The development of a visual art form created in the late 19th century has had the greatest impact on our lives.
Much like the electric light bulb it has been illuminating and indispensable.
Who among us has not enjoyed going to the movies? As director Steven Spielberg says: “I feel there is no substitute for going out to the movies. There is nothing like it.”
The collective experience of sharing with others the excitement and anticipation has a unique charm that cannot be expressed elsewhere. It is a communal viewing experience, in a room full of people, laughing, gasping, crying or dead silent at the same moment, as they journey through a story together. All these companions seeking the same sense of adventure you have.
It has a cathartic effect, giving you a good excuse to release your own emotions, without interference.
Since early times man has enjoyed communal story-telling. It is almost a human need and watching a film at the movie theatre in the presence of a crowd fulfils the same need.
Cinema on the big screen is an art form that brings people together.
Many around the world refer to it as going to the “cinema” rather than the “movies”. Cinema has also come to mean the process of film-making and the building where films are shown. Short for the French Cinematographie, its origin is the Greek kinema, meaning movement.
While many credit Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, or “peep-box” as the origin of moving pictures, it was the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere who created the camera, projector and a film printer all in one. They presented their first commercial screening in Paris, 1896, of 10 short films that lasted 20 minutes — of horses running, trains moving, etc.
It became an immediate sensation and the progress of the art of moving pictures was unstoppable.
It is notable here to mention that the first screening, after Paris was in Egypt, at the Tousson Pasha Palace in Alexandria in 1896, less than a year after its Paris premiere. It was later shown in Cairo and other cities and Egyptians fell in love with the new art form.
Before the start of WWI, French & Italian cinema became the most globally popular. The war was a devastating interruption to European filmmakers.
Many Germans, actors, writers, directors emigrated to the US when the Nazi power was on the rise. With a slew of German artists and technicians working side by side with American filmmakers, the US took the lead in production and technology. American films became the favourites and have held that position to this day.
Once based in New York, American filmmakers moved to California for two reasons. Thomas Edison owned several patents in photography for which they had to pay and for the pleasant year-round weather of the sun state.
Hollywood was Hollywood, long before the glitz and glamour moved in. It was a primitive rural ranch, Southwest of Los Angeles, bought by a strict prohibitionist from Kansas, Harvey Wilcox in 1887. No alcohol was ever allowed there. His wife Daeda called the rustic ranch, Hollywood, because a friend suggested the name as well as for the holly that grew there.
Little did Harvey and Daeda know that their humble ranch would become the capital of the film world. Not only is Hollywood the world’s oldest national film industry, it is the largest in terms of box-office gross revenue.
Hollywood does not produce the highest number of films, Bollywood does. In fact, Hindi films are over twice as many and more. While the US output is about 800 films, India’s is almost 2000. They come a distant second in in box office terms, but are popular in all of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. They are produced in 20 languages and cater to billions of fans. Ticket prices are not as high but Indian actors may be among the richest in the world, gaining global renown.
If India is the second largest film industry, which is not surprising, which country claims third place? China has a growing film industry and has made significant investments in advanced technology. It has the largest production complex and film studios in the world as well as the largest number of screens. It is a big country with the 2nd highest population.
Japan has long made successful films that are widely admired. Their films have received four Oscars for best International Feature Film, more than any other Asian country.
Although the South Korean Film Industry is fairly young, (1945), it has gained International fame and holds the Busan Film Festival, the largest in all of Asia.
European films have been overwhelmed by the speed of the Asian output. Even Hollywood, which has dominated the world cinema since the early 20th century, and is considered the birthplace of cinema, is only fifth in output. Still it brings in the highest revenues, reaching $23 billion in 2022, after the slump caused by Covid-19 in 2020 and 2021.
Ever heard of Nollywood? Nigeria produces 2,500 films a year, but its viewing population is still limited.
When planning to go to the movies your two choices are a national production or a Hollywood production. Hollywood still reigns supreme.
Why not sample a new cultural adventure on the screen; other countries produce great films unseen by most of us.
Lest we forget, Harry Potter and James Bond are UK productions.
“I think cinema, movies and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.”
Francis Ford Coppola (1939-)
* A version of this article appears in print in the 3 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly