The History of Exhibition

The movie theatre industry has its roots in the late 19th century, when a number of enterprising inventors experimented with mechanical motion picture projectors. In the 1890s, the Lumière Brothers invented the Cinématographe, a combination hand-held movie camera and projector, capable of showing an image that could be viewed by a large audience. In late 1895, they held their first public screening or commercial exhibition of a projected motion picture to a paying Parisian public, marking what is generally accepted as the birth of the cinema.  The Cinématograph quickly led to the development of American movie theatre equivalents, including Vitascope Hall in New Orleans in 1896, the first U.S. “storefront theatre” to show motion pictures. The Vitascope accommodated 400 people, and had two shows per day, with admission 10 cents.

In late 1896, the Edisonia Vitascope Theatre, a 72-seat theatre in downtown Buffalo, New York, opened. It was the world’s first permanent movie theatre exclusively designed as a venue for showing motion pictures.

In 1897, the oldest continuously operating cinema theatre, the Washington Iowa State Theatre in Washington, Iowa, was established, and is still in operation.  

In 1905, Harry Davis and John Harris opened their first movie theatre, dubbing it a nickelodeon, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The opening feature was the western The Great Train Robbery (1903). The name for the converted storefront, dance hall or theatre was derived from the cost of admission — a nickel — and the Greek word for theatre — “odeon.” Nickelodeons were extremely popular from 1905 to 1915.

By 1913, the first movie palaces began to appear and, within a few years started replacing cheaper nickelodeons. For example, the first ‘real’ and elaborate movie “palace” built for movies only and without a stage, The Mark Strand Theatre, opened at Times Square in New York in 1914 with seating for 2,800. 

In 1915, the first demonstration of a 3D film was at the Astor Theatre in New York City. Red and green glasses were required to view test reels of 3D footage.

In 1924, theatres started showing their first double features. By the 1930s, double features emerged as a popular way for film fans to spend more time enjoying a cinematic escape. By 1948 it was estimated that two-thirds of all movie houses were showing double features: the main feature and a second B-movie. They also showed trailers, cartoons, newsreels, and comedy/novelty shorts.

In 1927, Grauman’s Chinese Theater opened on Hollywood Boulevard with the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings. It soon became famed for its cement handprints & footprints of various film stars and as a destination for Hollywood premieres .

On October 6, 1927, Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer, the first widely screened feature-length film to incorporate synchronized sound for sequences of dialogue. Studios and audiences quickly began to embrace sound, leading to a new era in the industry.

In the late 1920s, popcorn was introduced as a popular snack at movie theatres with the advent of talking pictures. By 1933, theatres began to open refreshment stands.

In 1933, the Camden Drive-In, the first ever drive-in movie theatre, opened in Pennsauken, New Jersey. Its actual name was “Automobile Movie Theater”, and it had capacity for 400 cars.

In 1935, the first three-strip Technicolor movie, Becky Sharp, was shown in theatres. Color movies were widely distributed by the late 1930s, and by 1954, 50 percent of movies were in color.

1939 has often been called the “greatest year in film history” by movie historians, chiefly due to the countless classics released that year, including Gone With the Wind, the most successful film of its time, and The Wizard of Oz, celebrated for its revolutionary use of color.

In September 1941, Citizen Kane was released in theatres. It is still considered by many to be the greatest film of all time and its influence continues to this day.

In 1948, the Supreme Court’s anti-trust decisionruled that the major movie studios could not own their own theatre chains and were forced to sell them off.

In the 1940s and 1950s, movie theatre owners in the United States were represented by the Theater Owners of America and the Allied States Association of Motion Picture Exhibitors.

1952 To help draw attention to the Big Screen and combat the omnipresence of television, Hollywood introduced 3D movies and wide-screen technology like Cinerama and others. The first feature-length color 3D movie was 1952’s Bwana Devil, while the first film in Cinemascope, The Robe, followed one year later.

On September 2, 1965, the nation’s largest movie-theatre trade associations—the Theater Owners of America and the Allied States Association of Motion Picture Exhibitors—agreed to merge and form the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO).

In October 1966—a little over a year after NATO became a unified trade body for the exhibition industry—the association helped launch a National Movie Month with the support of distributors and the creative community.

In the 60s, the era of the multiplex began as one-screen theatres were transformed into theatres with multiple auditoriums and new multiplexes sprang up across the country. The unified NATO helped its members expand their screen counts. On the creative side, the 60s were a time of groundbreaking cinema that challenged cultural norms and completely changed the artform. Films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Graduate, Easy Rider, and Bonnie and Clyde forever redefined what was possible on the big screen.

In 1968, a new voluntary, parent-focused ratings system was developed by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). In their original classifications, films were rated according to their suitability for viewing by young people, in four categories: G, M, R, and X.

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

1976 saw the resurrection of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a long run of midnight showings at the Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village, helping popularize the ‘midnight movie’ craze.

On June 20, 1975, Jaws opened on 464 North American screens (a record at the time!) and became what is widely considered to be the first modern summer blockbuster and topped $100 million. Two years later, Star Wars (made for $11 million) would shatter expectations of what was possible at the box office, grossing nearly $200 million on its first release. Exhibitors responded to these massive films by stepping up their showmanship.

In the 1980s, the trend of blockbuster filmmaker really took hold in a big way. Global hits such as E.T., Batman, and Top Gun, defined an era that is known for being gloriously over the top. During this time, NATO helped its members navigate a changing entertainment landscape as VHS access became more convenient and consolidation happened in both distribution and exhibition.

In 1982, THX sound system technology was developed with the main goal of delivering audio and visual in film theatres as the filmmakers had intended. The first movie to be shown in a THX-certified auditorium was 1983’s Return of the Jedi, the concluding film in the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy.

In 1995, the first feature-length film created entirely by CGI, Toy Story, was released and earned $191 million at the box office.

1999 was a landmark year for the adoption of digital cinema in theatres. George Lucas notably championed the format for his highly anticipated new film, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, which became the top-grossing film of the year. By 2009, movie theatres started replacing film projectors with digital projectors. In 2013, it was estimated that 92% of movie theatres in the United States had converted to digital, with only 8% playing film. NATO worked closely with the technical community and exhibitors to understand and help advance digital cinema.

In the late 1990s, innovative theatre chains begin to offer dine-in restaurant food and alcohol.

In 2009, Hollywood studios realized that they could leverage the popularity of social networking sites to market films, encourage positive word-of-mouth, raise awareness and stimulate ticket sales. Fans were asked if Paranormal Activity warranted a potentially wider release. After an overwhelmingly positive response, the film expanded to theatres across the nation and became a massive hit. This was a landmark moment in the dynamic between movie theatres and social media.

In December 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar was released in theatres, stunning audiences with its revolutionary use of 3D. A snowstorm hit the East Coast the weekend it opened, and the trades were worried that it would hurt grosses and hinder the film. It has since earned nearly $3 billion worldwide. The movie theatre industry’s push to install 3D-capable technology helped boost the film’s success.

In March 2011, NATO held the first CinemaCon at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

On April 26, 2019, Avengers: Endgame­­­­—the culmination of a 22-film story in the Marvel universe—set a new record for best opening weekend with a staggering $357 million domestic debut. The film would go on to earn more than $2.8 billion in movie theatres worldwide.

In December 2021, Spider-Man: No Way Home became the first film to earn $1 billion in movie theatres worldwide since the pandemic.

In March 2022, NATO announced the creation of The Cinema Foundation, a new, donor-supported non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the cinema exhibition industry. Later in the year, The Cinema Foundation launched its first National Cinema Day with participation from exhibitors across the United States.

In May 2022, Top Gun Maverick was hailed for bringing people back to theatres in a big way. It earned $1.5 billion worldwide.

July 2023: One word: “Barbenheimer.” The social phenomenon that sprung up as a result of Oppenheimer and Barbie being released on the same day helped spur massive box office. Oppenheimer has earned $957 million worldwide, while Barbie has earned $1.5 million globally, becoming the highest-grossing comedy film of all time. Exhibitors seized the moment and found creative ways to “event-ize” moviegoing and connect with their communities.  

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