In 1799, Étienne-Gaspard "Robertson" Robert moved his Phantasmagorie show to an abandoned cloister near the Place Vendôme in Paris. The eerie surroundings, with a graveyard and ruins, formed an ideal location for his ghostraising spectacle.
When it opened in 1838, The Royal Polytechnic Institution in London became a very popular and influential venue with all kinds of magic lantern shows as an important part of its program. At the main theatre, with 500 seats, lanternists would make good use of a battery of six large lanterns running on tracked tables to project the finely detailed images of extra large slides on the 648 square feet screen. The magic lantern was used to illustrate lectures, concerts, pantomimes and other forms of theatre. Popular magic lantern presentations included phantasmagoria, mechanical slides, Henry Langon Childe's dissolving views and his chromatrope.
The famous Parisian entertainment venue Le Chat Noir opened in 1881 and is remembered for its shadow plays, that renewed the popularity of such shows in France.
Émile Reynaud screened his Pantomimes Lumineuses animated movies from 28 October 1892 to March 1900 at the Musée Grévin in Paris, with his Théâtre Optique system. He gave over 12,800 shows to a total of over 500,000 visitors, with programs including Pauvre Pierrot and Autour d'une cabine.
Thomas Edison initially believed film screening would not be as viable commercially as presenting films in peep boxes, hence the film apparatus that his company would first exploit became the kinetoscope. A few public demonstrations occurred since 9 May 1893, before a first public Kinetoscope parlor was opened on April 14, 1894, by the Holland Bros. in New York City at 1155 Broadway, on the corner of 27th Street. This can be regarded as the first commercial motion picture house. The venue had ten machines, set up in parallel rows of five, each showing a different movie. For 25 cents a viewer could see all the films in either row; half a dollar gave access to the entire bill.
The Eidoloscope, devised by Eugene Augustin Lauste for the Latham family, was demonstrated for members of the press on April 21, 1895 and opened to the paying public on May 20, in a lower Broadway store with films of the Griffo-Barnett prize boxing fight, taken from Madison Square Garden's roof on May 4.
Max Skladanowsky and his brother Emil demonstrated their motion pictures with the Bioskop in Juli 1895 at the Gasthaus Sello in Pankow (Berlin). This venue was later, at least since 1918, exploited as the full-time movie theatre Pankower Lichtspiele and between 1925 and 1994 as Tivoli. The first certain commercial screenings by the Skladanowsky brothers took place at the Wintergarten in Berlin from 1 to 31 November 1895.
The first commercial, public screening of films made with Louis and Auguste Lumière's Cinématographe took place in the basement of Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris on 28 December 1895.
The etymology of the term "movie theater" involves the term "movie", which is a "shortened form of moving picture in the cinematographic sense" that was first used in 1896 and "theater", which originated in the "...late 14c., [meaning an] "open air place in ancient times for viewing spectacles and plays". The term "theater" comes from the Old French word "theatre", from the 12th century and "...directly from Latin theatrum [which meant] 'play-house, theater; stage; spectators in a theater'", which in turn came from the Greek word "theatron", which meant "theater; the people in the theater; a show, a spectacle", [or] literally "place for viewing". The use of the word "theatre" to mean a "building where plays are shown" dates from the 1570s in the English language.
Claimants for the title of the earliest movie theatre include the Eden Theatre in La Ciotat, where L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat was screened on 21 March 1899. The theatre closed in 1995 but re-opened in 2013.
L'Idéal Cinéma in Aniche (France), built in 1901 as l’Hôtel du Syndicat CGT, showed its first film on 23 November 1905. The cinema was closed in 1977 and the building was demolished in 1993. The "Centre Culturel Claude Berri" was built in 1995; it integrates a new movie theater ( the Idéal Cinéma Jacques Tati).
The Korsør Biograf Teater, in Korsør, Denmark, opened in August 1908 and is the oldest known movie theatre still in continuous operation.
Some well-equipped theaters have "interlock" projectors which allow two or more projectors and sound units to be run in unison by connecting them electronically or mechanically. This set up can be used to project two prints in sync (for dual-projector 3-D) or to "interlock" one or more sound tracks to a single film. Sound interlocks were used for stereophonic sound systems before the advent of magnetic film prints. Fantasound (developed by RCA in 1940 for Disney's Fantasia) was an early interlock system. Likewise, early stereophonic films such as This Is Cinerama and House of Wax utilized a separate, magnetic oxide-coated film to reproduce up to six or more tracks of stereophonic sound. Datasat Digital Entertainment, purchaser of DTS's cinema division in May 2008, uses a time code printed on and read off of the film to synchronize with a CD-ROM in the sound track, allowing multi-channel soundtracks or foreign language tracks. This is not considered a projector interlock, however.
The earliest 3D movies were presented in the 1920s. There have been several prior "waves" of 3D movie distribution, most notably in the 1950s when they were promoted as a way to offer audiences something that they could not see at home on television. Still the process faded quickly and as yet has never been more than a periodic novelty in movie presentation. The "golden era" of 3D film began in the early 1950s with the release of the first color stereoscopic feature, Bwana Devil. The film starred Robert Stack, Barbara Britton and Nigel Bruce. James Mage was an early pioneer in the 3D craze. Using his 16 mm 3D Bolex system, he premiered his Triorama program in February 1953 with his four shorts: Sunday In Stereo, Indian Summer, American Life, and This is Bolex Stereo. 1953 saw two groundbreaking features in 3D: Columbia's Man in the Dark and Warner Bros. House of Wax, the first 3D feature with stereophonic sound. For many years, most 3-D movies were shown in amusement parks and even "4-D" techniques have been used when certain effects such as spraying of water, movement of seats, and other effects are used to simulate actions seen on the screen. The first decline in the theatrical 3D craze started in August and September 1953.
Canada was the first country in the world to have a two-screen theater. The Elgin Theatre in Ottawa, Ontario became the first venue to offer two film programs on different screens in 1957 when Canadian theater-owner Nat Taylor converted the dual screen theater into one capable of showing two different movies simultaneously. Taylor is credited by Canadian sources as the inventor of the multiplex or cineplex; he later founded the Cineplex Odeon Corporation, opening the 18-screen Toronto Eaton Centre Cineplex, the world's largest at the time, in Toronto, Ontario. In the United States, Stanley Durwood of American Multi-Cinema (now AMC Theatres) is credited as pioneering the multiplex in 1963 after realizing that he could operate several attached auditoriums with the same staff needed for one through careful management of the start times for each movie. Ward Parkway Center in Kansas City, Missouri had the first multiplex cinema in the United States.
In most markets, nearly all single-screen theaters (sometimes referred to as a "Uniplex") have gone out of business; the ones remaining are generally used for arthouse films, e.g. the Crest Theatre in downtown Sacramento, California, small-scale productions, film festivals or other presentations. Because of the late development of multiplexes, the term "cinema" or "theater" may refer either to the whole complex or a single auditorium, and sometimes "screen" is used to refer to an auditorium. A popular film may be shown on multiple screens at the same multiplex, which reduces the choice of other films but offers more choice of viewing times or a greater number of seats to accommodate patrons. Two or three screens may be created by dividing up an existing cinema (as Durwood did with his Roxy in 1964), but newly built multiplexes usually have at least six to eight screens, and often as many as twelve, fourteen, sixteen or even eighteen.
In 1967, the British government launched seven custom-built mobile cinema units for use as part of the Ministry of Technology campaign to raise standards. Using a very futuristic look, these 27-seat cinema vehicles were designed to attract attention. They were built on a Bedford SB3 chassis with a custom Coventry Steel Caravan extruded aluminum body. 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. In a similar fashion, movies are sometimes also shown on trains, such as the Auto Train.
Although definitions vary, a large multiplex with 20 or more screens is usually called a "megaplex". However, in the United Kingdom, this was a brand name for Virgin Cinema (later UGC). 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 7,500. The first theater in the U.S. built from the ground up as a megaplex was the AMC Grand 24 in Dallas, Texas, which opened in May 1995, while the first megaplex in the U.S.-based on an expansion of an existing facility was Studio 28 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which reopened in November 1988 with 20 screens and a seating capacity of 6,000.
In North America, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) is the largest exhibition trade organization in the world. According to their figures, the top four chains represent almost half of the theater screens in North America. In Canada, Cineplex Entertainment is the largest movie theater company with 161 locations and 1,635 screens. The studios once controlled many theaters, but after the appearance of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Congress passed the Neely Anti-Block Booking Act, which eventually broke the link between the studios and the theaters. Now, the top three chains in the U.S. are Regal Entertainment Group, AMC Entertainment Inc and Cinemark Theatres. In 1995, Carmike was the largest chain in the United States- now, the major chains include AMC Entertainment Inc – 5,206 screens in 346 theaters, Cinemark Theatres – 4,457 screens in 334 theaters, Landmark Theatres – 220 screens in 54 theaters, Marcus Theatres – 681 screens in 53 theaters. National Amusements – 409 screens in 32 theaters and Regal Entertainment Group – 7,334 screens in 588 cinemas. In 2015 the United States had a total of 40,547 screens. In Mexico, the major chains are Cinepolis and Cinemex.
The smallest purpose-built cinema is the Cabiria Cine-Cafe which measures 24 m² (258.3 ft²) and has a seating capacity of 18. It was built by Renata Carneiro Agostinho da Silva (Brazil) in Brasília DF, Brazil in 2008. It is mentioned in the 2010 Guinness World Records. The World's smallest solar-powered mobile cinema is Sol Cinema in the UK. Touring since 2010 the cinema is actually a converted 1972 caravan. It seats 8–10 at a time. In 2015 it featured in a Lenovo advert for the launch of a new tablet. The Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis, Minnesota has recently begun summer "bike-ins", inviting only pedestrians or people on bicycles onto the grounds for both live music and movies. In various Canadian cities, including Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa and Halifax, al-fresco movies projected on the walls of buildings or temporarily erected screens in parks operate during the Summer and cater to a pedestrian audience. The New Parkway Museum in Oakland, California replaces general seating with couches and coffee tables, as well as having a full restaurant menu instead of general movie theater concessions such as popcorn or candy.
In 2009, movie exhibitors became more interested in 3D film. The number of 3D screens in theaters is increasing. The RealD company expects 15,000 screens worldwide in 2010. The availability of 3D movies encourages exhibitors to adopt digital cinema and provides a way for theaters to compete with home theaters. One incentive for theaters to show 3D films is that although ticket sales have declined, revenues from 3D tickets have grown. In the 2010s, 3D films became popular again. The IMAX 3D system and digital 3D systems are used (the latter is used in the animated movies of Disney/Pixar).
In Canada, the total operating revenue in the movie theater industry was $1.7 billion in 2012, an 8.4% increase from 2010. This increase was mainly the result of growth in box office and concession revenue. Combined, these accounted for 91.9% of total industry operating revenue. In the US, the "...number of tickets sold fell nearly 11% between 2004 and 2013, according to the report, while box office revenue increased 17%" due to increased ticket prices.
One reason for the decline in ticket sales in the 2000s is that "home-entertainment options [are] improving all the time— whether streamed movies and television, video games, or mobile apps—and studios releasing fewer movies", which means that "people are less likely to head to their local multiplex". A Pew Media survey from 2006 found that the relationship between movies watched at home versus at the movie theater was in a five to one ratio and 75% of respondents said their preferred way of watching a movie was at home, versus 21% who said they preferred to go to a theater. In 2014, it was reported that the practice of releasing a film in theaters and via on-demand steaming on the same day (for selected films) and the rise in popularity of the Netflix streaming service has led to concerns in the movie theater industry. Another source of competition is television, which has "...stolen a lot of cinema's best tricks – like good production values and top tier actors – and brought them into people's living rooms". Since the 2010s, one of the increasing sources of competition for movie theaters is the increasing ownership by people of home theater systems which can display high-resolution Blu-ray disks of movies on large, widescreen flat-screen TVs, with 5.1 surround sound and a powerful subwoofer for low-pitched sounds.
In Asia, Wanda Cinemas is the largest exhibitor in China, with 2,700 screens in 311 theaters and with 18% of the screens in the country; another major Chinese chain is UA Cinemas. China had a total of 31,627 screens in 2015 and is expected to have almost 40,000 in 2016. Hong Kong has AMC Theatres. South Korea's CJ CGV also has branches in China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Turkey, Vietnam, and the United States. In India, PVR Cinemas is a leading cinema operating a chain of 500 screens and CineMAX and INOX are both multiplex chains. Indonesia has the 21 Cineplex and Cinemaxx (As od 2019, renamed as Cinépolis) chain. A major Israel theater is Cinema City International. Japanese chains include Toho and Shochiku.