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Media > Cinema and film > Motion picture exhibition: a classification

Motion picture exhibition: a classification

Cinema—the exhibition of moving pictures—has been through a number of stages in its lengthening history. This is an attempt to classify and name those stages.

1 Kinetoscope parlours
Individual viewing on Edison machines. A short-lived phenomenon for several years from 1894, but persisting as a novelty well into the twentieth century as 'What the butler saw' machines, especially in English seaside arcades.
• Earliest example: Holland Bros Kinetoscope Parlor at 115 Broadway, New York, opened 23 April 1894. First in the UK: 70 Oxford Street, London, opened 18 October 1894. Early parlours also opened in Paris (October 1894) and Sydney (30 November 1894)

2 Ad hoc film shows
Anywhere that a projected film show could be set up on a temporary basis: halls, cafés, shops, booths in travelling fairs.
• Earliest demonstrations: Eidoloscope show by Lamda Company at 153 Broadway, New York (20 May 1895), Birt Acres at Barnet, Hertfordshire (August 1895) Max and Emil Skladanowsky at the Wintergarden opera house, Berlin (1 November 1895), Lumière Brothers in the Salon Indien at the Grand Café, 14 Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (28 December 1895), many during 1896
• Earliest continuing shows: R W Paul Animatographe at the Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, London (25 March 1896), Panorama in Rådhuspladsen, Copenhagen, Denmark (7 June 1896), nine French travelling fairs by the end of 1896, Alhambra Opera House, Brighton (1898)

3 Picture houses
Still mostly temporary or short-lived but specifically dedicated to film shows and often purpose-designed. Created in a wide range of spaces, but not yet in new, purpose-built buildings.
• Early example: Vitascope Hall, Buffalo (1896)

4 Shopfronts
Developing from the above from c.1905, sites converted for permanent film shows, often seating fewer than 100 people, many located in neighbourhoods, especially poorer ones. Known in the US as 'nickelodeons' (admission costing five cents—a nickel), in the UK as 'penny gaffs'. Opened in vast numbers, especially in the US, the phenomenon has later echoes in the video rental stores of the 1980s and even the non-branded mobile phone shops of the late 1990s.
• Earliest example: Pittsburg (1905)

5 Conversions
Theatres, music and vaudeville halls, with existing auditoria and proscenium.
• Early examples: Balham Empire, London (1907), Palladium, Brighton (1912)

6 Purpose-built cinemas
Buildings designed from the ground up for picture shows, from around 1909. Partly a response to the maturing industry, which by now is producing multi-reeel feature films. Cheap admission prices: 3d-6d (1p-2½p) in the UK, 10c-15c in the US.
• Early examples: Bioscope, Victoria, London (1909), Duke of York's Cinema, Brighton (1910)
• Some were very grand 'movie palaces' and 'luxury cinemas', with huge seating capacities: 2,000 seats at the Alhambra Platz, Berlin (1911), 5,000 at the Gaumont-Palais, Paris (1911), 3,000 at the Palads-Theatret, Copenhagen (1912), 1,800 at the Regent Cinema, Seventh Street, New York (1913), 2,989 at the Strand Theatre, 1579 Broadway, New York (1914).
• The term 'super cinema' is also first used during this era, especially for the luxury cinemas once the sound era becomes established in the 1930s.
• At least in the UK, there was a phase of 'bijou' cinemas, sometimes with cafés or tea-rooms, designed to appeal to a more middle-class female clientele. Later examples includes restaurants and dance halls (eg, the Regent Cinema, Queens Road, Brighton, 1921)

7 News theatres
Cinemas running continuous programmes of short films, mainly newsreels and cartoons, usually sited for casual visits in shopping areas and at or near railway stations and similarly busy places. Some were purpose-built but many were former second-run sites.
• Examples: Newsreel Theatre, Cincinnati Union Terminal, Ohio (1933), Victoria Station News Theatre, London (1935), Penn Newsreel Theatre, near Pennsylvania Station, New York (1938), Princes News Theatre, North Street, Brighton (1947)

8 Drive-ins
A mainly American phenomenon, at least in the early stages, catering for the growing number of cars. The boom begins after 1945.
• Earliest example: Camden, NJ (1933)

9 Twin cinemas
Although the first known example of dividing a site dates from as early as 1916, the practice did not become common until the 1960s. As cinema audiences declined, some cinemas were remodelled to create more than one auditorium in the same building, often by creating a separate screen from the balcony area. Although initially both screens might show the same film, twinning created the opportunity to allow greater choice of film programme at a time when many cinemas, especially neighbourhood screens, were closing. The number of screens was thus kept relatively constant, although the geographical spread of locations fell, making cinemas more remote from their audiences' homes. In the following years, the larger super cinemas were progressively divided into more and more (and smaller and smaller) units.
• Earliest examples: Hollywood Theatre, Toronto (c.1947), Nottingham Odeon (first in the UK, 1965), which later becomes the UK's first quintuple (five-screen) cinemas (1976)

10 Multiplexes and megaplexes
A purpose-built site containing several screens that show different films with staggered starting times, so that the complex can be run with a smaller, more efficient staff than an equivalent number of separate screens. The initial driver of this type of exhibition was American Multi-Cinema (AMC, known as Durwood Theatres until 1968), which opened its first 'mall mutiplex' in Kansas City in 1963. AMC also opened the first UK multiplex, The Point at Milton Keynes, in October 1975
• Earliest examples: Elgin Theatre, Ottawa (second screen built on site alongside the first, 1947, separate programming 1957), Parkway Twin (two screens), Kansas City (1963), Milton Keynes (first in UK, 1975)

11 Large format
One-off examples have occurred throughout cinema history, notably in the late 1920s, but these have become an established part of cinema ecology only since the growth of Imax began in the late 1990s.
• Earliest example: Toronto (1971)  

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Page updated 6 January 2009
© David Fisher