NEW YORK -- It's the 6 o'clock showing of "Betsy's Wedding" at a 57th Street movie theater; people are settling in with their popcorn and -- wait, what's that up on the screen before the previews and the no-smoking announcement?
A newsreel, sort of. The newsreel is back, maybe.
Last month, those dauntless pioneers at Cable News Network began producing updated versions of the cinema newsreels that used to appear along with double features, plus maybe a cartoon or two, down at the local Bijou. They're being shown on just a dozen Manhattan movie screens in a three-month experiment that's costing CNN about $100,000.
Ralph E. Donnelly, executive vice president of the City Cinemas chain, agreed to let his audiences serve as guinea pigs; he was "interested in repeating what was a very nice part of the movie experience when we were growing up." His theater managers report that audience comments have generally been neutral to favorable, except for some complaints in Greenwich Village, where folks tend toward the cantankerous anyway.
Newsreels, children, were significant and beloved cinematic staples for decades. Introduced in 1911 and reaching their heyday in the '20s and '30s, they were "the principal source of visual news," says Bill Murphy, chief of the National Archives' motion picture, sound and video branch, which has an important collection. Five major companies each produced two newsreels a week -- eight to 10 minutes of stories about war and political campaigns, natural disasters and movie-star weddings, all filmed in black-and-white and narrated by stentorian baritones. Each company had its own visual signature -- Universal Newsreel's plane circling the globe, Pathe's crowing rooster -- and scrambled to scoop its competitors.
Television killed them off, of course. Movie newsreels helped Americans see the faces and places of World War II, but by the '50s they were doomed. Hearst Metrotone News and Universal, the last holdouts, finally went out of production in 1967, ending the era. The surviving film belongs primarily to stock-footage companies. Documentary makers and historians still care about newsreels, but to contemporary theater audiences they are as foreign a concept as Cinerama.
"CNN Reel News" is different. With visual news now available around the clock (thanks largely to CNN itself), the experimental newsreel is actually a repackaging of features that were shot for CNN's various shows. Times being what they are, it's just a quarter of the length of the old newsreels and features half as many stories. Its purpose is less to inform than to entertain and, of course, to promote CNN, which reaches more than 55 million homes but is watched, in an average week, in only about a third of them. "Get your name out there, refresh their memories, that's what this whole business is about," says Rick Salcedo, CNN's vice president for news promotion.
Times being even more what they are, CNN wants to dig up corporate sponsors for its new project, companies that will write sizable checks to be able to say "brought to you by" at the start and end of the two-minute reels. This may thrust CNN into the current controversy about screening ads in movie theaters, which audiences either don't mind or heartily dislike, depending on who's paying for the research. "CNN Reel News" would not include commercials, Salcedo vows, but might studios consider a sponsored newsreel to be advertising anyway? A spokesman for Disney, which has barred its movies from theaters that show advertising, says it's premature to comment. Representatives of Warner, the other anti-ad studio, could not be reached.
On the evidence of the newsreel shown before "Betsy's Wedding" -- there's a new reel every other week -- "CNN Reel News" can't yet match the grandeur of the old black-and-whites. Its opening plays on audience nostalgia, borrowing such visuals as the spinning globe and Fox-Movietone's quartered screen. Gradually, the black-and-white images of Harry Truman and a very boyish Kirk Douglas turn into color images of contemporary newsmakers like Mikhail Gorbachev and Oliver North.
But that's followed by four features that border on the insipid. The diving ability of elephant seals (borrowed from a nature documentary, perhaps). A scientific discovery called frozen smoke (it insulates well). Machines that dispense movie tickets and charge them to credit cards (being tested in California). Oatmeal wrestling in Dallas (right). Less than crystalline pictures because they were shot on videotape and transferred to film. Bouncy music. "Until next time, this has been 'CNN Reel News,' " says the announcer.
Around Labor Day, Salcedo says, CNN will decide whether and how to take this concept nationwide. The search for a sponsor, whose underwriting would help pay for classier production values, will soon be underway. Meanwhile, Salcedo is planning some sort of exit survey to quantify audience responses. He could have tried this whole experiment in CNN's home port, Atlanta, but figured that "the New York moviegoer tends to be more critical."
That's hard to argue with. A quite unscientific exit survey as the credits rolled for "Betsy's Wedding" turned up decidedly mixed opinions of the neo-newsreel. There was an elderly gent who "didn't care for it; I thought it was out of place." A banker who said it was "a useless waste of time." A young woman who thought it was "cute" and an older one who said, "I like little blurbs of information."
And one cynic who thought it went a whole lot faster than the movie.