With the parents' consent: Film serials, consumerism and the creation of a youth audience, 1913–1938
The film serial is viewed by historians in two dismissive ways. Silent-era serials are crude melodramas, which formed a bridge between the two-reel narratives and early feature length films. Sound serials from the early 1930s are stylistically-stunted holdovers which were viewed in Saturday matinees by young children.
This dissertation will challenge the pejorative reputation of the film serial. It will reassess the serial's economic, stylistic and social roles, and find that the serial was a necessary tool for helping the young film industry become a true mass media.
Part One looks at the emergence of the adult serial in the years 1913 through 1920. In that time, studios like Pathe and Vitagraph adapted the genre of serialized fiction, which was popular in national women's magazines and in the women's sections of major newspaper chains. The risk of losing readers to the film compelled the older media, which had banned film advertisements to this point, to enter into alliances with all major film distribution chains. This permitted national advertising of films for the first time, and whetted the demand for films.
In that same span, the studios formed promotional alliances with major department stores. Women were given exclusive screenings where they received magazines, free dress patterns and stories which mixed high adventure with high-fashion presentations. Exhibitors would thus promote goods which could be found in local department stores. In return, the mass merchants would promote the local theater's films.
Part Two examines the reasons why the serial evolved into a youth-oriented genre in the early 1920s. It details the history of the children's matinee and defines the battle over appropriate children's entertainment, which raged between parents groups and the studios, in commercial terms. It finds that the studios mollifed social reformers by cleverly blending commerce and social responsibility; by adapting the promotional and exhibition techniques of women's fashion serials, the studios convinced parents that serial screenings and clubs were safe, dependable forms of entertainment. This earned continued patronage from children, even if their parents were not always impressed by the violence serial story lines.
0700: Social structure
0323: American studies