One of those influential forms was the magic lantern show, which depended on projected images to tell stories visually. Charles Musser, among others, has suggested that film exhibition practice developed within traditions of screen entertainment aligned with such media as magic lanterns and stereopticons. Highly dependent on lecturers, elaborate transitional effects, and a multitude of still images, magic lantern shows may have affected the way early film exhibition developed in a variety of ways. For one, they provided a model for exhibitors to construct programs of single-shot films that had the potential to transform the material into something entirely different. Depending on the will and the creativity of the exhibitor, various short films could be combined into multi-shot assemblages, whose meaning might be further transformed by an accompanying text read by a lecturer. This allowed the exhibitor to function as a proto-editor in the years before multi-shot films became the industry norm. As Musser has also argued, the power of the exhibitor to supply additional narrational force to the films he projected complicates the applicability of the cinema of attractions model, insofar as the films might have been understood quite differently, depending on how they were presented.
Nonetheless, Gunning has found further confirmation of the pervasiveness of attractions by considering the effect of exhibition on early films. Because films often functioned as one act among many on a vaudeville bill, their status as attractions was reinforced by the modular presentational format of vaudeville itself. Much like the variety acts it was sandwiched among, the short film traded on making an immediate impact on its audience before being replaced by some other, disparate piece of entertainment. In other words, the vaudeville program fostered early cinema's tendency toward surprise and novelty by virtue of the interchangeability of elements on any given bill. Even when cinema came to be shown in theaters designed primarily for film exhibition, this variety format persisted, placing film among a host of appealing entertainments, including illustrated songs, lecturers, and vaudeville acts, only now these elements supported the films.
Before films found themselves featured as the main attraction in venues specifically built or reconfigured for the purpose of screening them (these were typically termed nickelodeons in the United States), cinema appeared in a variety of exhibition sites. The diversity of places films were screened points to the broad potential envisioned for film from the outset. Everywhere from outdoor fairs to department stores, opera houses to dime museums, offered films. The venue and context determined the role films would play: films documenting war-related activities might be screened in a community hall to boost morale during wartime, while a church might show a filmed Passion Play to coincide with a religious service. In certain countries, particularly in Europe, itinerant exhibitors played a crucial role in spreading cinema across the countryside, often screening films in the fair-ground circuit. For this reason, films tended to be sold outright, since exhibitors would move from site to site, ideally finding new audiences for their programs at each locale.
Such strategies failed to build a permanent base for cinema's growth, however, and risked alienating audiences who might be exposed to either worn-out prints or collections of titles already viewed. In the United States, the solution to such problems arose in the form of the film exchange, an early type of film distribution in which a middleman bought prints and then rented them out to exhibitors at a fraction of the purchase price. The inauguration of the exchange system facilitated the establishment of permanent movie theaters in America, providing exhibitors with a steady supply of reliable prints at a reduced cost.
How is it that motion pictures had achieved a sufficient level of popularity by 1903–1905 to entice enterprising business people to risk investing in the exchange system and then in permanent exhibition sites? Scholars differ in their explanations, but the increased production of longer story films, most obviously Le voyage dans la lune ( AT rip to the Moon ) and The Great Train Robbery (1903), must have played a significant role, as both these films proved to be successes with the moviegoing public.
Still more questions arise concerning just who that moviegoing public might have been. It has frequently been assumed that the audience for early cinema was composed primarily of working-class, immigrant men (at least in the United States), that conclusion reached on the basis of contemporaneous reports and the locations of theaters. Though such a portrait of the American moviegoer might have been accurate in the initial years of the nickelodeon boom, it scarcely does justice to the diversity of audiences viewing cinema during the entirety of the early cinema period and in regions and countries beyond that of the United States' industrialized northeast. Accounts of well-heeled patrons frequenting motion picture programs at private salons in turn-of-the-century France, fairground visitors of all ages and social backgrounds taking in films as part of the presentations by
Nonetheless, much has been made of the anxiety that cinema engendered among those who felt compelled to protect citizens from society's evils. Reformers feared the potentially negative effects of cinema from the outset, and as permanent homes for film exhibition became established, efforts at regulation found an easy target. Nickelodeons were criticized for being dark, dirty sites of social mixing. Ironically, the National Board of Censorship (NBC) came into being in the United States as a defensive strategy on the part of exhibitors reacting to the citywide closing of nickelodeons by New York's mayor in 1908. One can see the establishment of the NBC as the first in a series of self-regulatory moves made by the American film industry to circumvent state-controlled censorship. At the same time, it demonstrates how early—and how closely—exhibition and regulation are tied together, and how principles of regulation are formulated with an eye to "protecting vulnerable" audience members from the excesses of motion picture content, thereby controlling their behavior by shaping the films those audience members will see. In the years after 1908, the film industry would exercise progressively greater control over every aspect of the film experience, from production through to exhibition, in attempts to standardize the product and its entry into a growing marketplace.