The cinematograph first entered the Ottoman palace in 1896 as the sultan's entertainment. The following year, the first public exhibition took place in the Sponeck pub in Istanbul. Cinema remained itinerant in Turkey until 1908, when Sigmund Weinberg, a Romanian citizen of Polish descent, opened the first movie theater, Pathé, in Istanbul. By the 1920s cinema had become a part of everyday life in the country's big cities, and a decade later magazines were already referring to a social "illness" called "cinemania." Cinema was the most popular mass entertainment in Turkish popular culture until the 1970s, when television was introduced.

When Turkish filmmaking became an industry in the 1950s it was catering to an audience whose expectations had been being shaped by foreign films since the 1920s. American films have always had an immense influence on mainstream Turkish cinema, and European films and movements have served as consistent models for filmmakers in search of alternative cinemas. Despite the foreign influences, Turkey's Westernization and modernization movements dating back to the 1920s, together with political and economical instabilities, have provided filmmakers with a rich source of inspiration, sometimes culminating in very original films. Nevertheless, ninety years of Turkish filmmaking, which has produced some six thousand films in a wide variety of genres and movements, lacks a coherent identity and style as a national cinema.

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