Throughout the twentieth century, motion pictures were screened in a host of different places, including schools, churches, parks, and retail stores. But until the use of the home VCR became widespread in the 1980s, the primary site for film exhibition was the movie theater, which offered on a regular basis—and always for the price of a ticket—a moving picture program, a social experience, and sometimes much more. "Despite the glamour of Hollywood," wrote economist Mae Huettig in 1944, "the crux of the motion picture industry is the theater" (p. 54). To a great extent, this remained true well into the late twentieth century.

From their introduction, movie theaters have varied considerably in size, architecture, technology, location, clientele, ownership, and symbolic significance. They have varied over time as well, with the first generation of nickelodeons giving way to buildings, grand or modest, that were actually constructed as film theaters, even veritable picture palaces, as they were quickly dubbed. The classical Hollywood system relied on glamorous, often huge, first-run metropolitan venues as well as more modest urban neighborhood theaters and small-town picture houses. When motion-picture attendance fell dramatically from the late 1940s through the 1970s, drive-ins provided a novel alternative to the traditional "hardtop" theater, as did art house cinemas specializing in non-Hollywood fare. The multiplex, often housed in a shopping center, became a principal exhibition site in the late 1960s and 1970s, only to be replaced by the free-standing megaplex, the latest evolution of the movie theater. Each of these theatrical screening sites offered not only a differently designed space for the public exhibition of film but also promoted a particular type of film program and provided a distinctive moviegoing experience. The various incarnations of the movie theater reflect the shifting place of cinema in the everyday life of the twentieth century.

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