Manitoba History: Book Review: Robert M. Seiler and Tamara P. Seiler, Reel Time: Movie Exhibitors and Movie Audiences in Prairie Canada, 1896 to 1986

by Sheila Grover

Number 79, Fall 2015

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Robert M. Seiler and Tamara P. Seiler, Reel Time: Movie Exhibitors and Movie Audiences in Prairie Canada, 1896 to 1986. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2013, 381 pages. ISBN 978-1-926836-99-7, $44.95 (paperback)

This scholarly book is a comprehensive offering on the movie industry in Canada, and worthy of a read for those who wish for a rigorous examination of Canadian film and the film industry. Not a light read, Reel Time is an essential reference guide for serious students of film. By reaching back to 1896, the authors set the stage and place the book in the broadest possible context within a skilful blending of social, economic and technological developments. Though the study occasionally loses its narrative in detail, the scope of it makes it appropriate for a range of disciplinary study from business history to the evolution of Canadian towns and cities. The book pays careful attention to the intrigue of how images went from shaky shadows on makeshift screens to a variety of projection technologies in increasingly more opulent theatres, the dazzling product pitched to ever more sophisticated audiences.

Authors Seiler and Seiler combine impressive credentials as professors emeritus in communications and culture and in Canadian studies, both at the University of Calgary. They put Canadian culture under a microscope, especially in the early decades of rapid change. The film subjects interest the authors less than how the films actually got to the audiences, and the business aspects of movie exhibitions dominate, as entrepreneurs stepped over each other in bringing the new form of entertainment to a society that was itself evolving quickly.

While the production of the available films was usually done elsewhere (most often in the United States), within Canada the distribution and projection of the films, the structures within which they were projected, and the audiences they captured were changing at a remarkable speed. Think of Manitoba at the turn of the 20th century: a scattering of ambitious small towns and cities, flush with incredible growth and a steady influx of new ideas. The book describes the first grainy images projected on a sheet over a wall in an upstairs hotel room (no sound, of course), or at a seedy nickelodeon or a booming summer amusement park, engaging viewers through marvellous moving images of wonders of the world, famous events and global news. The authors describe the eventual engaging of a society with an appetite that crossed social boundaries and with enough disposable income to hand over the few cents for such wondrous entertainment. Behind the scenes, pitched battles raged between the film production and distribution companies and the entrepreneurs who set up the movie houses. They risked their capital on improving facilities, from dubious firetraps with wooden chairs to the alluring theatres that were once a fixture in every prairie town.

With an escalating amount of investment required, movies rapidly became big business. Behind the glam of the silver screen were cutthroat practices stoking ever more sophisticated marketing systems and international business developments with large investments at stake. As the narrative follows this development chronologically, it is sometimes heavy going to keep abreast of the three prongs of development, but a generous scattering of fascinating anecdotal material lightens the load. Literary snapshots are provided of audiences delighted by vaudevillian entertainers larger than life on the silver screen, or transfixed by images of natural wonders of the world or by reenactments of train robberies. As well there were newsreels of current events—if not quite in real time, at least engaging the residents of prairie Canada with coronations, battles, extraordinary discoveries of ancient tombs, or mining disasters, thereby facilitating global and democratic access to information.

While the pages of the book are rather small, there are eighty black-and-white illustrations of theatres across the west, and of some of the businessmen who built them. Here readers are walked through the evolution of facilities that grew in size and sophistication in lockstep with the growth of the industry as a whole. After the genesis of grainy images backlit from hand-cranked projectors, movie facilities grew in size, safety and sophistication. What was available on the frontier in 1896 was superseded by much more sophisticated venues and media for movie-going audiences in cities and towns across the region by the 1920s. Early on-site sound effects gave way to piano score accompaniment and eventually to ‘talkies’, with lush soundtracks created by international composers. Theatre buildings, as shown in the book with carefully researched images, became design-built for comfort and safety, with facades that evoked opulence and intrigue. Clearly architects had become part of the industry, and the movie-going public became the target of careful design and marketing understanding. In a matter of a few short years, ‘going to the movies’ became ingrained in popular culture, a levelling factor in modern society, and eventually a star-making machine for Hollywood that dominated, but never extinguished, local production of film in North America.

The newspaper print advertisements for films and theatres, many included in Reel Time, give the reader a peek into business methods of convincing audiences to attend movie theatres. Having to differentiate themselves from live theatre, movie theatre owners appealed to a broad audience by offering a range of film material with content appropriate ‘for women and children,’ or for a ‘mature’ demographic (which eventually included ‘x-rated’ films) seamlessly projected in larger multi-screen theatre complexes by the close of the study period in 1986.

The authors have footnoted extensively while covering an impressive range of source material. An accurate and helpful index is also provided. The list of acknowledgements would serve any serious researcher as a guide to local history in Canada, with particular emphasis on prairie locations. As described, this book is scholarly and at times, overly intense. The physical layout of the book contributes to this, as the font of the text and the illustrations are rather small, the paragraphs are long, and the pages are crowded. The authors would have been advised to spread their careful text onto a broader canvas.

This solid and scholarly publication has a worthy companion piece for Manitobans in another excellent book, Russ Gourluck’s Silver Screens on the Prairies: An Illustrated History of Motion Picture Theatres in Manitoba. Released in 2012, nearly concurrently to the Seilers’ Reel Time, Gourluck’s richly illustrated book visits small-town theatres across Manitoba, and answers the reader’s desire to learn about individual theatres within their settings.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 24 July 2020