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The changing face of cinema

We are in unprecedented times, with COVID-19 affecting every industry across the globe. To date it has had a profound and lasting impact on the entertainment industry, including the recent closure of all cinemas for more than three months.

In pondering how and when cinemas will re-open, I have taken the opportunity to look back at the history of the cinema industry and see if it offers any clues as to its future.

Early innovation

In 1891 the Edison Company demonstrated a prototype of their Kinetoscope, which enabled one person at a time to view moving pictures. By 1894, the Kinetoscope was a commercial success, with public viewings happening in many countries.

The Lumière brothers were the first to present projected moving pictures to a paying audience, in December 1895 in Paris, France. They used a Cinématographe, which was a camera, a projector and a film printer all in one.

In the early 1900s, the demand for movies and the number of new films available to show were thriving, and theatres were able to survive financially showing only movies, rather than live acts. In the United States, small theatres were set up which charged five cents for admission, and thus became known as nickelodeons. This type of theatre was popular from about 1905 to 1915. As more people paid to see movies, more money was invested in their production, distribution and exhibition. This resulted in the creation of large studios and the building of dedicated cinemas.

Technological advancements

In the years from 1900 to 1930, there were technological advances in colour and sound which shaped movies for many years afterwards. Colour was first added to black-and-white movies through hand colouring, tinting, toning and stencilling. However, these early Technicolor processes were costly, and so colour was not used extensively until Technicolor developed a three colour process in 1932. This was used for films such as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (both 1939). The first feature-length movie incorporating synchronised dialogue, The Jazz Singer (1927), used the Warner Bros’ Vitaphone system, which utilised a separate record disc with each reel of film for the sound.

During the 1930s and 1940s, cinema was the principal provider of popular entertainment, and public attendance was very high. ’Super’ cinemas or ‘picture palaces’, offering extra facilities such as cafés and ballrooms, were built in many towns.

However, the introduction of television led to a number of technical experiments which aimed to maintain public interest in cinema.

In 1952, the Cinerama process was introduced. It used three projectors and a wide, deeply curved screen together with multi-track surround sound. It allowed audiences to immerse themselves in the film, and proved extremely popular. However, Cinerama was technically complex and therefore expensive to produce and show. Widescreen cinema was not widely adopted by the industry until the invention of CinemaScope in 1953 and Todd AO in 1955. Both processes used single projectors in their presentation.

Specialist large-screen systems using 70mm film were also developed. The most successful of these has been IMAX, which as of 2020 has over 1,500 screens around the world.

These technological initiatives helped cinemas compete with television to a certain extent, but they never regained the status and impact they had in the 1930s and 40s, and over the next 60 years audiences declined. By the late 2000s, however, out-of-town multiplex cinemas had become popular and successful.

Cinema in the 21st century

In the past 20 years, hugely improved digital technology has fundamentally changed film production. Most mainstream productions are now shot on digital formats, with subsequent processes, such as editing and special effects, undertaken on computers.

In the last 10 years, cinemas have invested in digital projection facilities which produce stunning screen images, and digital surround sound systems which intensify the viewer’s experience. In the past few years there has also been some renewed interest in 3D formats, which has stemmed from the availability of digital technology.

An uncertain future

There is an increasing concern about declining cinema attendance in the last decade, especially among young people. The viewing public has so many other ways to consume content, such as watching films on television (terrestrial, satellite or subscription video on demand (SVOD) services) or streaming film content on computers, tablets and mobile phones. These are more convenient for modern audiences and lifestyles, as well as being perceived as cheaper and more flexible. Add to that safety fears over COVID-19, and a lack of quality original content, and it is clear that the future of cinemas is increasingly uncertain.

History has demonstrated that science and technology led to the creation of cinema, and throughout history science and technology have constantly instigated progress within the cinematic industry. It is therefore likely that it will take another significant technological advance to enable cinemas to continue to compete against the many other forms of consumption of content by consumers, especially in these tumultuous times. That, and some great original movies!

Marion Escobar Reina

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The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.