Cinema’s Epic History: From Then to Now

Hollywood turned the film into the world’s most popular art form. Here are the landmark moments in the evolution of cinema.

Feb 22, 2024By Alec Badalian, BA Film History and Production

cinema history


Cinema has the power to transport viewers from reality to an imaginary world seen on the screen. It can also teach us about reality itself. Whether it is a spectacle that traverses the world or an intimate look at intriguing characters, a film can impact lives in ways that other art forms often cannot. As the medium constantly changes throughout the years, it is important to remember how it became the iconic art form it is today. Take a look at the evolution of cinema.


The Evolution of Cinema: French Fathers 

The Lumières’ first public screening on December 28th, 1895. Source: The New York Times


Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments helped create what became motion pictures. The cinématographe was made by the famed Lumière brothers. One of their first public screenings happened in 1896 when they presented their short film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. The 50-second short, depicting the titular event, is said to have caused panic among audiences as a larger-than-life silent locomotive barrelled toward the camera. However, today, this is thought to be a myth, as almost all reports of a scarred audience came decades after the original screening.


Still, this was an unprecedented achievement in the art world as the only works that simulated moving images before Muybridge and the Lumières’ were shadow play and camera obscura. While it may not have been the Lumières’ first screening, it was clearly their most impactful in terms of how it defined cinema.


The 2011 film Hugo interprets the famous screening of L’Arrivée. Source: B+ Movie Blog


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Once the Lumières had learned how to create effective visuals it was time for them and their peers to add another dimension to the art. This milestone arrived in Georges Méliès’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon which was one of the first science fiction films. The 9-minute short follows a group of astronomers who, as one would expect, embark on a trip to the moon and must escape its insectoid inhabitants to return home. If an ordinary train was enough to blow the minds of audiences, imagine how they reacted to spaceships and alien battles. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese recreates this magical time in cinema in his 2011 family film Hugo, a powerful love letter to the artistic style pioneered by Méliès. Méliès was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1931 when historians rediscovered his lost works.


From Paris With Love

The galactic scope of A Trip to the Moon. Source: IMDb


A Trip to the Moon is easily one of the seminal films in the history of film as it provided a blueprint that filmmakers would rely on up to this day. If there is not an engaging story with identifiable characters at the center then even the most impressive visual effects will be rendered useless.


The Lumières brothers, Méliès, and others traveled across Europe and showcased their work to royalty and common folk alike. On these tours, filmmakers would sell equipment and films to local entrepreneurs to create a worldwide commercial market so that any country could experience their revolutionary work. The phenomenon eventually found its way to the east coast of the United States and quickly spread westward to the land where an empire would be built.


The Emergence of Hollywood

Construction on the Universal Studios Lot in early 1900s Hollywood. Source: Good Housekeeping


Due to its favorable climate, most of the major film companies, including Universal Studios and Fox Film Corporation, migrated to Southern California a decade before the Roaring Twenties. The decade was full of economic prosperity and rampant consumerism. Theatergoing was once again an important part of the culture with audiences having access to various types of films. Between the German Expressionism of Robert Weine’s 1920 horror film (considered the first of the genre) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the dramatic scale of Fred Niblo’s 1925 epic Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the artistic variety was incomparable. But right as it seemed that cinema had reached its peak, it was already on the verge of its next revolution.


Breaking the Sound Barrier

One of many premieres at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in 1922. Source: KTLA


It was not until 1925 when Warner Bros. commissioned the first sound-film system the Vitaphone and used it in the controversial 1927 musical The Jazz Singer. Despite its historic achievement as the first film that synchronized speech and picture (also known as a talkie), nowadays it is widely condemned for its use of the theatrical makeup known as blackface. Vitaphones were then sold by the masses and a power structure began to grow between every studio as the Golden Age of filmmaking was on the horizon.


Warner Bros. took in huge profits with The Jazz Singer and was able to acquire Stanley Theaters and First National Pictures—the two major chains in the country. Meanwhile, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) distributed their films through Loews Theaters. Fox had their own west coast chain called Fox Theatres. Along with the other thousand-screen chains owned by Paramount Pictures and RKO, Hollywood’s Big Five was established between Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount, Fox, and RKO.


How Long Could the Studio System Last?

The Jazz Singer premiere in New York City on October 6th, 1927. Source: Brief History of the Movie Trailer


MGM dominated the 1930s cinema by signing Hollywood’s biggest stars like Clark Gable and Joan Crawford and capped the decade with a year full of classics in 1939. That year alone they released The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Ninotchka, and many other movies that had massive financial and critical success. But once again, just as cinema was beginning to find its dramatic form within the musical, western, and comedy genres, the Golden Age was only becoming more luminous.


The 1940s were off to a hot start as three of the greatest films ever made, all in their unique genres, were released in each consecutive year. There was the 1940 romantic comedy His Girl Friday, the American Film Institute’s top film of all time in 1941’s masterpiece Citizen Kane, and 1942’s romantic drama Casablanca. Cinema had created a society of spectacle and by the mid-40s the Big Five were distributing a combined 400 films per year.


All That Glitters is Not Gold

The Wizard of Oz premiere at the iconic Grauman’s Chinese on Hollywood Blvd. Source: Grauman’s Chinese Theater


Hollywood was pumping everything it had into what was now one of the most lucrative businesses in the world, but a balloon can only hold so much before it bursts. In the shadow of the Big Five were the Little Three (Universal, United Artists, and Columbia). These studios were unhappy with the monopoly of theaters they were excluded from. This culminated in 1948 when the US Supreme Court decided the Big Five’s majority ownership of theaters violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, opening the door for independent and foreign films.


One of the first independent theaters in Los Angeles prior to the Supreme Court case. Source: Los Angeles Theaters


As a result, filmmakers were able to expand their creative outlook as opposed to making repetitive pictures such as the numerous historical dramas that were made like two versions of Cleopatra. It was the over-reliance on big-budget epics that eventually made the studios realize that perhaps there were other methods of making cinema. Namely, the main change was seen in giving complete trust to the auteurs and believing that their pure artistic skill would be enough to sell even the smallest picture.


New Wave in New Hollywood

Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Source: Reader’s Digest


Cinema is a cycle, often looking towards its past to answer modern questions. The next generation of filmmakers were those who studied the techniques of the work coming out of 1960s Europe. They particularly liked looking at the French New Wave. Characterized by its rejection of convention in favor of iconoclasm, the movement influenced the masters of cinema like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and many others. In 1980, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate made a measly $3.5 million on a $44 million budget, costing United Artists money and reputation. The new order was defunct, and Hollywood reverted to its formulaic ways, focusing on commerce over art.


Evolution of Cinema: Are These Films or Products?

The Warner Bros. Lot. Source: Metrolink


Blockbusters became Hollywood’s new obsession as everyone was looking for the next worldwide hit. In this frenzy, studios began turning to popular intellectual properties (IPs) with grand spectacles like comic books (which continue to dominate cinema to this day). At one point it was the big stars like Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts that attracted audiences, but now it was the material itself that people were invested in. There is almost always a source on which the film is based (a book, a show, a toy, etc.). If there isn’t, studios are usually hesitant to greenlight a project. The only source of original contemporary cinema comes from independents like A24 or Neon while the major studios remain steadfast with adaptations, sequels, and remakes.

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By Alec BadalianBA Film History and ProductionAlec is an assistant writer in the film/TV and industry who has worked on various projects at big studios and independent companies alike. He holds a BA in Film History and Production from Woodbury University in Los Angeles, CA. His role at The Collector is just beginning but he hopes to expand the cinematic content on the site. In his spare time, he watches films, discusses films, reads about films and writes about films.