From tiny booths to entire stadiums, the moving pictures have come along quite a journey to the modern movie theater. Not even the inventors of film nor the pioneers of the medium saw the heights to which film would rise in the popular imagination.

First steps

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The earliest incarnations of moving pictures appeared as temporary exhibits in storefronts, traveling shows, and as part of vaudeville acts. These exhibits were viewed through kinetoscopes, praxinoscopes, and other inventions that managed to project series of images to form animations and eventually films without sound or color. Some of the earliest films were of circus performances, sporting events,  and a tooth extraction.

Edison’s kinetoscope began to rise in popularity around America as they were installed in hotels, amusement parks, and eventually dedicated parlors. Edison refused the idea of creating larger projections for mass viewing, unable to see the profit compared to his own business model. However, the inventor had not secured an international patent for his devices, and, as they spread through Europe, tinkerers began working on a way to create projections for audience viewing.

L’amour de cinéma

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In 1895, The Parisian Lumiére brothers patented the cinématographe, the world’s first film projector, which functioned both as a camera and a printer. The lightweight cinématographe was perfectly transportable for bringing to filming sites and allowed the Lumiére brothers to produce a tremendous number of short films after its invention– over 1,000 in the first few years. December 1895 saw the world’s first commercial film screening, “Workers Leaving the Lumiére Factory.” In 1896, The Edison company purchased the rights to an improved projector, the vitascope, and held their first screening in April of the same year at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in Herald Square, New York City.

Like the early examples of kinetoscopes and praxinoscopes, the first films recorded by projectors showed scenes of daily life. These early films exploded in popularity, but the novelty of simple film eventually wore down by the late 19th century. Throughout the early 20th century Georges Méliès began to experiment with employing a narrative structure using special effects and fantasy elements. His most iconic film is remembered in the image of the man in the moon with a bullet in his eye from Trip to the Moon. Méliès’ innovation inspired other filmmakers for the rise of cinema as a narrative medium.

Price of admission

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June of 1905 saw the birth of the world’s first movie theater, the Nickelodeon, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The theater featured the films of Edwin S. Porter of the Edison Company. The charge of admission to the pictures, which came to be known as “nickelodeons,” was 5 cents. The commercial success of the theater opened the eyes of investors to the potential of the medium and paved the way for a full-scale industry


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Up until the 1920s, silent films were shown in movie theaters not so foreign from what we are still accustomed to, with seating beneath a large screen illuminated by the projector at the top rear of the auditorium. In 1916, the drive-in theater was also opened in Las Cruces, New Mexico: Theatre de Guadalupe. Though the first projections of film with sound were recorded in the early 1900s, it wasn’t until 1927 when the first “talkies” were shown in either venue, and while the concession stand dates back to the earliest theaters, it was around this same time that larger stadium-style seating was incorporated to form multiplexes. One of the earliest such examples was the Princess Theatre in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1922.

As film continued to become a cornerstone of mass media, theaters began to rise in popularity and size with some adjustments like the decline of the drive-in. Multiplexes and megaplexes began to appear in the 1960s, whereas the first showings of 3D movies using color stereoscopic images date all the way back to the 1920s. It was through this long history that we arrive at today’s giant IMAX theaters and full 3D movie experiences, though we find a twist of irony in that many now choose to view digital film alone from the comfort of their couch on the tiny screen of a mobile phone.

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