A-Ron’s Cinema and The Movie Theater – A Brief History

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan, recently penned an essay urging the Nation to help save movie theaters all across the world. Movie theaters all across the United States and the world have closed nationwide like much companies and businesses, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The shutdown has turned movie theaters dark, causing nearly all of the country’s 40,000 plus screens in an unprecedented shutdown. With most of Hollywood’s March through May’s release dates postponed to open either later this year or next year 2021. That would make the theater shutdown last nearly three months. The longer these films gets delayed, the longer it will take for multiplexes to re-open.

That would lead to nearly millions of people out of work within the studios and film productions, not to mention the nearly 150,000 individuals working inside movie theaters. Everyone from the concession stands, running the equipment, the projectionists, the management, the ones taking tickets, booking movies, selling advertising and cleaning bathrooms in local theaters. These are just regular people trying to get by, many paid the minimum hourly wages rather than a salary.

The movie and theater business means a lot to me personally not just because, I love what movies are all about. Also because I spent nearly 12 years working at my local movie theater at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters (275 W Kaahumanu Ave). It was my first job and I did every position imaginable until moving on up and making it as an Assistant Manager. I lived and breathed that theater, brought me so much joy working there and gave me the best of life long friends (make sure you say hello to managers Jayme and Iwa. Tell them A-Ron sent you!)

Being such a film geek myself, the feeling and joy of having the 35mm film between my fingers is indescribable. From threading it through the projector to building it and splicing it to breaking it down. It was the best feeling in the world, as it felt like I was in the editing room, cutting a film for a studio.

The largest of the theater chains, such as AMC and Regal, had tried to remain open even as Hollywood postponed its upcoming release plans. Theaters tried to stay open following the guidelines set by The World Health Organization in social distancing. The social distancing would steadily diminish the recommended size of crowds, urged against gatherings of more than 10 people.

Movie theater owners around the country are hoping that Congress takes emergency measures to give financial relief for the industry. The National Association of Theatre Owners has asked for loan guarantees to help cover costs while no films are being released and no tickets are being sold for tax benefits to give support to employees.

XENON BULB TO GIVE LIGHT TO FILM PROJECTORS

Director Christopher Nolan, the visionary filmmaker of “Inception”, “The Dark Knight” and “Dunkirk”, says “Going to the movies are a vital part of social life that not only provides entertainment for everyone, but also jobs for many people. These are places of joyful mingling where workers serve up stories and treats to the crowds that come to enjoy an evening out with friends and family. As a filmmaker, my work can never be complete without those workers and the audiences they welcome. When people think about movies, their minds first go to the stars, the studios, the glamour. But the movie business is about everybody”.

With thousands of theaters closed, several studios have released their films early on digital platforms or streaming services. Most notably, Disney added “Frozen 2” to Disney Plus three months ahead of schedule. Other films still in theaters from this year, also made it to an early digital release like: “The Invisible Man”, “Sonic the Hedgehog”, “The Way Back”, “Bloodshot” and “Birds of Prey”, are now available to own or rent.

Nolan added in his essay that, “When this crisis passes, the need for collective human engagement, the need to live, love, laugh and cry together, will be more powerful than ever”. Movie theaters are in a tough place right now but we must remember that it’s a place of magic, a place where we can be told stories on a grander state. Since I wanted to focus on the subject of movie theaters, I wanted to uncover what really is the history behind movie theaters? First in order to know that we must take a quick look at how films started? How did the technology of movies all start? How did it evolve? Where did it start?

Since the invention of cinema in the 19th century, motion pictures have transported people across the world into different times, places and stories. As soon as the invention found its place, people came together to see films. Over time movies started to get bigger with longer run times, the advent of sound and surround sound were introduced and everything in between, the modern day movie theaters that we know today were formed.

They began in small rooms that housed inventions like the vitascope, then theaters known as nickelodeons, were America’s first motion picture theater that opened to the public. Its name, the Nickelodeon is a combination of the price of admission with “odeon”, the ancient Greek word for theater. This is where folks could see movies for a nickel.

With the advent of Hollywood and the studio system, lavish movie houses were constructed. By the 1930s you could get snacks and other concessions with your film, and by the 1950’s drive-ins let you watch movies in the comfort of your car. Now we have the return of 3D, IMAX and dine-in experiences. Throughout the years, cinema and movie theaters have come a long way.

The concept of moving images as entertainment was not a new one by the later part of the 19th century. A device called Magic lanterns was introduced, that used glass slides with images on them that were projected. The use of levers and other contrivances would make the images “move”. Another mechanism called a Phenakistiscope consisted of a disc with images of successive phases of movement on it which could be spun to simulate movement. 

In 1879 the Zoopraxiscope was developed by photographer Eadweard Muybridge, which projected a series of images in successive phases of movement. The images were obtained through the use of multiple cameras. While Edison laboratories was in the middle of the invention of the camera. It would be capable of recording successive images in a single camera being more practical and cost-effective, making it a breakthrough that influenced all other motion picture devices. 

Muybridge proposed that Edison and himself, collaborate and combine the Zoopraxiscope with the Edison phonograph. Edison decided not to participate in such a partnership, realizing that the Zoopraxiscope was not a very practical or efficient way of recording motion. In an attempt to protect his future inventions, Edison filed a caveat with the Patents Office in October 1888, describing his ideas for a device which would “do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear” by recording and reproducing objects in motion. Edison called the invention a “Kinetoscope,” using the Greek words “kineto” meaning “movement” and “scopos” meaning “to watch”. 

Edison’s assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, was given the task of inventing the device in June 1889, possibly because of his background as a photographer. There has been some argument about how much Edison himself contributed to the invention of the motion picture camera. Edison seemed to have conceived the idea and initiated the experiments, Dickson performed the bulk of the experimentation, leading most modern scholars to assign Dickson with the major credit for turning the concept into a reality. 

The Edison laboratory, though, worked as a collaborative organization. Laboratory assistants were assigned to work on many projects while Edison supervised and involved himself and participated to certain extents. The initial experiments on the Kinetograph were based on Edison’s conception of the phonograph cylinder. Tiny photographic images were affixed in sequence to a cylinder, with the idea that when the cylinder was rotated the illusion of motion would be reproduced via reflected light. This ultimately proved to be impractical.

The work of others in the field, who were trying to outdo Edison had prompted Edison and his staff to move in a different direction. While in Europe Edison met French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey who used a continuous roll of film in his Chronophotographe to produce a sequence of still images. The lack of film rolls had sufficient length and durability for use in a motion picture device that would delay the inventive process. This dilemma was aided when John Carbutt developed an emulsion coated celluloid film sheet, which was used in the Edison experiments. 

The Eastman Company later produced its own celluloid film which Dickson soon bought in large quantities. By 1890, Dickson and his new assistant, had began to develop a machine that exposed a strip of film in a horizontal feed mechanism.

A prototype for the Kinetoscope was showcased to a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1891. The device was both a camera and a peep-hole viewer, and the film used was 18mm wide. The film would run horizontally between two spools, at continuous speed. A rapidly moving shutter gave intermittent exposures when the apparatus was used as a camera, and intermittent glimpses of the positive print when it was used as a viewer when the spectator looked through the same aperture that housed the camera lens.

This next part gets a bit technical…It consisted of an upright wooden cabinet, 18 in. x 27 in. x 4 ft. high, with a peephole with magnifying lenses in the top…Inside the box the film, in a continuous band of approximately 50 feet, was arranged around a series of spools. A large, electrically driven sprocket wheel at the top of the box engaged corresponding sprocket holes punched in the edges of the film, which was thus drawn under the lens at a continuous rate. 

Beneath the film was an electric lamp, and between the lamp and the film a revolving shutter with a narrow slit. As each frame passed under the lens, the shutter permitted a flash of light so brief that the frame appeared to be frozen. This rapid series of apparently still frames appeared, thanks to the persistence of vision phenomenon, as a moving image. 

Before showcasing the final product the horizontal-feed system had been changed to where the film was fed vertically. The viewer would look into a peep-hole at the top of the cabinet in order to see the image move. The first finished public demonstration of the Kinetoscope was held at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1893. A constant flow of film genres was needed to be created to keep the new invention popular, so a motion picture production studio was built in West Orange in December 1892. It was dubbed the Black Maria on account of its resemblance to a police patrol wagon. The studio had a roof that could be opened to admit sunlight for illumination, and the building itself was mounted on a revolving pivot so that the structure could be constantly repositioned to keep it aligned with the sun.

The era of the Black Maria came to an end in January 1901 when Edison inaugurated a new glass-enclosed studio on a rooftop in New York City. The first motion pictures made in the Black Maria were deposited for copyright by W. K. L. Dickson at the Library of Congress in 1893. The earliest copyrighted film that still survives is Edison Kinetoscopic “Record of a Sneeze”, also known as “Fred Ott’s Sneeze”, which recorded Fred Ott, an Edison employee, sneezing comically for the camera. This motion picture was not submitted to the Copyright Office on celluloid film, but rather as a series of photographic prints.

The first Kinetoscope parlor, owned by the Holland Brothers, opened in April 1894, in New York. Five machines were placed in a row, and a customer could view the films in each for a total of 25 cents. Kinetoscope parlors soon opened around the United States. As he had done with the phonograph, Edison marketed his Kinetoscope and films through independently-financed entrepreneurs who formed the Kinetoscope Company.

Sales of Kinetoscopes slowed as projected motion pictures began to overtake the peep show machines in 1895. Competitors also emerged who sold their own machines for less, which cut into Edison’s profits. Partly to compensate for this and partly to counter the declining popularity of the Kinetograph, the Kinetophone was introduced in April 1895. It represented Edison’s dream to unite the motion picture with the phonograph and make talking pictures a reality. 

To operate the new invention, a patron would look through the peep hole viewer of a Kinetoscope while listening to a soundtrack piped through ear tubes attached to a Phonograph in the cabinet. The device did not offer exact synchronization and ultimately failed to find a market. The film known today as Dickson Experimental Sound Film is one of the few examples still existing of this early foray into sound.

Edwin S. Porter, later to become Edison’s most famous filmmaker, was hired in November 1900. He was made chief camera operator for the new studio and soon started filming narrative stories such as “Jack and the Beanstalk” (1902) and “The Life of an American Fireman” (1902).

Other films made during this period consisted of vaudeville acts, comedies, and actualities. A special series of films was made in 1901 of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and of events surrounding President McKinley’s assassination which occurred there, and the subsequent funeral ceremonies.

“The Great Train Robbery”, produced in 1903 was one of the Edison Company’s most famous films. It was only 14 quick scenes and filmed in New Jersey. At the end, there was a bonus scene that had nothing to do with the story, but that caused quite a ruckus. The bandit, actor George Barnes, pointed his revolver at the lens and shot point-blank directly into the camera, which meant, of course, directly at the audience. People were absolutely terrified. No one had ever seen such a thing. It was very successful and soon remade by motion picture manufacturer Sigmund Lubin who released his version in June 1904. The film cast also included G. M. Anderson, who later became better known as the first Western star, Bronco Billy.

The early film industry adapted rapidly to new tastes and demands. By 1904, fiction films, or acted films, as opposed to actualities (The actuality film is a non-fiction film genre that, like the documentary film, uses footage of real events, places, and things), were becoming the production priority. Comedies proved to be the most popular with audiences. 

The Edison Company also focused on contemporary social issues in fictional films such as “The Ex Convict” (1904) and “The Kleptomaniac” (1905), which reflected the Progressive attitudes of the time. New storefront theaters, dubbed nickelodeons, were a wildly successful innovation. Appearing first in 1905, nickelodeons featured movie shows all day long, and in contrast to the vaudeville theaters which had shown many actuality films, while the nickelodeons featured more fictional films. 

The first nickelodeon was built in Pittsburgh in June 1905 by Harry Davis, a vaudeville magnate. Soon nickelodeons began to appear in cities around the country. By 1908, there were approximately 8,000 nickelodeons in the United States. The theaters attracted a wide clientele, including women and children, and the frequent showings allowed people to stop in almost anytime, unlike variety theaters. By the end of 1907, the nickelodeon boom began to decline, and entrepreneurs began to build movie theaters with greater seating capacities where larger audiences could see longer film programs.

By the 1920s and 1930s, big names were buying theaters, like: Paramount, Warner, and Fox. These giants dominated the business until an anti-trust ruling came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948. Although there were drive-ins as early as 1910, the first patented drive-in was opened on June 6, 1933 by Richard Hollingshead in New Jersey. He created it as a solution for people unable to comfortably fit into smaller movie theater seats after creating a mini drive-in for his mother. Appealing to families, Hollingshead advertised his drive-in as a place where “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are”. 

The success of Hollingshead’s drive-in caused more and more drive-ins to appear in every state in the country, and to also spread internationally. Drive-ins gained immense popularity 20 years later during the ‘50s and ‘60s with the Baby Boomer generation. There were over 4,000 drive-ins throughout the U.S. and most were located in rural areas.

Drive-ins could only show movies during certain times of the year and were dependent on having decent weather. During the ‘70s, people downsized their cars during the oil crisis in order to save money on the inflated cost of gas, making it uncomfortable to watch movies at the drive-in. To make up for lost revenue, drive-ins began losing their family-friendly atmosphere by showing exploitation films like slasher horrors as well as adult content. When the development of the VCR was introduced, it made it more appealing for families or couples to stay at home and watch movies without having to go out.

Even though drive-ins are not nearly as popular as they used to be (with some arguing that they will be obsolete within the next decade), there are still drive-ins in business throughout the country. Modern drive-ins vary, but many show current films as well as older films. A lot of them also plan double feature nights. Just like a classic drive-in and a regular theater, they sell concession items. While drive-ins are not what they use to be, they will always be a nostalgic and cultural icon.

After the decline of drive-ins, theaters that we know today as multiplexes we’re becoming the new way of seeing a movie. Canada was the first country in the world to have a two screen theater. In 1957, the Elgin Theatre in Ottawa, Ontario became the first venue in the world to offer two films on different screens. By the 1960’s the multiplex had come to America. Stanley Durwood of American Multi-Cinema, now known as AMC Theaters (still currently one of the leading theater chains in the U.S.) is credited as pioneering the multiplex in 1963. The multiplex was the first shopping mall multiplex. It had two screens and sat 700 people.

Once multi screens were found to be popular, many existing venues were retrofitted to accommodate more than one film at a time. Including old movie palaces being converted into multiplexes. This would send cinemas that only had one screen out of business.

Not only were the establishments evolving but so were theater screens and the birth of surround sound. Massive widescreens in movie theaters had actually become popular in the 20’s. Essentially any film image with a width-to-height aspect ratio greater than the standard 1.37:1 is considered widescreen. A new evolution of a widescreen format, called CinemaScope was used from 1953 to 1967 for widescreen movies that were displayed on a curved screen. It created an image of up to a 2.66:1 aspect ratio, almost twice as wide as the previously common Academy format of 1.37:1 ratio. Unfortunately, the process had limitations and was soon rendered obsolete with the birth of Panavision.

First used in Disney’s 1940 film, “Fantasia”, surround sound, enriched the sound reproduction quality of an audio source with additional audio channels from speakers that surround the listeners. Prior to surround sound, movie theaters had three channels of audio, but after the evolution of surround sound, audio was in a 360 degree surrounding the audience. In today’s theaters venues offer lazy boy-stye seating, some with blankets and pillows included. They also include full dinner and drink menus which are served to patrons during the film.

Advances in film and theater chains led to advances in projection, bigger screens, theaters installing air conditioners (introduced in 1922), cup holders (introduced in 1981), pivot seating (which allowed others to easily get up without bothering the others in their seats) to the now standard luxury seats. Even movie palaces were once equipped with full orchestras replacing just mere pianos to the birth of surround stereo and surround sound, that would replace the theaters orchestras.

While television was threatening to eclipse cinema, it had cut into movie crowds in the 50s. Then the videocassette was going to try make going out to movies obsolete, but vhs just became a new branch of revenue for Hollywood. No matter what there is still something seductive  and satisfying about sitting in a theater. 

Although we now have the establishment of streaming services and watching films and tv shows streamed right to your television. There is a love for the big screen and the glamor of film being projected on the biggest screen possible. That combined with all the perks of having a night out at the movies has made the movie theater a huge success that it still is today. 

Timeline Of Movie Theater Pricing:

  • In 1907 you could watch a film at a Nickelodeon theaters for five cents. In fact, that’s why it’s called a “Nickel”odeon.
  • During the 1920s, movies cost about 27 cents.
  • During the 60s, it cost a little less than $1 to catch a flick.
  • In the 80’s, it cost about $4.00 to go to a movie.
  • In the 2000s it cost around $10 to go to a film.
  • In 2020, it now costs between  $11 -$17.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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