The CLEVELAND FILM EXCHANGE BUILDING at 2100-2112 Payne Ave., on the southeast corner of Payne Ave. and East 21st St., was built in 1920. When films were viewed on nickelodeons and when the movies shown in cinemas were silent, film studios sold their movies sight unseen. Sold films were not returnable or refundable. By the time sound movies were introduced in the 1920s, the notion of renting rather than selling motion pictures caught on, and film exchanges flourished.
Fast and cheap service was paramount in the already cutthroat film industry and regional film exchanges cropped up in 32 major U.S. cities, including Cleveland. Thus the Cleveland Film Exchange Building was born. At the time, only Detroit had as large a distribution station. The $600,000 building ($8.3 million in 2021 dollars) was funded through a stock sale. Ads in the local papers asked “Why not begin purchasing a regular income for the rest of your life? Ask for folder description of an eight percent Preferred Stock offering on The Cleveland Film Exchange Building Company.”
The exchanges in the Film Building performed several significant functions. The exchanges matched studio films with theatres, performed a film pickup and delivery service, rewound and inspected returned movies, and stored films between showings.
In an age when movie theaters would change their offerings several times a week, the films had to be ready to ship. Trucks would move in and out of the Film Building at all hours of the day and night to serve the more than 700 theatres of northern Ohio.
A 1926 article in the PLAIN DEALER said the Cleveland Film Exchange Building held an estimated 6,500 reels - that equated to 1,200 miles or 1,600 hours of entertainment. Five or six tons of film were taken in or brought away from the building daily. Fourteen production companies had offices in the building.
The eight-story Beaux-arts style brick building with a prominent water tower on top was designed by architect John H. Graham. The floors were concrete. Tables, shelves, and doors were metal in the rooms where films were stored and handled. Sprinkler systems and fire extinguishers were conspicuous in every film handling room and all lights and radiators were protected. Most of the film storage rooms were designed with two doors in case one door was blocked. The rooms were inspected every two weeks by a safety committee, and once a week, there was a building wide fire drill.
These precautions were absolutely necessary. The first movies used film stock made of cellulose nitrate. Favored for its durability, cellulose nitrate film was notorious for its flammability and chemical instability. Once ignited, it burns rapidly with a flame almost impossible to extinguish. From transportation to the film exchanges to the theatre showing cellulose nitrate films, great care and vigilance was needed.
The fear of explosion and fire and toxic fumes in the film exchange was justified. The year before the Cleveland Film Exchange Building opened, the Film Exchange Building in Pittsburgh, PA, had a fire that killed twelve people and caused an estimated $1,000,000 in damages. A 1936 trade journal estimated that a film projectionist in the U.S. died every 18 days, partly attributable to the dangers of working with nitrate film.
The Cleveland Film Building fared better. Six years after the building opened, on 23 Mar. 1926, there was a fire in the TRI-STATE MOTION PICTURE STUDIO drying room on the second floor of Building. One hundred fifty employees were in the building at the time. The fire was contained, and the negatives of only three important Oho events were lost – a film of President Harding, a movie of Lorain Tornado footage, and footage of the Shenandoah dirigible disaster.
It was another Cleveland fire, the CLEVELAND CLINIC DISASTER, that demonstrated to the world the inherent danger of cellulose nitrate film stock. On 15 May 1929, 124 Clinic employees and patients lost their lives in the Clinic fire. The fire was caused by three tons of cellulose nitrate X-ray films stored in a basement room near steam pipes, without sprinklers, and with ducts that vented the acrid smoke throughout the hospital. The smoke alone was said to have caused many deaths through inhalation of toxic nitrogen peroxide.
In 1940-41 the Motion Picture Almanac listed eleven film exchanges in Cleveland. All were tied to Hollywood Studios, and all had offices in the Film Exchange Building: Columbia Film Building, Grand National, MGM (Lowes), Monogram Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Republic Pictures Corp., RKO Radio, Twentieth Century Fox, United Artists, Universal, and Warner-First National.
The studios invested heavily in their film exchange office. In the office areas of the building, the rooms were lavishly decorated and well equipped. Both movie stars and studio executives could stop in to promote their latest movie.
By 1951, the need for a special “fire proof” Film Exchange Building disappeared. Motion picture film was being made using a "safety" base of cellulose acetate or other slow-burning esters or polyesters. In 1952, Eastman Kodak “retired” cellulose nitrate film for good.
Another significant factor causing the demise of the Cleveland Film Exchanges was the steep decline in movie attendance brought on by television. In 1991, the last film distributor in Cleveland, Columbia Films, left the Film Building. Universal, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and all the other film exchange tenants were already gone. New tenants including The Downtown Health Club, a flea market, the Robert Schwartz restaurant and Norton Furniture moved in.
In 2012 the Cleveland Landmarks Commission designated the Film Exchange Building, then referred to as the Norton Furniture Building, a historic city landmark.
Tenants didn’t last long. In 2017 the once important building was for sale again. The asking price - $3 million.
In 2021 the building sat vacant with the lower floor windows boarded up and its future unknown.
“Exchange Ships Miles of Movies. Thousands of Reels Kept in Storage with Minimum Fire Hazard,” Plain Dealer, 9 Mar. 1926, p. 11