Silent films are big business worldwide! Yup, you heard right: silent films – no words, just pictures and music. The huge critical and commercial success of The Artist (2011) and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) served to highlight the fact that not only are they experiencing a renaissance, in many ways they never really went away. However, even in 2015, no single website catered comprehensively to the needs of fans worldwide – until now. Building the world’s biggest and best silent film website has been the dream of local boy Brent Reid for years – now he’s well on his way. Here’s how and why he got started.
How did you first get into film; what’s your earliest film memory?
Like many I was fascinated by films on television from an early age I guess at that point I was mostly interested in fantasy, action and adventure-type stuff: wizards, war films, westerns and especially anything with monsters or dinosaurs in. Then as now, the name Ray Harryhausen (stop-motion animation wizard) in the credits was always a guarantee of quality!
I basically first became aware of film-watching as a special, theatrical experience when I was old enough to take myself, from the age of around 7 or 8 (!) to one of the surviving handful of ‘proper’ original cinemas that were still operating in the city centre back then. Sadly, the only one still remaining is the Savoy on Derby Road. Use it or lose it, people!
Why is silent film still relevant today?
They’re still entertaining – very much so. I’m on a mission to demonstrate to non-believers and the as-yet-uninitiated that they’re far from being just for film buffs and beard-stroking academics – and that’s just the women! The best silents, with a quality presentation, are every bit as potent and affecting to everyone, regardless of age and background, as they were first time around.
The influence of the silent era (1890s–1930s) is absolutely everywhere too. Modern filmmakers pay homage to it constantly; there’s barely a day goes by without me coming across yet another overt silents reference in a film, TV programme, computer game, music video or, especially, friends’ kids’ cartoons. Do you like WALL-E? he’s an amalgamation of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, two of the silver screen’s greatest-ever comedians, and the film itself is a quasi-silent one. Heard of Metropolis (1927)? If not, maybe you’ve heard of Star Wars, because that’s where C-3PO was born. So too was the dystopian vision of Gotham City in every Batman outing since 1989. (Speaking of which, Batman himself was based on silent film action hero Douglas Fairbanks, as was Superman!) How about Lord of the Rings? Yup: Metropolis is in there again. The list goes on and on. And on. That’s just one film – most people are already silent film fans and don’t even know it yet!
Additionally, much of the style and glamour of the silent era remain resolutely at the cutting edge of fashion and design and show no sign of ever fading.
One last crucial example of the silent era's ongoing relevance: incredibly, women in the film industry have never since enjoyed such wide-ranging power and autonomy as they did back then. They frequently rose to the top as some of the most highly-paid actors, directors and producers of the day. What's more, around 50% of all films made before 1925 were written by women; now it's around 10%. So much for progress... We seriously need to catch up again!
What first inspired you to start the website?
Easy: no-one else was doing it and I was fed up of waiting! I saw what was lacking online from the start and countless other silents fans I’ve met at screenings and film festivals, both at home and abroad, agreed it was a great idea. However, after unsuccessfully spending over a decade trying to cajole other, more tech-savvy folk to start such a site, it was clear that no-one actually wanted to take on such a huge task Eventually I took a deep breath and one year ago jumped into the heady world of social media to start heralding the site’s arrival, whilst simultaneously working on it. Finally, I just recently launched the site and got an immediate, great response. Tens of thousands of visitors already – and this is just the start!
How is Brenton Film different to other film sites?
That would require a whole article in itself, but fundamentally, I’m, trying to amalgamate and build on the existing global silent film community. Though in the real world it’s a thriving and healthy one, online it’s extremely fragmented, with a greatly diminished reach as a result. There are many smaller sites and blogs that do some parts of what I’m doing, but no single site is doing all of it. In addition to that, mine has several features that are unique, at least in the world of silent film. Chief amongst these is the Worldwide Events Calendar, the first of its kind I aim to get every relevant happening on there eventually. There are hundreds of them, on every continent, scheduled at any one time and it would be impossible for one person to keep track of them all. Therefore the calendar is a special interactive one that allows promoters and fans to upload dates themselves. I've got BuddyPress on there which is a sophisticated social networking facility. There are also features that people are more familiar with: chat forums, articles, news, reviews, prize giveaways, etc.
Brenton Film, including its calendar and forums, is built using WordPress so the entire site is completely integrated. Amongst other things this means that once you’ve signed in, using your own password or a social media account, you have the ability to create your own profile and post anywhere onsite, including leaving article comments, etc. I’m not claiming this to be unique but it must be a bit of a rarity, because I haven’t come across it anywhere else yet!
All of this is also promoted with targeted advertising and a large and very active social media presence, which are things that much of the silent film world in particular has been slow to adopt. I guess 'community' and 'interactivity' are my watchwords. I may have built the site but it really is intended for everyone to use and actively participate in.
How can people in Nottingham get involved?
Easy: use the site! Sign in, leave comments and post in the forums. If you know a lot about silents, share your knowledge; if you don’t know much yet, ask questions! Guest articles are always welcome: click here to contribute
Eventually I’d love to bring a proper silent screening – or even series of screenings – back to Nottingham. Somewhere a little out of the ordinary would be cool, like inside either Wollaton Hall or St Mary's in the Lace Market.
Any there any other Nottingham connections?
Well, Alma Reville, or Mrs Alfred Hitchcock, as she was otherwise known, was from St Ann’s! As any true Hitch fan will know, she was well-established in the film industry before they met. Afterwards, she continued to be instrumental in the filmmaking process and was almost as much a part of all his films, including his silent ones, as he was himself. There are many other luminaries of the early British film industry that were born and brought up in Nottingham, amongst them Jackeydawra Melford (her actual, real name!), Holmes Herbert, Billy Merson, Norman Page and Sebastian Smith.
You want more? The history of film exhibition in Nottingham is as old as film itself, with the first public screenings occurring from 1896 onwards, just a few months after the Lumière brothers débuted projected motion pictures in Paris. Far more recently, the British Silent Film Festival, one of the finest such events anywhere and my first real induction into this wonderful world, had its home at the Broadway cinema for a decade. Since sadly having to depart in 2009 it’s become a nomadic one; this year it’s being held in September at Leicester’s Phoenix Cinema. Make the trip: you'll meet lots of lovely folk, have your filmic horizons broadened inordinately and might just become addicted too!
What’s your favourite cinema in Nottingham?
Why, the Savoy Cinema, of course. The last remaining bastion of my childhood cinematic dreams, I absolutely love it there. I’ll even tell you my favourite seat: Screen 1, front row centre, right of the aisle – my happy place! Note that this grand old lady celebrates her 80th birthday this November; I’ll see you at the party!
Brenton Film: The past, present and future of silent film