The invention of the cinema was credited to Auguste (1862–1954) and Louis Lumière (1864–1948), two brothers, who organized what is widely believed to be the first film screening on 28 December 1895, at the Grand Café in Paris, using the Lumière brothers' Cinématograph , which was both camera and projector. Though the American inventor Thomas Edison (1847–1931) had created film stock itself as early as 1889, it was the Lumière brothers who invented cinema as a mass entertainment event in which spectators were seated in front of a projected image, showing films such as L'Arrivéed'untrainà la Ciotat ( Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat , 1895), La Sortie des usines Lumière ( Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory , 1895) and Demolition d'un mur ( Demolition of a Wall , 1896). Their cinematographers, who traveled throughout the world shooting notable events, assembled a catalog of over one thousand films during the next two years. In France, their major competitor was Georges Méliès (1861–1938), with his Kinétograph . His production company Star Film, founded in 1896, specialized in fantastic, magical tales, in contrast with the Lumìre brothers, who concentrated on actualités . After making between six hundred and eight hundred films, Star Film went bankrupt in 1914, and Méliès ceased producing films in 1919.
A third significant figure in the development of French cinema was Charles Pathé (1863–1957) with his Eknétographe . Pathé founded Pathé Frères with his brother Émile in September 1896, and from 1902 his emblem, the red rooster, was synonymous with cinema around the world. Charles Pathé left France for the United States in 1914 because several of the most important branches of his company were located in territory occupied by the Germans. One of Pathé's major contributions to the development of cinema was to inaugurate in 1907 the tripartite system of production, distribution, and exhibition that characterizes the modern film industry. Under this system, exhibitors rent films through distribution companies. The number of film production companies quickly multiplied to include that of Léon Gaumont, who boasted the Chronophotographe and the first film director, Alice Guy (1873–1968).
The period of 1908 to 1914 is generally considered the golden age of comedy. During this era such stars as Max Linder (1882–1925), a brilliant comic actor who exerted a strong influence on comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, and such directors as Jean Durand (1882–1946), as well as the animator Émile Cohl (1857–1938), came to the fore. Adaptations of novels were common, and feature-length films began to appear in 1911, as well as detective serials, associated with director Louis Feuillade (1873–1925). This period also saw the advent of Le Film d'Art, a company founded in February 1908, partly funded by Pathé. Le Film d'Art was noted for its production of quality filmed historical drama, such as L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise ( The Assassination of the duc de Guise , 1908), directed by André Calmettes (1861–1942) and Charles Le Bargy (1858–1936) (who also took a leading role), with music by Camille Saint-Saëns.
Competition from American and Scandinavian producers had already weakened French international hegemony by 1912. Beginning in August 1914 with the onset of World War I, French film production dropped virtually to zero. After six months of inactivity, film production began again slowly with films like Feuillade's serial The Vampires (1915), which introduced one of the silent cinema's greatest stars, Musidora (1889–1957), who achieved great popularity in her role as the vamp Irma Vep.