The year is 1902 in downtown Los Angeles. You pay your 10 cents and enter the first permanent movie theater in the United States. With 200 seats in front of a huge silver screen (named for the highly reflective bits of silver embedded in the fabric), the lights dim and your heart races as the movie begins to play.
Flash forward to present day where not only are the theaters endless, but so are the movies. What will you be watching tonight? A colossus of a bloody epic about the pioneers of this country? A sappy romance to whisk you off to exotic places in the arms of a tall, dark and handsome antihero? A comedy about a bizarre pet detective? Perhaps a drama about an unsinkable ship that, ironically, sinks?
Of course technology today is completely different than a century ago, but has the preference of the movie-goer really changed at all in a hundred years? In 1915, the two-dollar, pre-sound era of movies, the public flocked to see the explicitly pro-KKK depiction of American history and brutal national conquest. This film, The Birth of a Nation, was the highest-grossing film in the United States until 1937 when Disney’s Snow White took the crown.
In the 1920s, Bible-inspired films captivated audiences and topped the box office charts. Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments took audiences into a familiar world with no sudden twists or turns; the stories are timeless and the audience knew what to expect and expected what they knew would happen. But some yearned for more. Some hungered for thrills.
Then, BANG BANG! The 1930s brought Westerns into the forefront of movie culture. Films romanticizing the American cowboy as the hero of the western frontier dominated American movie screens. Westerns showed the beauty of the American heartland and the battles it took to defend and keep that land, while antiheroes dominated the screen and challenged the allegiance of the audience. With these higher budget movies came an increase in ticket prices from about 15 cents to a quarter.
Here comes the television
Although officially invented in 1927, the television only became a home fixture in the 1930s and 1940s. To combat the power of these black-and-white picture boxes, the movie industry had to up their game and find more ways to engage the movie-goer. They created bigger budget movies oozing with drama and radiating intense action scenes. Oh, and they introduced color as well. There was a resurgence of biblical films like Samson and Delilah (1949), and King Solomon’s Mines (1950), which was filmed in exotic locations like Africa and pushing the envelope of screen decency by showing the belly button of leading lady Hedy Lamarr.
With the end of World War II, the younger audience was looking to break away from the conventional portrayal of men and women in the movies. Rock ‘n’ roll rebellion swept the nation and movies began to target either the younger generation or their parents, bringing rapid change to the entire movie industry altogether. The unconventional, underground antihero types like Marlon Brando, James Dean and Paul Newman became king because they appealed to the younger generation while playing the parts that could draw older audiences.
Box office kings
Dominating the list of the highest-grossing movies ever at the box office are stories of fantasy and adventure in far-off places with unlikely heroes. Star Wars, Shrek, E.T. and Spider Man all in the top ten highest-grossing films of all time.
The original movie-goer may have wanted something that would resonate closer to home on a more obvious physical level, nothing too challenging required. However, today’s movie-goer wants to emphasize the inner struggle of a multifaceted protagonist, while being transported to another world. The love of religious and nationalist movies like Passion of the Christ (2004) and Pearl Harbor (2001) is intertwined with the history of movie-goers and will always be a substantial part of the box office because we want to believe that the underdog can succeed and that good can triumph over evil. Although there is a level of comfort in knowing what will happen in a religious epic or movie dealing with national history, movie-goers have a yearning to explore uncharted territories and be stimulated by something new and exciting.
People go to the movies to escape. They want to be thrilled, shocked, mesmerized and, most importantly, entertained. Those emotions ring true throughout the history of the cinemas. And although we pay over 600 percent more than our great great grandparents did, in the darkness of the theater the movie-goer still has the same mission as ever: to discover. Discover hidden parts of characters on the screen and uncover a part deep within themselves.
Tiffany Agam may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.