Cinema, in the form we would recognise today, was born in France in the 1880’s. That makes it well over a century old. In the years since, cinema has changed many times. Practically every decade has brought a new and exciting upheaval; the switch from silent to sound, and from black and white to colour; the advent of 3D, CGI, digital and motion capture. Film is an art form that, although it stays essentially the same, is constantly evolving alongside new trends, new ideas and new technology. But what about the way that viewers actually watch films? Has how we experience films evolved too? Or, when we purchase our cinema tickets and sit in a movie theatre in the 21st century, is the whole experience still pretty much the same as it was one hundred years ago?
The first officially recognised ‘moving picture’ was shot in Leeds in 1888, by a French inventor named Louis Le Prince (who was to vanish in mysterious circumstances two years later). He shot on paper film using a single lens camera. After him came William Friese-Green’s ‘Chronophotographic’ camera, then Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope; the Kinetoscope, contained within a large box, allowed people to look in through a peephole to watch short sequences (films shown included footage of a dancing girl, a famous strong-man flexing his muscles and a man sneezing). This ‘peep-show’ version of cinema didn’t last long and soon the Lumière brothers came along with their Cinematograph, a machine that could shoot, print and project film, enabling more than one person to watch the shorts at the same time.
The first official commercial film theatre was set up in Chicago in 1893, but the practice of projecting short documentary films and vignettes was quickly taken up in Britain. The first British cinemas weren’t really cinemas at all, but actual theatres, fairs and sideshows – a film or three could be shown as part of a music hall programme; technological novelties that the audience would marvel over before the next act came on. Production companies would sell their films to the exhibitors, regardless of subject, for one shilling a foot (15 cents a foot in the US). The potential of film as a lucrative entertainment industry in its own right quickly became obvious, and as more technology was invented and patented, more money made and more production companies set up, films themselves started to become longer, better made and more narrative based.
Cinemas began to be built specifically for the purpose of projecting films, but these buildings still weren’t really all that different from theatres. They still had red velvet seats, galleries, balconies and boxes, and even curtains in front of the screen (a feature that has remained in many cinemas to this day, although now cinemas don’t usually bother to open and close them with each screening). Because all of the films were silent at first, most cinemas also had orchestra pits for the accompanying musicians.
In 1928, the world-famous chain Odeon Cinemas was founded by Oscar Deutsch and has been a stalwart on the British film scene ever since. Odeon is still one of the largest cinema chains in Europe, and is responsible for many of the attractive art-deco cinemas lending charm to high streets across the UK. Like theatres that have only one stage, cinemas would originally have only one screen. You would be shown to your seat by an usher; girls would wander up and down the rows selling cigarettes and ice cream, and the light of the projector would cut an eerie blue swathe through the theatre as smoke drifted up from the people sitting below. You wouldn’t just see one film, but probably two, with a few news reels and cartoons sandwiched continuously in between. Cinemas remained in this essential format for a long time and still haven’t completely shaken it off today – although, some things about going to a British cinema in the mid 20th century seem utterly alien now. The mandatory playing of the National Anthem following the credits, for instance, during which people would remonstrate with you if you neglected to stand up, or attempted to sneak out. There were also no safety lights in the theatres at all, meaning that until the projection started the room was pitch black, making the usher’s job a vital necessity.
During the late sixties and seventies, an attempt was made to modernise many of the large single screen cinemas by redesigning them into multi-screens. Much of the time this resulted in the classic old cinemas being hacked about into cramped, badly-built screens; this ruined the atmosphere of the grand single screen, and often left viewers with an awkward or obstructed line of sight. In the eighties, cinema chains such as Odeon (rather than independent picture houses) began to become the norm and the concept of the multiplex started to gain momentum.
Multiplexes are a far cry from the smaller, more intimate screens of yester-year. Some of them can have as many as 20 different screens, all showing different films at the same time. During the nineties, they quickly became more like shopping centres than cinemas, packed with shops, restaurants and bowling alleys, with the cinema screens themselves almost as an afterthought. More recently, with the resurgence of 3D and the rise and rise of the IMAX screen, more emphasis is being placed on screen size combined with high definition picture quality, and a cinematic experience which is closer to virtual reality is advertised.
Strangely enough, by gradually refining films and the buildings they are screened in until visiting a cinema becomes almost like a total immersion experience, we will have nearly come full circle. If, in the future, it becomes possible for viewers to sit in a cinema and experience a film as though they themselves were immersed in it, then these virtual theatres will have more in common with Edison’s peep-hole Kinetoscope than they will with the type of cinemas that have dominated Britain (and the world) for most of the 20th century. Instead of sharing the experience of the film with those around us, we will once again be absorbed in our own perception of it, just like a visitor to a sideshow pressing their face up to the Kinetoscope for a thirty-second peek.
Rather than getting bogged down in nostalgia for the days of cigarette girls and double features (although good days they were), it is better for us viewers to accept cinema for what it is as a whole; a constantly evolving medium, learning new talents, discarding old ones, and sometimes picking itself up and morphing into something entirely new. Just like the films themselves, the way we watch them is always changing, and yet always staying the same.