Early Cinema



Emerging at the tail end of the nineteenth century, cinema owed its existence as a technological invention to key developments in motion study and optics, and, as a visual novelty to traditions of screened entertainment. The medium would soon shed its affiliation with science when its potential for widespread commercial success became more apparent, facilitating its entry into the mainstream of twentieth-century popular culture. Even so, cinema's earliest years were marked by a variety of representational tendencies and viewing contexts whose diversity would diminish once commercial imperatives imposed themselves more fully. Had cinema proved less successful, it might have enjoyed freedom from borrowed aesthetic conventions somewhat longer than it did. But by the first years of the new century, as films became longer and their content incorporated story material with greater regularity, the potential for the cinema to rival stage-based forms and generate greater profit attracted numerous entrepreneurs, leading to sustained growth throughout the early 1900s.

Within ten years of the medium's debut, motion pictures had established themselves as a staple within the cultural landscape of most countries, and the uncertainty of the medium's novelty phase had been replaced by more concerted efforts to standardize the production of films for a growing audience. The increasing popularity of motion pictures meant that for the final ten years of the early cinema period, the medium would enter into a process of institutionalization. With movies readily available in most urban areas and narrative the dominant form that most films assumed, the commercial future of cinema pointed progressively toward industrial models favoring rationalized modes of production and predictable systems of distribution and exhibition. To some degree, the history of cinema's first years is a steady (if uneven) reduction of options, leading to the enshrinement of the feature-length fiction film, shown in theaters designed for movie projection.



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