Ever since the invention of motion pictures, movie industries around the world have counted on a stream of technological developments to maximize production processes, increase profits, and entice audiences. Yet the history of film technology, spanning a little over one century, is a finite one, more subtle and incremental than one might assume. Indeed, the basics of film production went largely unchanged for a good part of the last century. Other than several watershed innovations that required systemic overhauls, such as synchronized sound, wide-screen formats, and color processes, most technological innovations were small by comparison, affecting the final product in ways that were often not noticeable to most viewers.
Only recently, in the past few decades, has the industry begun to explore new alternatives to conventional film stock, editing techniques, and the basic motion picture camera. One explanation is the uniqueness of the movies as a manufactured product. Unlike other technology products, such as automobiles, television sets, and appliances, the movies are neither tangible nor utilized in any conventional way by consumers. The product is less material than it is imagistic, something to be recounted and remembered rather than owned and handled. In the case of television, however, consumers do more than watch it. They own, display, and control the machine, which explains, in part, the medium's dramatic technological changes (remote control, cable, Tivo, flat-screen, and VHS/DVD). Movie formats have undergone dramatic changes as well, of course, but on the whole they have been more sporadic and aimed at attracting moviegoers during box-office slumps. Another, more compelling reason for the relative constancy of motion picture technology has been a reluctance on the part of movie industries—and especially the eight major and minor studios of classical Hollywood—to make systemic changes requiring costly, comprehensive overhauls of the industry. Nonetheless, and sometimes against its will, the moviemaking industries around the world have adopted new technologies in response to audience interests, economic imperatives, societal shifts, and aesthetic trends.