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Movie History – Foundations of Movie Watching (With a Few Recent Developments)

From the earliest days of cinema, audiences have been entranced by the moving image, whether viewed via coin-operated devices, in converted churches or at movie palaces. Improvements in sound, color, and screen-size, as well as the introduction of new venues (planes, drive-ins, multiplexes, etc.) encouraged the medium to grow. Recent technological advancements have made the film-going experience available anywhere, anytime. Here’s a quick look at how the movie-watching has evolved from a peep show novelty to your Netflix subscription.

The Kinetoscope, 1894
The Kinetoscope is a single-viewer, peep show device. On April 14, 1894, the Holland Brothers opened the first Kinetoscope Parlor in a converted shoe store in NYC. It consisted of a row of coin-operated kinetoscopes on which spectators watched short films for 25 cents apiece. The mostly male audience was entertained by short reels depicting clothed female dancers and sparring boxers, as well as everyday scenes.

The Electric Theatre, 1902
The first permanent movie house exclusively designed for showing projected motion pictures was Thomas Tally’s 200-seat Electric Theater, built in downtown Los Angeles. It was a precursor to the more ubiquitous nickelodeons that followed shortly thereafter.

The Nickelodeons, 1905
Harry and John Davis opened their first permanent movie theater in Pittsburgh. The name for the converted dance hall was derived from the cost of admission (a nickel) and the Greek word for theater (odeon). The opening feature was The Great Train Robbery (1903) and ran about 12 minutes in length. By 1908, there were 8,000 nickelodeons nationwide which makes sense given that by 1907, daily attendance at these theaters exceeded two million.

The Movie Star Fan Magazine, 1910
Carl Laemmle of the Independent Motion Picture Company introduced the star system by giving Florence Lawrence (aka The Biograph Girl) the first screen credit in the short crime romance The Broken Oath (1910). (To learn more about Lawrence’s rise to fame, read Tim Dirks’ “The List – Greatest Movie Hoaxes, Gimmicks and Stunts.”) The following year, Lawrence went on to be interviewed in Motion Picture Story Magazine, the first U.S. fan magazine. The article is often cited as the first movie star interview; by 1919, fan magazine readership exceeded one million.

Movie Palaces and Theater Chains, 1909 and After
As the audiences grew, so did the movie theaters: The first movie palace, NYC’s City Theater, appeared circa 1909, followed by the Regent in Harlem (seating capacity 1,800), the Strand (seating capacity 3,000) in Times Square, and the plush Capitol Theatre on Broadway. Eventually, luxurious movie palaces were built in all the major American cities until the advent of talkies. Not long after came the establishment of proprietary theater chains by both independent promoters and the movie studios themselves. The so-called “Big Five” chains of the ’20s and ’30s were all owned and monopolized by studios: Paramount, Warner Bros., Loew’s (which owned MGM), 20th Century Fox, and RKO. (The Supreme Court ruled these chains violated antitrust laws in 1948.)

The Dawn of the Talkies, 1927
Although there’d been earlier sound pictures with synchronized sound effects and music (but no dialogue), the end of the silent era really came when Warner Bros. debuted The Jazz Singer (1927), the first widely-screened feature-length talkie. The musical, featuring Broadway star Al Jolson, had accompanying audio via sound-on-disc technology: songs by Jolson and a few lines of synchronized dialogue. Because of the overwhelming response to this movie, theaters rushed to install sound equipment. Within a short time, movie attendance almost doubled to 110 million.

The Academy Awards, 1927
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed in 1927, with actor Douglas Fairbanks as president. Its first, very informal awards ceremony was held in 1929 as a banquet, and honored silent films from 1927 and 1928. The prestigious awards ceremony set the standard for other industry-related organizations, and continues to be a major force in movie promotion today.

Drive-In Movie Theater, 1933
The Camden Drive-In with its “Automobile Movie Theater” was the first of its kind when it opened in Pennsauken, New Jersey on June 6, 1933 with the second-run feature Wives Beware (1932). Admission was 25 cents per car with an additional 25 cents per person. The number of drive-in theaters in the U.S. peaked around 5,000 in 1958, coinciding with a mania for horror and science fiction fare.

Technicolor Advancements, 1935
Up through the ’20s, hand-tinted movies were standard practice but two-strip Technicolor also emerged that decade with films like DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), MGM’s Ben-Hur (1925) and Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925). In the early ’30s, Walt Disney introduced a three-color (aka three-strip) Technicolor system with his animated shorts Flowers and Trees (1932) and The Three Little Pigs (1933). Within a short time, RKO had debuted Becky Sharp (1935) which used the same process (basically the standard for today) and became the first feature-length Technicolor movie.

Multichannel Sound, 1940
Disney’s groundbreaking, animated Fantasia (1940) introduced “Fantasound” — a stereo-like, multi-channel soundtrack that achieves a surround-sound effect by having its soundtrack printed on a separate 35mm reel. The technological advance made the film about four times more expensive than an average live-action picture.

Wide-Screen Formats, 1950s
With theater attendance declining with the advent of television, Hollywood developed ways to lure audiences back such as an increased use of color and the introduction of wide-screen formats. In the latter category, here are some landmarks:

• The Biblical epic The Robe (1953): 20th Century Fox’s first movie in CinemaScope
• Robert Aldrich’s Western Vera Cruz (1954): UA’s first movie in SuperScope
• The Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye hit White Christmas (1954): Paramount’s first VistaVision widescreen production
Oklahoma! (1955): The first successful use of Todd-AO 70 mm (producer Mike Todd’s pioneering, independently-owned system)
Raintree County (1957): MGM’s first Camera 65 release, a forerunner of Ultra Panavision 70

TV Saturation Ad Campaign, 1953
To promote the launch of the B-movie The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Warner Bros. ran an intensive campaign on television and radio aimed at teens while launching the film in large number of theaters nationwide. The strategy worked and the movie became the sleeper hit of 1953.

In-Flight Movies, 1961
In 1961, TWA exhibited the first in-flight feature on a regularly-scheduled commercial airline: MGM’s By Love Possessed (1961) starring Lana Turner. Prior to that, the first in-flight movie, titled The Lost World (1925) was a black-and-white scifi silent with pioneering stop-motion special effects. It was shown on Imperial Airways’ converted WWI Handley-Page bomber during a 30-minute flight from London to Paris. [Note: Some sources cite the first in-flight movie as a short called Howdy Chicago which was shown aboard the Santa Maria, an 11-seat Aeromarine Airways hydroplane circling Chicago during the Pageant of Progress exposition of 1921.]

The Multiplex, 1963
The first theater originally designed as a multiplex by inventor Stanley Durwood of American Multi-Cinema, now AMC Theatres, opened in the Ward Parkway shopping center in Kansas City. It was called Parkway Twin because it had two screens.

The Modern Blockbuster Franchise, 1968
Before the 1970s, there were a few examples of blockbusters (basically, movies that caused lines to stretch around the block): The Jazz Singer (1927), Gone With the Wind (1939), The Ten Commandments (1956), and The Sound of Music (1965). However, the era of blockbuster franchises began with the classic scifi flick Planet of the Apes (1968). The movie eventually spawned four sequels, two television series, and Tim Burton’s remake in 2001 as well as Marvel Comics merchandise including action figures.

IMAX, 1970
The IMAX wide-screen large format premiered in the Fuji Pavilion at the EXPO ’70 in Osaka, Japan, with the 17-minute film Tiger Child (1970).

Wide-Release Marketing, 1971
Billy Jack (1971) was the first movie marketed in wide-release at many theatrical venues on the same day. This was a change from the previous market strategy of testing a film in a few areas to first see if results were positive before expanding to other market. This same marketing strategy was used for Spielberg’s major blockbuster Jaws (1975) — and paved the way for the method in which all major releases are done today.

VCRs, Late 1970s
The videocassette recorder became a mass market consumer item in the late ’70s, primarily in two formats: VHS and Sony’s Betamax. The new technology was considered a threat to the industry but in subsequent years was re-evaluated as a boon when studios discovered sales of prerecorded, commercially released videos to be a major source of income.

IMAX 3D, 1995
In 1995, IMAX 3-D was introduced with the 40-minute movie Wings of Courage. The film cost $15 million to make and was viewed through high-tech goggles with liquid crystal lenses.

The Advent of DVDs, 1997
DVDs (Digital Versatile Discs) which used optical disc storage technology instead of recording tape, began to be sold to consumers in 1997. By 2003, over 250 million DVD players were in use worldwide, making it one of the most successful consumer electronics products of all time. It was destined to replace the laser disc, VHS, and even videogame cartridges. By mid-2003, DVD rentals had topped VHS rentals.

Netflix, 1997
Netflix, a revolutionary online DVD rental service started in 1997, first began to offer postal shipping of rented DVDs on its website to subscribers.

YouTube, 2006
By 2006 (its first full year of service), over 100 million videos were viewed daily on YouTube, many of them short clips from copyrighted movies despite their being officially banned by the site’s terms of service.

First Broadband Movie, 2007
The first broadband movie ever distributed by a major studio was Paramount’s prankster sequel Jackass 2.5 (2007), available online to U.S. residents in late December 2007 (for two weeks) before a joint DVD release by Blockbuster and Viacom.

Tim Dirks is Senior Editor and Film Historian at AMC, an educator and film buff who created the landmark, award-winning Filmsite.org in the mid-’90s and continues to write original reviews and features spanning all the years of cinematic history.

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