lentz was a veteran of World War I, when he had developed the Cadence System of Teaching Close-Order Drill – his own personal system of drill instruction using student vocalization of drill commands. When Lentz heard of Duckworth’s chant, he immediately recognized its close kinship with his own methods and incorporated it into Fort Slocum’s routine.

The public-choice school of economics believes that government bureaucrats do not serve the “public interest.” Partly, this is because there is no unambiguous notion of the public interest for them to follow. Consequently, bureaucrats can scarcely resist pursuing their own ends since it is easy to fill the object-function vacuum with their own personal agenda. This is a case in which the public interest was served by a bureaucrat pursuing his own interests.

Col. Lentz had a psychological property interest in the training system that he personally developed. He had a vocational property interest in that system since its success would advance his military career. And in this case, there seems to be little doubt that the Duckworth Chant improved the productivity of troop training. Its use spread quickly throughout the army. According to the Cavanaugh’s, it was being used in the European Theater of Operations (ERO) by V-E Day. Eventually, Duckworth’s name recognition faded, to be replaced by that of his chant’s eponymous character, Jody. But the Jody Call itself remains to this day as a universally recognized part of the military experience.

Thus, the stereotypes of racial segregation and bureaucratic inertia were overcome by the economic logic of property rights. And the morale of American troops has benefitted ever since.

Hollywood as User and Abuser – Another Myth Exploded

The name of Pvt. Willie Lee Duckworth, Sr. does not exit the pages of history with the military’s adoption of his chant as a cadence count. Far from it. To paraphrase the late Paul Harvey, we have yet to hear the best of the rest of the story.

As noted above, the Duckworth chant spread to the ETO by early 1945. It was probably there that screenwriter Robert Pirosh encountered it and germinated the idea of planting it in his retelling of the Battle of the Bulge. When Battleground went into production, MGM representative Lily Hyland wrote to Col. Lentz asking if the cadence count was copyrighted and requesting permission to use it in the film.

Col. Lentz replied, truthfully, that the cadence count was not under copyright. But he sincerely requested compensation for Pvt. Duckworth and for a half-dozen soldiers who were most responsible for conducting training exercises at Fort Slocum. The colonel suggested monetary compensation for Duckworth and free passes to the movie for the other six. MGM came through with the passes and sent Pvt. Duckworth a check for $200.

As the Cavanaugh’s point out, $200 sounds like a taken payment today. But in 1949, $200 was approximately the monthly salary of a master sergeant in the Army, so it was hardly trivial compensation. This is still another stereotype shot to pieces.

Hollywood has long been famed in song and story – and in its own movies – as a user and abuser of talent. In this case, the casual expectation would have been that a lowly black soldier with no copyright on a rhyming chant he had first made up on the spur of the moment, with no commercial intent or potential, could expect to be stiffed by the most powerful movie studio on earth. If nothing else, we would have expected that Duckworth’s employer, the Army, would have asserted a proprietary claim for any monies due for the use of the chant.

That didn’t happen because the economic interests of the respective parties favored compensating Duckworth rather than stiffing him. Col. Lentz wanted the Army represented in the best possible light in the film, but he particularly wanted the cadence count shown to best advantage. If Pvt. Duckworth came forward with a public claim against the film, that would hurt his psychological and vocational property interests. The last thing MGM wanted was a lawsuit by a soldier whose claim would inevitably resonate with the public, making him seem to be an exploited underdog and the studio look like a bunch of chiseling cheapskates – particularly when they could avoid it with a payment of significant size to him but infinitesimal as a fraction of a million-dollar movie budget.

A Hollywood Ending – Living Happily Ever After

We have still not reached the fadeout in our story of Col. Lentz and Pvt. Duckworth. Carefully observing the runaway success of Battleground, Col. Lentz engaged the firm of Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. to copyright an extended version of the Duckworth chant in 1950 under the title of “Sound Off.” Both he and Willie Lee Duckworth, Sr. were listed as copyright holders. In 1951, this was recorded commercially for the first of many versions by Vaughn Monroe. In 1952, a film titled Sound Off was released. All these commercial exploitations of “Sound Off” resulted in payments to the two men.

How much money did Pvt. Duckworth receive as compensation for the rights to his chant, you may ask? By 1952, Duckworth was apparently receiving about $1,800 per month. In current dollars, that would amount to an income well in excess of $100,000 per year. Of course, like most popular creations, the popularity of “Sound Off” rose, peaked and then fell off to a whisper. But the money was enough to enable Duckworth to buy a truck and his own small pulpwood business. That business supported him, his wife and their six children. It is fair to say that the benefits of Duckworth’s work continued for the rest of his life, which ended in 2004.

If still dubious about the value of what MGM gave Duckworth, consider this. The showcase MGM provided for Duckworth’s chant amounted to advertising worth many thousands of dollars. Without it, the subsequent success of “Sound Off” would have been highly problematic, to put it mildly. It seems unlikely that Col. Lentz would have been inspired to copyright the cadence count and any benefits received by the two would have been miniscule in comparison.

The traditional Hollywood movie ending is a fadeout following a successful resolution of the conflict between protagonist and antagonist, after which each viewer inserts an individual conception of perpetual bliss as the afterlife of the main characters. In reality, as Ernest Hemingway reminds us, all true stories end in death. But Willie Lee Duckworth, Sr.’s story surely qualifies as a reasonable facsimile of “happily ever after.”

This story is not the anomaly it might seem. Although Hollywood itself was not a powerful engine of black economic progress until much later, free markets were the engine that pulled the train to a better life for 20th century black Americans. Research by economists like Thomas Sowell has established that black economic progress long preceded black political progress in the courts (through Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education) and the U.S. Congress (through legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

The Movie that Toppled a Mogul

There were larger economic implications of Battleground. These gave the film the sobriquet of “the movie that toppled a mogul.” As Chief Operating Officer of MGM, Louis B. Mayer had long been the highest-paid salaried employee in the U.S. The size of MGM’s payroll made it the largest contributor on the tax rolls of Southern California. Legend had endowed Mayer with the power to bribe police and influence politicians. Seemingly, this should have secured his job tenure completely.

Battleground was a project developed by writer and executive Dore Schary while he worked at rival studio RKO. Schary was unable to get the movie produced at RKO because his bosses there believed the public’s appetite for war movies had been surfeited by the wave of propaganda-oriented pictures released during the war. When Schary defected to MGM, he brought the project with him and worked ceaselessly to get it made.

Mayer initially opposed Battleground for the same reasons as most of his colleagues in the industry. He called it “Schary’s Folly.” Yet the movie was made over his objections. And when it became a blockbuster hit, the fallout caused Mayer to be removed as head of the studio that bore his name. To add insult to this grievous injury, Schary replaced Mayer as COO.

For roughly two decades, economists had supported the hypothesis of Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means that American corporations suffered from a separation of ownership and control. Ostensibly, corporate executives were not controlled by boards of directors who safeguarded the interests of shareholders. Instead, the executives colluded with boards to serve their joint interests. If ever there was an industry to test this hypothesis, it was the motion-picture business, dominated by a tightly knit group of large studios run by strong-willed moguls. MGM and Louis B. Mayer were the locus classicus of this arrangement.

Yet the production, success and epilogue of Battleground made it abundantly clear that it was MGM board chairman Nicholas Schenck, not Mayer, who was calling the shots. And Schenck had his eye fixed on the bottom line. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Louis B. Mayer was not the King of Hollywood after all. Market logic, not market failure, reigned. Economics, not power relationships, ruled.

Thanks to Battleground, stereotypes were dropping like soldiers of the 47th Panzer Corps on the arrival of Patton’sThird Army in Bastogne.

No Happy Ending for Hollywood

Battleground came at the apex of American movies. Average weekly cinema attendance exceeded the population of the nation. The studio system was a smoothly functional, vertically integrated machine for firing the popular imagination. It employed master craftsman at every stage of the process, from script to screen.

Although it would have seemed incredible at the time, we know now that it was all downhill from that point. Two antitrust decisions in the late 1940s put an end to the Hollywood studio system. One particular abomination forbade studios from owning chains of movie theaters; another ended up transferring creative control of movies away from the studios.

The resulting deterioration of motion pictures took place in slow motion because the demand for movies was still strong and the studio system left us with a long-lived supply of people who still preserved the standards of yore. But the vertically integrated studio system has been gone for over half a century. Today, Hollywood is a pale shadow of its former self. Most movies released by major studios do not cover their costs through ticket sales. Studio profits result from sales of ancillary merchandise and rights. Theater profits are generated via concession sales. Motion-picture production is geared toward those realities and targeted predominantly toward the very young. Subsidies by local, state and national governments are propping up the industry throughout the world. And those subsidies must disappear sooner or later – probably sooner.

This has proved to be the ultimate vindication of our thesis that economics, not stereotypical power relationships, governed the movie business in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Free markets put consumers and shareholders in the driver’s seat. The result created the unique American art form of the 20th century. We still enjoy its fruits today on cable TV, VHS, DVD and the Internet. Misguided government attempts to regulate the movie business ended up killing the golden goose or, more precisely, reducing it to an enfeebled endangered species.

DRI-424: Why the Number of Seats in a Theater is So Important

The law of unintended consequences is that intentions alone do not define results; our intended actions have consequences that we neither intend nor foresee. This law applies with special force to the actions of government. Labor unions enjoy special privileges and immunities given them by government, so they too are subject to the law.

The Formation of Actor’s Equity Association

Actor’s Equity Association (Actor’s Equity or just Equity for short) is a labor union formed in 1912 to improve the lot of actors and stage personnel working in the realm of live performance. It establishes wage minima and rules governing working conditions and compensation. One Equity provision of particular importance is its bond requirement. No later than the first rehearsal, the producer of a play employing Equity members is required to put up a bond for the contractually-guaranteed provisions of member contracts – typically two weeks worth of salary, pension and health benefits.

Most Americans are conditioned to regard regulations governing wages and working conditions as good things. Economists take a more jaundiced view of these matters. They know, for example, that merely requiring payment of a wage does not guarantee that the worker’s productivity will vindicate its payment. If the wage exceeds the value of the worker’s production, then the worker will be unemployed at that minimum wage.

In the case of Equity, this is a datum of more than theoretical interest. Equity is widely thought to be the only union in the world with a membership unemployment rate exceeding 90%. It is clear that the gains of union membership flow disproportionately to the small fraction of members who are fortunate enough to be working on the stage. These people are heavily concentrated in the Broadway theater district of New York City.

According to the Oxford Companion to American Theatre, “In recent years, the minimums and bonds demanded by this and other unions have been a factor in stifling production, shrinking the road and forcing musicals to perform in auditoriums that are really too large for live performances… .” The reference to the size of the performing venue suggests that the unintended consequences of Equity have spilled over the boundaries set down by economic textbooks.

The Equity Waiver Movement

In 1972, Los Angeles trailed only New York City in U.S. population. Yet the theater scene in Los Angeles, quite unlike that in New York, was sparse and stagnant. The city held only 45 theaters, ranging from huge (the Ahmanson in downtown LA) to middle-size (the Mark Taper Forum) to small (scattered neighborhood theaters).

In New York City, large theaters and large numbers of people were crammed together in a relatively small area in the theater district. Moreover, the subway system provided relatively cheap transport from outlying boroughs into the city. Los Angeles comprised the largest geographic metropolitan area of any major U.S. city and – at that time – lacked a subway system. Thus, there were fewer large theaters to contain plays and fewer economic ways for theatergoers to reach their destinations. Both the supply of, and the demand for, theater correspondingly suffered in LA compared to that in New York.

This wasn’t for lack of local actors. The motion-picture industry continually refreshed the supply of labor with infusions of new talent – or would-be talent, anyway. During the old days of the studio system, community theater had thrived. Venues like the legendary Pasadena Playhouse acted as minor-leagues for the movie studios. They allowed raw recruits to learn their craft from experienced directors and practice it before audiences that included movie talent scouts and a public hungry for reasonably priced entertainment. Graduates of the theater’s drama school made up a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood: Raymond Burr, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jamie Farr, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Lloyd Nolan, Tyrone Power, Robert Preston, George Reeves, Randolph Scott, Gloria Stuart, Robert Taylor, Gig Young and Robert Young.

By the 1960s, Equity wages and work rules became onerous enough to drive community theater into the ground. The nadir was reached when Pasadena’s drama school closed and the Playhouse went bankrupt. This led a hardy band of actor-producers to approach the union with a daring suggestion – waive Equity rules for small theaters, those with fewer than 100 seats. They hoped this would allow struggling actors to work instead of languishing, unemployed, or – just as bad – spending their lives in tasks unrelated to their chosen life’s work.

The waiver provision did just that – it waived Equity provisions completely for theaters with fewer than 100 seats. As long as the theater met the size limitation, actors and producers were free of Equity’s burdensome restrictions on wages and working capital. Actors could work for free, if they chose. And some of them – mostly chose who were also producers of the plays in which they appeared – did, indeed, so choose.

The waiver provision was capped at 100 seats because it was just those small theaters that had been disproportionately wounded by Equity, whose increased minima and work rules increased theater costs. A theater offers a fixed physical potential for income; anything that increases costs threatens to overwhelm that fixed income potential. As the Oxford Companion to American Theatre observed, bond costs and increased minimum compensation forced producers to seek larger venues in order to enhance their revenue potential. If the particular production – such as a musical – did not lend itself to presentation in that venue, the result can be aesthetically unsatisfactory.

Poles of Opinion

Predictions of disaster for the Equity Waiver movement were loud and frequent. The quality of theater was bound to suffer, according to Waiver opponents, because lower pay for actors would call forth lower-quality actors. Any success the Waiver movement had in stimulating play production and employment of actors would be offset by fewer plays and less employment within big theaters.

No, maintained Waiver proponents, the Waiver would showcase actors who would otherwise find it hard to secure auditions or get work. Actors could practice their craft and avoid going stale and maybe pick up a few bucks in the process. Meanwhile, producers could actually revamp theaters and put on productions for a change.

In the event, it was the Waiver supporters who were proved right. Community theater flourished. The number of theaters and theatrical companies tripled. It became possible to go to the theater in Los Angeles for about the price of attendance at a sporting event. This was a far cry from the hundreds of dollars that theater tickets cost on Broadway – although, to be sure, the quality of 99-seat theater in LA was not uniformly equal to that of the Great White Way.

The Equity Wars

In the mid-1980s, Equity withdrew its waiver and tried to reimpose control over the small-theater market in Los Angeles. This led to the Waiver Wars from 1986-1988, fought mostly in courtrooms. Equity refused to negotiate with the insurgents – the very tactic it had always publicly deplored when employed against it by theater owners or producers.

The eventual compromise left LA community-theater intact but set up an Equity contract for small theaters, one which was subsequently modified several times. The odd thing about this outcome is the fatalistic reaction it has triggered from all participants. Waiver proponents seem to believe that the return to Equity hegemony was inevitable, that there was something inherently wrong, or at least suspect, about a completely free market for labor in live theatrical performance.

In effect, both sides seem to believe that actors should be protected from themselves. If left alone, they will be driven by their free will to act for a zero wage – and that this is clearly intolerable. While they lasted, though, the Equity Waiver free market in stage labor and the subsequent Equity Wars proved the imperishable value of freedom. They also proved the applicability of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

What Happened to Movie Theaters?

Older readers may recall the single-screen movie theaters that covered the United States in the first half of the 20th century. The best of these were marvels of construction and design that ranked among the most beautiful works of architecture in America. Today, only a tiny handful remains standing, let alone operating. Most owe their survival to historic-preservation efforts.

What happened? How did the principal hangout and communal gathering place in big cities and small towns alike lose its status? The full story cannot be told without recounting the rise and fall of motion pictures in America – in itself an economic object lesson – but it will suffice to reveal the history behind the successor to the movie palace.

From Cineplex to Multiplex

The modern cineplex was born in the Ward Parkway Shopping Center in Kansas City, MO, in 1963. Stanley Durwood, head of American Multi Cinema, opened the first two-screen movie theater there. He was capitalizing the new technology of automatic movie projection, which allowed one projectionist to simultaneously operate two projectors showing two different films in adjacent theaters. Formerly, one skilled union member was needed to show a film. Now one non-union projectionist could do the job for a fraction of the cost.

The demise of the old studio system of movie making brought an end to vertical integration of the movie business. This meant that costs of producing, distributing, marketing and exhibiting movies spiraled higher – so much so that eventually few movies were profitable when all costs were accounted for. The profit in the movie business came from ancillary activities. In production, these were sales and licensing of products spun off from movies, mostly to children and young adults. In exhibition, the profitable activity was not the showing of the movie but instead sales of food and drink at the concession stand.

In order to squeeze the most profit from concessions, exhibitors had to book heavily-advertised films into multiple theaters in order to draw large crowds and schedule those films at staggered half-hour to one-hour intervals, so as to create a constant parade of customers past the refreshments.

Why is 299 the Magic Number for Movie-Theater Seating?

Just as 99 became a magic number for live-theater seating capacity in Los Angeles in the 1970s, movie multiplexes acquired their own magic seating number in 1990. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) required theaters with 300 or more seats to provide ramps for wheelchairs to all rows. The ramps took up roughly one-third of the space that would otherwise be allocated to seats.

Movie theaters were already a declining breed – by 1990 there were about one-third as many theater sites as in 1929. To cut potential revenue in existing sites by one-third by simply refitting all theaters would have been business suicide for theater owners. Instead, they cut up their existing space into smaller theaters – each with 299 seats. New theaters were multiplexes with screens each serving 299 or fewer seats. Between 1990 and 2005, the number of movie screens increased from 23,000 to 38,000 – despite the relatively small number of theater sites previously noted.

The Implications of Multiplex Movie Exhibition

The unintended consequences of the ADA on the movie business do not stop there. Smaller screens and cramped seating areas make for poorer viewing; there is less room for the viewer and more chance of a view being obscured. Ambient noise is more intrusive and annoying. The aspect ratio of the picture is less favorable, which is less pleasingto the eye. Older movies were shot for wider screens and cannot be shown comfortably on today’s screens.

In order to serve an exhibition market with more screens, distribution companies must make more prints of the movies. This is so costly that movies are now subsidizing the cost of converting theaters to digital projection. But replacing film with digital technology is revolutionary – it changes the texture of film and presents new and vexing problems in film preservation.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Over the centuries, economists have come to appreciate the law of unintended consequences. Every time we pass a law or regulation – or otherwise impede the workings of a free market – we invite consequences whose nature and magnitude we cannot begin to understand. The wild disproportion between 99 and 100 seats in live theater and between 299 and 300 seats in movie theaters are good examples of this.

Somehow, it seems that these consequences are seldom favorable. This is because we have a solid understanding of the consequences of free markets, which are predominantly favorable. When we deliberately set out to thwart those outcomes, we cannot always confidently predict the result, but we shouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be bad.