Crafting A Motion Picture Show: Early Efforts to Bring Cinema to Nontheatrical Places

< Program < PANEL NO. 4.: The Politics of Distribution and Exhibtion

As film historians have long observed, the cinema was not a single thing, but an interconnected set of technologies, infrastructures, and built environments. While cinema’s affinity for, and ties to, the theater has been used to suggest that this new medium was merely an outgrowth of an older aesthetic and architectural form, in the United States, at least, moving pictures were in fact not exclusively, or even primarily, presented in theatrical contexts before 1910. As film historians have documented people saw movies at amusement parks, world’s fairs, tent shows, and in churches.

In effect, early cinema in the United States was primarily a nontheatrical amusement. Even the nickelodeon, long assumed to be the origin point for the American film industry, was pointedly not a theater. In an article on the phenomena published in 1907, the “ingredients” necessary for a successful show included, in addition to a projector, curtain, phonograph, and ticket-taker, a “storeroom, seating from 200 to 500 persons.” There was no mention of a proscenium arch, a curtain, or any of the other accoutrements associated with theaters.

In this paper, I will consider how educators, religious figures, and civic leaders opposed to theaters opened nontheatrical, but not necessarily noncommercial, cinemas in the early 1910s. Drawing from a 1914 survey of church use of motion pictures conducted by the National Board of Review, similar surveys conducted of schools in the mid-1910s by the United States Bureau of Education, and articles on setting up cinemas in educational, religious, and industrial journals, this presentation seeks to recast the history of nontheatrical cinema by emphasizing the affinity groups opposed to the theater had for the movies, and document how they aspired to compete with purpose-built theatrical cinemas that became more commonplace in the early 1910s.

Martin L. Johnson (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Martin L. Johnson is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His first book, Main Street Movies: The History of Local Film in the United States, was published by Indiana University Press in 2018. He is currently at work on a history of early nontheatrical cinema in the United States (1896-1925).