A movie theater or cinema is a venue, usually a building, for viewing movies. Most cinemas are commercial operations catering to the general public, which attend by purchasing a ticket. The film is projected with a movie projector onto a large projection screen at the front of the auditorium. Some movie theaters are now equipped for digital cinema projection, removing the need to create and transport a physical film print.
Spelling and alternate terms
Outside of North America most English-speaking countries use the term cinema, while “theatre” usually refers to live-performance venues. In the United States, the customary spelling is “theater”, but the National Association of Theatre Owners uses the spelling “theatre” to refer to cinemas.
Colloquial expressions, mostly used for cinemas collectively, include the silver screen, the big screen (contrasted with the “small screen” of television) and (in England) the pics, the flicks, and the flea pit, which derives from the long standing belief that the seats were infested with fleas as they were so uncomfortable to sit on, resulting in frequent fidgeting.
A “screening room” usually refers to a small facility for viewing movies, often for the use of those involved in the production of motion pictures, or in large private residences.
The first theater dedicated exclusively to showing motion pictures was Vitascope Hall, established on Canal Street, New Orleans, Louisiana in 1896. The first permanent structure designed for screening of movies was Tally’s Electric Theater, completed in 1902 in Los Angeles, California. The 1913 opening of the Regent Theater in New York City signalled a new respectability for the medium, and the start of the two-decade heyday of American cinema design. Los Angeles promoter Sid Grauman began the trend of theatre-as-destination with his ornate “Million Dollar Theatre” (the first to signify its primary use for motion pictures with the “theatre” spelling), which opened on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles in 1918. In the next ten years, as movie revenues exploded, independent promoters and movie studios (who owned their own proprietary chains until an antitrust ruling in 1948) raced to build the most lavish, elaborate, attractive theatres. These forms morphed into a unique architectural genre—the movie palace—a unique and extreme architectural genre which came to an end with the deepening of the Great Depression. The movie chains were also among the first industries to install air conditioning systems which gave the theatres an additional lure of comfort in the summer period.
Several movie studios achieved vertical integration by acquiring and constructing theatre chains. The so-called “Big Five” theatre chains of the 1920s and 1930s were all owned by studios: Paramount, Warner, Loews (owned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Fox, and RKO. All were broken up as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1948 United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. anti-trust case.
Traditionally a movie theater, like a stage theater, consists of a single auditorium with rows of comfortable seats, as well as a lobby area containing a box office for buying tickets, a counter and/or selfservice facilities for buying snacks and drinks, and washrooms. Stage theaters are sometimes converted into movie theatres by placing a screen in front of the stage and adding a projector; this conversion may be permanent, or temporary for purposes such as showing art house fare to an audience accustomed to plays. The familiar characteristics of relatively low admission and open seating can be traced to Samuel “Roxy” Rothapfel, an early movie theater impresario. Many of these early theatres contain a balcony, an elevated platform above the theater’s rearmost seats. The rearward main floor “loge” seats were sometimes larger, softer, and more widely spaced and sold for a higher price.
In conventional low pitch viewing floors the preferred seating arrangement is to use staggered rows. While a less efficient use of floor space this allows a somewhat improved sight line between the patrons seated in the next row toward the screen, provided they do not lean toward one another.
So-called “stadium seating” is employed in many modern theaters. Originally employed for flat-screen IMAX viewing (which has a very tall screen) this feature has proven popular with theatre patrons as it allows a clear sight line over the seated occupants forward of the viewer.
There are often two aisles, one at the right, and one at the left; sometimes there is only one, at one side or in the center. Sometimes a center aisle splits into a right and left one through an aisle along a row. Also there is an aisle before the front row. Each step in the aisles is usually marked with a row of small lights.
Walking along a row without an aisle, passing other people is just possible, with or without them standing up, but not without causing some inconvenience.
Multiplex and Megaplex
While a few theatres with more than one screen already existed, Stanley Durwood of American Multi-Cinema (now AMC Theatres) pioneered what would become the multiplex in 1963. Durwood later claimed that “in 1962 he was standing in the lobby of his 600-seat Roxy in Kansas City mulling over its poor grosses when he realized he could double his box office by adding a second screen and still operate with the same size staff. This insight arose from the fact that the real-time labor demands of a movie theatre are not constant. Rather, they come in bursts at the start and end of the movie. At the start, a large number of employees have to sell tickets, process tickets at an access point, sell food at the concession stand (a theatre’s primary profit center), make sure the theatre is not overcrowded, and run the film projector. While the movie plays, a small number of employees are needed for security and access control, while the others are relatively idle. At the end of the movie, a number of employees are needed to clean the theatre for the next showing. When the start times for movie showings in several physically connected auditoriums are staggered correctly, one team can continually keep all of them operational with minimal downtime.
Since that time multiple-screen theatres have become the norm, with many existing venues also retrofitted into multiple auditoriums. A single lobby is shared between them (the term “cinema” or “theater” may then mean either the whole complex or a single auditorium; sometimes “screen” is used with the latter meaning). Sometimes a popular movie is shown on multiple screens at the same multiplex, reducing the choice of movies but offering more choice of viewing times. Two or three screens may be produced by dividing up an existing cinema, but newly built multiplexes usually have at least 6 to 8 screens. In these large modern theaters often an electronic display in the ticket hall shows a list of movies with starting time, auditorium number, admission rating, and whether it is sold out. Sometimes the number of remaing available seats is shown as well. At the entrance of each auditorium there is often a one-line display with the title of the movie. After the movie has started, it may already display the next show.
Although definitions vary, a very large, modern multiplex with 20 or more screens is usually called a megaplex. The first megaplex is generally considered to be the Kinepolis in Brussels, Belgium, which opened in 1988 with 25 screens and a seating capacity of 7500. The first megaplex in the United States was AMC Theatres’ Grand 24 in Dallas, Texas, which opened in 1995. This triggered a wave of megaplexes construction across the country, financed in part by private equity money, causing a dramatic shift in the face of cities across America. In each town, a megaplex would often put the town’s multiplexes out of business, and were often coupled with other big box stores that were reaching their zenith at the time. This expansion was executed much too quickly, and almost all the major movie theatre companies went bankrupt at this time (although their operations were not much affected),
IMAX is a system using oversized film to produce image quality far superior to conventional film. IMAX theaters require an oversized screen as well as special projectors. The first permanent IMAX theater was at Ontario Place in Toronto, Canada.
A drive-in movie theatre is basically an outdoor parking area with a screen at one end and a projection booth at the other. Moviegoers drive into the parking spaces which are usually provided with portable loudspeakers or the vehicle’s sound system tunes to an FM station over which the soundtrack is played, and the movie is viewed through the car windscreen. Because of their outdoor nature drive-ins usually operate only after sunset, and are usually seasonal in operation. Drive-in movies were mainly found in the United States, and were especially popular in the 1950s and 1960s, but are now almost extinct.
Some outdoor movie theatres are just cleared areas where the audience sits upon chairs or blankets and watch the movie on a temporary screen, or even the wall of a convenient building.
In the late 1990s, student organisations in universities and schools started to show movies in auditoriums equipped with multimedia projectors. Before the ubiquity of classic and modern films in DVD and VHS formats, student groups at large universities often sponsored screenings of films on 16 mm projectors in lecture halls as a way to raise money. Many small colleges also had student-run film groups that projected 16 mm films on a regular basis to students.
Some alternative methods of showing movies have been popular in the past. In the 1980s the introduction of VHS cassettes made possible video-salons, small rooms where visitors viewed the film on a large TV. These establishments were especially popular in the Soviet Union, where official distribution companies were slow to adapt to changing demand and so movie theatres could not show popular Hollywood and Asian films.
Movies are also commonly shown on airliners in flight, using large screens in each cabin or smaller screens for each group of rows or each individual seat; the airline company sometimes charges a fee for the headphones needed to hear the movie’s sound. Movies can also be shown on trains.
Movie theaters may be classified by the type of movies shown:
- First-run theater: A theater that runs primarily mainstream film fare from the major film companies and distributors, during the initial release period of each film.
- Second-run or discount theater: A theater that runs films that have been pulled from the first-run theaters and presented at a lower ticket price. (These are sometimes known as dollar theaters.)
- Repertoire/repertory theater or art house: A theater that presents more alternative and art films as well as second-run and classic films.
- A sex theater or adult theater specializes in showing pornographic movies.
- IMAX theaters can show conventional movies, but the major benefits of the IMAX system are only available when showing movies filmed using it. While a few mainstream feature films have been produced in IMAX, IMAX movies are often documentaries featuring spectacular natural scenery, and may be limited to the 45-minute length of a single reel of IMAX film.
Historically, many movie theatres presented a number of shorter items in addition to the featured movie. This might include a newsreel and cartoon shorts (many classic cartoons such as Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse were created for this purpose). Some theatres ran on continuous showings, where the same items would repeat throughout the day, with patrons arriving and departing at any time rather than having distinct entrance and exit cycles. Newsreels gradually became obsolete by the 1960’s with the rise of television news, and most material now shown prior to a feature film is of a commercial or promotional nature.
A typical modern theatre presents commercial advertising shorts, then movie trailers, and then the feature film. Advertised start times are usually for the entire programme or session, not the feature itself.
Thus people who want to avoid commercials might want to enter later, and those who want to avoid the trailers, again later. This is easiest and causes the least inconvenience when it is not crowded, and/or one is not very choosy about where one wants to sit. If one has a ticket for a specific seat (see below) one is formally assured of that, but it is still inconvenient and disturbing to find and claim it during the commercials and trailers, unless it is near an aisle.
Some movie theaters have some kind of break during the presentation. There may also be a break between the introductory material and the feature. Double features usually consist of two feature films sold as one admission, with a break in between. Some countries such as the Netherlands have a tradition of incorporating an intermission in regular feature presentations, while in North America this is very rare, and usually limited to special circumstances involving extremely long movies.
Pricing and Admission
In order to obtain admission to a movie theater, the prospective theater-goer must usually purchase a ticket, which may be for an arbitrary seat (“open” or “free” seating) or for a specific one. Movie theaters in North America generally have open seating. Movie theaters in Europe can have free seating or have seating systems where the attendee can pick seats from a screen.
The price of a ticket may be discounted during off-peak times e.g. for matinées, and higher at busy times, typically evenings and/or weekends. Almost all movie theaters employ economic price discrimination: tickets for youth, students, and seniors are typically cheaper. Some movie theaters and chains sell passes for unlimited entrance. Some examples:
- “Pathé Unlimited Card” (PUC) for the chain of 12 multi- and megaplex theatres of Pathé in the Netherlands (100 screens), for 17.50 euro/month; there are 15,000 pass holders (April 2006)
- “Unlimited Card” for the chain of movie theaters of Cineworld (formerly UGC) in the UK and Ireland, for 14 pounds/month, or 11 pounds excluding those in London West
- Carte “Le Pass” for the chain of movie theatres of Pathé/Gaumont in Paris, for 20 euro/month; ditto for each of a number of other French cities (same price, even though the pass is valid for much fewer screens)
- “UGC Illimité” pass for all UGC movie theaters in France, for 18 euro/month, and an entrance fee of 30 euro.
- “UGC Unlimited” pass for the four UGC movie theaters in Belgium, for 15 euro/month
- “SF Movie Passport” pass for all the movies shown in SF Cinema City Organization theaters (?)(in Thailand), valid for a month for one person and one show per movie, at the price of THB 800 or eqv USD 20
Note that in Thailand there is the restriction of one show per movie, while in the Netherlands one can see any movie as many times as one wants.
Admission to a movie may also be restricted by a motion picture rating system. According to such systems, children or teenagers below a certain age may be forbidden access to theaters showing certain movies, or only admitted when accompanied by a parent or other adult.
In some movie theater complexes, the theaters are arranged such that tickets are checked at the entrance into the entire plaza, rather than before each theater. This has led to movie hopping, also called theater hopping, the practice of buying a ticket for one film and illicitly attending additional showings within the complex without buying the required tickets. Younger patrons may also use this practice to enter auditoriums showing age-restricted movies. In some cases there may be an additional ticket inspection for those entering an auditorium to prevent this from happening.
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