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Deb Verhoeven (Melbourne)

Mapping the Movies

Reflections on the use of geospatial technologies for historical cinema audience research

Emerging research into the social history of cinema-going at particular locations has drawn attention to the spatial nature of this history. As public places, cinemas are highly conventionalised social spaces, internally regulated according to seating conventions and preferences well understood by local communities. Less is known about the surrounding cultural, economic and physical geographies which have governed the history of cinema distribution and exhibition. Recent investigation of these factors has drawn cinema scholars towards the application of research methods used in other fields, including Geographic Information Science (GSci). Stimulated by work begun in the United States by cinema historians Robert C. Allen and Jeff Klenotic, this paper examines the issues arising from the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software to map cinema locations and distribution patterns, as well as the increasingly accessible nature of Google Earth for historical purposes.

We argue that data driven mapping is a natural development for researchers already interested in sharing distribution and exhibition data across national collections such as the Cinema and Audiences in Australia Research Project database (CAARP), or comparable databases developed in the Netherlands, the UK and Belgium, and that it provides an opportunity to ask new questions about the simultaneous development of regionally variant habits of cinema-going at different locations. Specifically, we consider the benefits represented by an opportunity to map the relationship between cinemas and their audiences; to explore the factors which make one cinema more accessible than another over time; and to combine historical data from different fields (demography, transport, topography, weather) to analyse the factors other than film content which might have supported particular attendance patterns. We also examine the possibilities for better understanding the business of cinema exhibition and distribution that arises from mapping the relationships between cinemas themselves; particularly in the charting of distribution patterns formed from the physical circulation of specific film prints and titles.

This opportunity is not without risk, however. We suggest that it is timely for cinema researchers to take account of contemporary concerns raised within the discipline of geography concerning the suitability of GIS to projects of this nature. We discuss its reliance on large data sets; the issues associated with handling data from different kinds of research sources; the static nature of its mapping techniques and its tendency towards two-dimensionality; and its difficulty in representing change over time. Finally, we consider the technical challenges confronting cinema historians interested in using either GIS or Google Earth in their research, particularly in terms of establishing consistent historical datasets which work effectively in combination without loss of precision, as well as the risks in terms of disciplinary emphasis which this kind of project might introduce.