Silver Screen: The History of Commercial Cinema | History Hit

Silver Screen: The History of Commercial Cinema

An 1896 advertising poster with image from Lumière's 'L'Arroseur arrosé'
Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On 28 December 1895, Frenchmen August and Louis Lumière broadcast their their first Cinématographe show in the basement of the Grand Café in the boulevard des Capucines in Paris. The film, titled La Sortie des ouvriers de l’usine Lumière (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory) is forever memorialised in history, since its broadcast marked the first time that motion pictures had ever been played to a paying audience.

Moreover, the broadcast catalysed a process that elevated film to that of popular entertainment for the first time, rather than as the private reserve of the wealthy. However, prefacing this pivotal moment were a number of essential events which led up to the birth of commercial cinema.

Today, going to the cinema is a popular past-time amongst people of all ages and backgrounds, and the global box office has even been recorded as having garnered $100 billion of profits per year.

So how did commercial cinema come into existence?

Film was limited to one person viewing it at a time

By 1891, prolific American inventor Thomas Edison had already developed a ‘Kinetoscope’ for viewing moving pictures. However, his ‘peep-show’ device was severely limited in that it could only be looked into by one person at a time.

Thomas Edison around 1922

Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Lumières had been in the burgeoning photographic business since the early 1880s, and were highly successful: by 1894, the family business produced some 15 million photographic plates per year. However, the same year, their father attended a showing of Thomas Edison’s ‘Kinetoscope’ in Paris, and realised that there was a market for a device that combined both animation and projection.

In their small factory in Lyon, they developed numerous technologies essential for a working film camera. Amongst the most important of these technologies were film perforations, the carefully punched holes on the side of black physical film.

In 1892, a French writer called Léon Bouly conceived of the idea and preliminary designs for what he called a ‘Cinematograph’, a reversible device of photography and optics for the analysis and synthesis of motions. He applied for a patent in 1892. However, by 1894, he could no longer pay the fees for his patent, and the name “cinématographe” became available again.

As a result, short on money and real technical know-how, Bouly sold his rights to the name and design to the Lumières, who then set about making his dream into a reality.

After World War 2, America feared communist infiltration of its institutions, including Hollywood.
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The Lumières toured the world with their invention

In February 1893, the brothers successfully patented their own vastly improved version of the Cinematograph, and managed to record their first moving picture, Sortie de l’usine Lumière de Lyon, within two years. After a successful public screening of the film, the business-savvy brothers realised that there were huge profits to be made by holding paid screenings.

The world’s first commercial screening took place in the Grand Café Boulevard des Capuchines in Paris, where the Lumières showcased their first ten films to an admiring audience. Some were comedy shorts, while another was the first newsreel, a film of the French Photographic Society Conference. Another highlight were the first known documentaries in the form of four films about the Lyon fire department.

The Cinématographe Lumière at Institut Lumière

Image Credit: Victorgrigas, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

From 1896, the brothers’ business became a kind of embryonic production company, sending trained cameramen-projectionists throughout the world to both shoot new films and broadcast new material.

On average, each film was around 17 meters long, lasted less than a minute and had to be hand-cranked through a projector; however, the reception to them was one of astonished delight. For instance, at the great Paris Exhibition of 1900, the cinematograph was one of the main attractions.

The age of cinema had begun, and by 1906 feature films of an hour long were possible as the technology’s potential exploded into life.

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Lucy Davidson