Behind the curtains: A brief history of movie theaters

Photo of movie theatre
Ian Ransley/Creative Commons

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Watching a movie in a darkened room with other patrons is as much a deeply sacrosanct and intimate experience as it is a shared one. You might laugh or cry in unison with the crowd, but it’s also just as easy for you to imagine yourself alone in the dark with a story playing out just for you. This sense of solitude and focus is especially important given the ever-evolving, fast-paced world we live in today. The convenience and ease with which we can watch films is, in a way, something we’ve taken for granted. It’s easy to forget, living in the internet era, how rare such an experience was for Americans just a little more than a century ago.

The first public motion picture theater opened in the United States on June 19, 1905 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Movie theater owners Harry Davis and John Harris called it the Nickelodeon after the Greek word for theater, “θέατρο” (odeon) and the word “nickel” (the cost of admission to see the moving pictures).

The first films shown at the Nickelodeon consisted of stories played out with flickering shadows displayed on white sheets before the audience. They were only 15 to 20 minutes long but still deemed a cultural marvel at the time when such a form of entertainment had never been seen before. These silent short films were extremely successful, and their popularity soon led to an expansion of theaters across the country, contributing to the birth of the cinematic industry as we now know it to be.

Further technological advances brought about color and sound films beginning in the 1920s. Later came the rise of drive-in theaters, 3D movies and the construction of large multiplexes and megaplexes. Theaters grew not just in size but also in the number of amenities they provided to movie patrons. They included the quintessential movie theater snack — popcorn — and other concessions, air conditioning, specially designed chairs and lavishly decorated interiors to attract customers and enhance the moviegoing experience.

Modern movie theaters face unprecedented challenges in the era of COVID-19. From competition with streaming services and threats of closure by the ongoing pandemic, society itself has shifted and evolved in its values regarding the things that are worthy of our attention.

Our collective attention span, according to a 2019 study from the Technical University of Denmark, is increasingly shrinking with the amount of information readily available in the information age. People have more options on where to direct their attention, but they also spend less time focusing on things now. Researchers utilized several sources to track trends of media consumption and collective attention, including social media data, Google Books access logs and movie ticket sales.

“The world has become increasingly well connected in the past decades. This means that content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more rapidly,” said Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, a researcher who contributed to the study.

So what does this mean for movie theaters?

Many of us don’t have the patience to sit through a two-hour film that could just as easily be accessed in the comfort of our own living room. At-home entertainment provides us with the luxury of multitasking and easily shuffling through different viewing selections at our leisure.

In response to this cultural shift, streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video have risen in popularity in the past two decades. Many other streaming services such as Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+ and NBC’s Peacock are attempting to follow in their footsteps.

Whereas most theaters have gone dark across the country, Netflix has largely remained unaffected by the recent social and economic changes. It releases original content on a weekly basis and has millions of subscribers worldwide. For the first nine months of 2020, the company even reported an increase of 28.1 million subscriptions. Last year, the streaming service only added 27.8 million subscriptions.

As society continues to progress and change, let’s hope there’s always a place for people to set aside their everyday worries, sit quietly among strangers and enjoy the wonders of cinematic storytelling.

The online nature of its business gives it an edge over traditional cinemas. With rising COVID-19 cases and lockdowns being implemented across the country, this has been one of the worst years, if not the worst year, for movie theaters, ever.

Many studios have pushed their high-profile 2020 releases to 2021 or later. The few theaters that are open are low in attendance, and a number of chains, such as AMC Theatres, are at risk of running out of business. Other chains, such as Regal Cinemas, have closed its theaters for the unforeseeable future.

But not all hope is lost for the future of cinemas. This summer brought back the American drive-in theater — public parks and empty parking lots have set up large screens for people to come and enjoy a film in the comfort of their own vehicles. The drive-in is a perfect source of entertainment, as it adheres to social distancing guidelines and appeals to people’s desires to be out of their homes, safely among others in public and experience both leisure and excitement.

There were more than 4,000 drive-ins in 1958 at the peak of the drive-in industry, while only about 305 remain. But their resurgence in popularity during the pandemic has revitalized the business. Some drive-ins expanded their entertainment offerings to provide classic and contemporary films, concerts, stand-up performances, even art shows. A few cities, such as New York and Philadelphia, have welcomed boat-in theaters where the movie-watching experience has transitioned from land to water.

It’s unclear how long the charm of drive-ins will last and when in-person theaters will finally reopen. Theaters have evolved significantly from the whimsical nickelodeons of decades past, but their persistence throughout the decades is a testament to the American people’s continuing desire to watch stories unfold in the presence of others.

As society continues to progress and change, let’s hope there’s always a place for people to set aside their everyday worries, sit quietly among strangers and enjoy the wonders of cinematic storytelling.

Contact Stella Ho at [email protected].