The History of Film

The history of film roots back to the latter half of 1880s. The milestone was set with the invention of the first motion picture camera. A film or movie is a sequence of static images, obtained by photographing actual scenes with a movie camera. When these images are presented on the screen, they create an illusion of motion.

Film is a form of art and perhaps the most important piece of entertainment. With over 100 years to its name, film and film making have undergone remarkable changes. Starting as silent movies and then dwelling into the swift and digital era of blockbusters.

The Early Years of Motion Picture Camera Development

Here is a look at the long journey of film history.

In 1889, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson who was assigned by Thomas Edison, invented the first motion picture camera. The apparatus was named as Kinetoscope, a peep show device. It means that one individual at a time can see the film through a small hole located at the top of the device. The device was made public at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893.A year later in 1894, Auguste Marie Louis Nicolas and Louis Jean, the Lumière brothers of France, invented the Cinématograph. The device was a combination of motion picture film camera and a projector. The brothers held their first public screening of films on December 28, 1895 in Paris. The presentation featured ten short movies of about 50 seconds which also included the brother’s first film, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factor.

As the trend of projection system was beginning to develop, Edison was slow to react to it. However his company joined the bandwagon by using the projector built by Thomas Armat and C. Francis Jenkins. The invention was named as Vitascope, and its first theatrical debut happened on 23rd April, 1896 in New York City.

The films of this era were usually without any cinematic technique, editing or camera movement. They were made out of just a single scene, a public event or a slapstick. However the stage was set. The cameras were there and it was only a matter of time that films would become the most popular form of visual art.

The Silent Age of Film History (1895-1929)

The concept of synchonized sound movies was as old as the film itself. However due to technical difficulties of combining motion pictures and recorded sound, it was not possible at the tender age of filmmaking.

By the year 1898, Georges Méliès, a French Film maker, became the most prominent producer of fiction movies. He was the first person to significantly use special effect techniques, when he produced his well known movie, A Trip to the Moon in 1902. The movie runs at the length of 14 minutes at 16 frames per second, and is also acreditted with one of the first science fiction movies. Like other filmmakers, Méliès’s ideas were adopted by Edwin S. Porte, an American director. But unlike others, Porter who was a chief of production at the Edison’s company didn’t just steal the ideas. He tried to improve the methods and in 1903 came up with his revolutionary movie, A Great Train Robbery (1903). The movie became a worldwide success, starring Bronco Billy Anderson as the first movie star of Western movies.

The year 1906 is marked with the release of the first animated cartoon, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, directed by James Stuart Blackton. It features an artist making faces of people on a chalkboard. The cartoon was made using stop-motion technique, creating the impression that the objects are moving on their own.

During this time, more countries like Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Germany, began to join France, Britain and the United States in film making.

The Early History of Film

  • 1906

The Australian film, The Story of the Kelly Gang was produced in 1906. The movie was directed by Charles Tait and is regarded as the first dramatic feature film, defined by length. Its running time was 70 minute, longer than any film which was produced before it.

  • 1909

A report on D.W Griffith’s film, Pippa Passes was published in The New York Times. David Llewelyn Wark Griffith was an influential American film director and his movie Pippa Passes was an adaptation of Robert Browning’s poetry.

  • 1910

It was around 1910 that actors of American Films were acknowledged with screen credits, which appeared usually at the beginning of the movie.

  • 1912

Mack Sennett founded Keystone Studios in Edendale, California. He is generally accreditted as the pioneer innovator of Slapstick in movies. The Universal Film and Manufacturing Company was founded on 30th April, 1912 by Carl Laemmle.

  • 1914

Keystone Studios produced the movie, Kid Auto Races at Venice on 7th February, 1914. In this movie, Charlie Chaplin made the first appearance in his famous role of ‘The Tramp’. The British comic actor soon emerged as an ‘Icon’ of world cinema with ‘Little Tramp’ being his most memorable character.

  • 1915

D.W Griffith released his epic Civil War movie,The Birth of a Nation. The movie was a huge commercial success with its outstanding camera and narrative techniques.

  • 1916

Mary Pickford, a Canadian motion film actress, developed her own company, Mary Pickford Film Corporation. The company granted her complete authority of producing films in which she starred, making her the first movie star to own a film company.

  • 1919

United Artists Corporation (US) was founded on 5th February, 1919 by Mary Pickford, D.W Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. This American film studio was setup with the intention of controlling their own interests and not to rely upon commanding commercial studios.

  • 1921

Warner Brothers Inc. was officialy established on 4th April, 1921 by Albert Warner, Harry Warner, Sam Warner and Jack Warner. Charlie Chaplin produced his movie, The Kid. The film met with great recognition and became the second-highest grossing movie of 1921, with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse being the highest grosser.

  • 1924

Walt Disney Company produced a series of animated films, the ALICE COMEDIES.

  • 1925

Alfred Hitchcock made his directorial debut with The Pleasure Garden. Charlie Chaplin produced his movie, The Gold Rush.

As there was no sound support, body language and facial expressions became the main equipments in the arsenal of silent film actors’. Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Douglas Faribanks rose to stardom. D.W Griffith’s A Birth of a Nation, became the highest grossing movie from these first three decades of film history.

The Sound Era

The era begins with the release of the movie, The Jazz Singer in 1927 by Warner Bros. The film was starred by Al Jolson who uttered the history’s first synchronized dialougue, “Wait a minute, wait a minute I tell yer, you ain't heard nothin' yet”. The movie used Vitaphone, a sound film system introduced by Warner Bros. in 1926. The Jazz Singer was a hit and opened door for ‘talkies’ to rule over the cinema.

The highlights of this era are as follows:

  • 1928

Walt Disney Studios produced Steamboat Willie, featuring the debut of Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend, Minnie. The cartoon was directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks and was released in black-and-white. It was also the first animated short film to feature a full post produced soundtrack.

  • 1929

The Academy Awards were given out for the first time on May 16, 1929. The fifteen statuettes were awarded to the artists of film industry for their work during the years 1927-28. The first feature length movie of Marx Brothers, The Cocoanuts, was distributed by Paramount Pictures. The Broadway Melody was released under the label of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). The movie was the first all talking classic Hollywood musical.

  • 1930

Head of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), William Hays constituted a code of decency or Production Code. The code was established following the public pressure to draw boundaries against alcoholism, sex, violence etc.

  • 1931

Universal Pictures released Dracula and Frankenstein and became the pioneer of early horror cinema. Warner Bros.’ Little Caesar and The Public Enemy were released. The movies proved to be a major hit at the box office and are regarded as the best of early gangster movies.

  • 1933

RKO’s classic adventure film, King Kong, was released. The movie was directed and produced by Merian C. Cooper, which saved RKO studios from bankruptcy due to its record breaking success.

  • 1934

Columbia Pictures’ film It Happened One Night was released. Directed by Frank Capra, it became the first movie ever to win all 5 major Academy Awards, sweeping Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screen Play. The feat was not repeated until the director Miloš Forman came up with his 1975 drama film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

  • 1935

Alfred Hitchcock’s spy-thriller movie, 39 Steps was released. With this film, Hitchcock became internationally popular and the movie instantly became a major success of British Cinema.

  • 1937

Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released. It was the first full length feature film with an official soundtrack.

  • 1939

The year is generally considered as the ‘greatest year in film history’, as a number of classic films were released. These movies included, MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, director William Wyler’s tragic love story Wuthering Heights and one of the best movies of all time, Gone With The Wind.

  • 1940

Charlie Chaplin released his first ever sound feature film, The Great Dictator. The movie became the most successful film of his career. Walt Disney released Pinocchio and Fantasia, following the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

  • 1941

Orson Welles released his drama film, Citizen Kane. The movie was praised for its innovative storytelling, cinematography, music, and is often considered as the greatest film ever made by filmmakers and critics.

  • 1942

Best Picture winning movie, Casablanca, premiered at New York.

  • 1945

Famous animated cartoon character Sylvester the Cat made its debut in the movie, Life with Feathers. Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis(The Children of Paradise) was released. The French movie was made during the occupation of France by German army in the World War II. This romantic classic was often compared with Gone With the Wind and was the most expensive French film ever made.

  • 1946

Director William Wyler’s American drama film, The Best Years of Our Lives was released. The movie took away seven Academy Awards in 1946 including Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Director. Director Frank Capra’s heartwarming and most popular movie, It’s A Wonderful Life was released. French romantic classic fantasy film, The Beauty and The Beast was released. The Cannes Film Festival made its debut in France.

  • 1947

The first hearing of House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was held in Washington, D.C. The hearing took place to investigate the communist influence in the Hollywood film industry. The charges were made against the ‘Hollywood Ten’ (Screenwriter Alvah Bessie, Screenwriter and director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Lester Cole, director Edward Dmytryk, screenwriter Samuel Ornitz, screenwriter Albert Maltz, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, producer and screenwriter Screen Adrian Scott, screenwriter John Howard Lawson and screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr.).

  • 1948

The year is marked with the beginning of the end of the studio system, when Federal Government’s anti-trust Paramount Decree held the Big Five movie studios guilty of monopolization of the industry. These studios included Warner Bros., MGM, RKO, Fox and Paramount. Italian film, The Bicycle Thieves or Ladri di biciclette was released. The post war movie was an example of exceptional filmmaking from the Italian Neo-Realism movement.

  • 1949

Nicholas Ray debut feature film, They Live by Night was released. The years from 1927 to 1949 are often termed as “The Golden Age of Hollywood” by film historians. The era ended with the decline of the studio system and the invasion of Television, decreasing the attendance from theaters. New Hollywood and the Rise of Non-English World Cinema:

  • The 1950’s

The early 1950s was the time of change for Hollywood. The HUAC investigated Hollywood and the hearings resulted in blacklisting of many actors, directors and screenwriters apart from ‘Hollywood Ten’. Some artists like Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles left U.S to find work. Hollywood began to develop new methods to counter the impact of television. 3-D movies and Wide-screen processes such as CinemaScope were introduced as an attempt to bring back the audience to film theaters. The years are also marked as the rise of Non-English world cinema, especially Asian cinema.

  • 1950

The 12th animated classic by Walt Disney, Cinderella, was released. Marlon Brando starred in his first feature film, The Men, directed by Fred Zinnemann.

  • 1951

Indian actor, producer and director, Raj Kapoor’s film Awara was released and became an overnight sensation in Indian subcontinent. Kapoor’s character was the impersonation of Charlie Chaplin’s character, “little tramp”.

  • 1952

Charlie Chaplin’s last U.S film, Limelight was released.

  • 1953

20th Century Fox movie, The Robe became the first film to be released in widescreen process CinemaScope.

  • 1954

Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense thriller movie, The Rear Window was released by Paramount Pictures. The film was based on 1942 short story, “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich. The Rear Window received overwhelming positive view and is labeled as one of the best by Hitchcock.

American crime drama film, On the Waterfront was released. The movie received 12 Academy Award nominations and swept eight of them with Marlon Brando winning the Best Actor.

Andha Naal, an Indian crime mystery movie was released.

Director Akira Kurosawa’s epic tale, The Seven Samurai was released. The Japanese movie reinvented the western film genre. Ishirō Honda’s Japanese monster film, Godzilla was released.

Director Federico Fellini’s Italian movie, La Strada was released.

  • 1955

American Actor James Dean starred in his first major film role with director Elia Kazan’s movie, East of Eden.

Adapted from a Broadway play of the same name, the movie, The Seven Year Itch was released. Starred by Marilyn Monroe and features one of the most iconic images of 20th century the white dress of Monroe is blown by a passing train as she stood over the sidewalk of the subway grating.

  • 1957

Based on Shakespeare’s play Macbeth and directed by Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese film ‘Throne of Blood’ was released. Swedish film Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal) was released. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, the movie went on to become a classic of world cinema.

  • 1958

Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological masterpiece, Vertigo was released. The movie received mixed reviews initially but since then it is often regarded as the best film of all time by film critics and historians.

Young Jack Nicholson made his feature film debut in producer Roger Corman’s movie The Cry Baby Killer.

  • 1959

Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was released and became the most expensive animated feature film ($6 million) to date.

American epic historical drama film Ben-Hur was released. The movie was directed by William Wyler and won a record eleven Academy Awards, a feat which remained singular till the release of Titanic in 1997.

French film The 400 Bows (Les Quatre cents coups) directed by François Truffaut was released. The film was one of the defining movies of French New Wave that featured never seen before methods of expressions, non-linear storytelling and low budget movies.

  • 1960

Alfred Hitchcock’s horror-thriller film, Psycho was released. The movie is widely considered as the mother of modern horror and psychological thrillers. With this movie, Hitchcock received his fifth and the last Academy Award nomination. His other four nominations were for Rebecca (1940), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945) and Rear Window (1954).

French director Jean-Luc Godard’s bout de soufflé (Breathless) was released.

Federico Fellini’s comedy-drama film La Dolce Vita was released.

  • 1961

United Artists’ film West Side Story, adaptation of 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, was released. Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, the movie went on to win ten Academy Awards out of eleven nominations.

  • 1962

More than 700 Non-English films were screened in US theaters.

Director Robert Mulligan’s American drama film, To Kill a Mockingbird was released.

British spy film Dr. No, starring Sean Connery, was released. It was the first James Bond film.

36 year old actress, model, singer, film producer and a major sex symbol; Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her apartment on August 5th, 1962.

  • 1964

The first movie made for television, See How They Run, was broadcasted on NBC.

  • 1965

Robert Wise’s American musical film based on Broadway Musical, The Sound of Music released. The movie surpassed Gone With the Wind (1939) as the number one box office hit and swept five Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Picture.

  • 1966

Italian epic western film by director Sergio Leone, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was released.

  • 1968

Maturity rating system was introduced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The system classified the movies into four categories according to their suitability for younger audience. “G” for general audiences, “M” for mature, “R” for people under 16 with adult guardian (later raised to 17) and “X” for no one under the age of 17.

A landmark in science fiction and Stanley Kubrick’s all time classic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey was released.

  • 1969

American drama film Midnight Cowboy, directed by John Schlesinger was released. It was the first and the only X-rated movie ever to win Academy Award for Best Picture.

The Wild Bunch, an American epic Western film by Sam Peckinpah was released. The film is noted for its revolutionary cinema technique of using slow motion images.

Post-classical Cinema

Non-linear storytelling, scrambled plots and twist endings were the main features of Post-classical cinema. School-trained directors emerged with new ideas and creative insights. The films of this era were often both commercially and critically successful.

The highlights of this era are as follows:

  • 1971

The year is marked with the release of controversial movies like crime thriller Dirty Harry, Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, dramatic thriller The French Connection and psychological thriller Straw Dogs. These movies sparked controversies for depicting immense violence.

Director Nicolas Roeg’s Australian film, Walkabout was released and drew attention towards Australian Cinema.

  • 1972

Francis Ford Cappola’s film The Godfather was released and broke box office records: becoming the first U.S film to gross $100 million. Starred by Marlon Brando, the movie reinvented gangster genre and won three Academy Awards.

  • 1973

Warner Brothers’ sensational horror film, The Exorcist was released and surpassed The Godfather, grossing over $441 million worldwide.

  • 1974

Polish director Roman Polanski’s last film before the infamous rape scandal, Chinatown was released. Distributed by Paramount Pictures, the movie is starred by Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway and considered as one of the greatest mystery films of all time by critics and film historians.

American crime epic, The Godfather Part II, starred by Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton was released. The movies served both a sequel and prequel to The Godfather.

  • 1975

Director Miloš Forman’s American drama film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released. Starred by Jack Nicholson as Mr. Mcmurphy, the movie swept away all five major Academy Awards, paralleling the feat set by the movie It Happened One Night (1934). The movie is considered to be one of the greatest films of American film history, opening the doors for institutional movies.

Steven Spielberg’s thriller film, Jaws was released, becoming the highest-grossing film of that time.

Famous Indian film, Sholay was released.

  • 1976

Written and starring Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, the American film Rocky was released. Despite its low budget and only 28 days of shooting, the movie went on to claim three Oscars, including Best Picture. Starring Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver was released.

  • 1977

The first film of Star Wars saga, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (also known as Star Wars) was released. The film was groundbreaking in its use of special effects. The movie won six Academy Awards and became the highest grossing movie, surpassing Jaws with earnings of $460 in U.S only.

  • 1979

American science fiction franchise, Star Trek, released its debut movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Ridley Scott’s science fiction horror film, Alien was released.

Emergence of Blockbusters and Sequels

The decade of 1980s is noted for blockbuster movies and sequels. The decades’ most prominent movie was E.T the Extra-Terrestrial. This Spielberg blockbuster became the highest grossing film— a record that remained solid for ten years until another Spielberg’s movie, Jurassic Park broke it in 1993.

Three films of Indian Jones franchise, two of Star Wars and three of Jaws franchise were released in this decade.

Other highlights of this decade are as follows:

  • 1980

Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), starring Robert De Niro was released. The film won two Academy Awards including Best Actor for Robert De Niro; who gained 50-60 pounds to play boxer Jake LaMotta.

Adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name, Kubrick’s movie, The Shining was released.

  • 1983

Director Brian De Palma’s American crime film, Scarface was released; starring Al Pacino as Tony Montana.

Martin Scorsese’s black comedy film, The King of Comedy was released.

  • 1985

Steven Spielberg’s movie The Color Purple was released. The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning zero; sharing the record with the movie The Turning Point for most Academy Award nomination without a win.

  • 1986

David Lynch’s mystery film Blue Velvet was released.

  • 1988

Japanese popular animated cyberpunk cult film, Akira was released.

  • 1989

Tim Burton’s American superhero film, Batman was released. Jack Nicholson was portrayed as Joker while Michael Keaton starred as Batman (Bruce Wayne).

Advance Special Effects and the Rise of Independent Movies

During the 1990s, the cinema was ruled by special effects films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Jurassic Park (1993) and The Matrix (1999). Quentin Tarantino’s witty and inventive film Pulp Fiction (1994) had a profound impact on independent cinema, making it more diverse and stylized.

The highlights of this decade are as follows:

  • 1991

American thriller film The Silence of the Lambs, directed by Jonathan Demme was released. Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine and Scott Glenn, the movie went on to become the 3rd movie only to sweep all five major Academy Awards.

  • 1993

Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List were released. Jurassic Park went on to become the highest-grossing film released up to that time. On the other hand Schindler List swept seven Academy Awards, giving Spielberg his first Oscar for Best Director.

  • 1994

Walt Disney feature animation film, The Lion King was released and became the highest grosser of the year.

  • 1995

Director Bryan Singer’s American neo noir film, The Usual Suspects was released. The movie won two Academy Awards including Best Supporting Actor for Kevin Spacey.

David Fincher’s American thriller, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, Seven was released.

All time Indian Blockbuster movie, Diwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was released; starring Shahrukh Khan as the lead actor.

  • 1997

Director James Cameron’s epic romantic film Titanic was released. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the American film became the highest grossing movie of that time.

  • 1998

The list of Top 100 American Films of All Time or 100 Years… 100 Movies was announced by The American Film Institute (AFI); Citizen Kane(1941) was ranked first. It was the start of AFI annual series, 100 Years… 100 Movies.

  • 1999

American-Australian science fiction action film, The Matrix was released. The film is noted for its groundbreaking use of visual techniques and innovative special effects; revolutionizing the genre of science fiction.

American cult classic, Fight Club was released; directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.

21st Century: IMAX Technology and the Rise of Superhero Films

The 21st century cinema took a new turn with the successful use of IMAX technology and the increasing production of superhero films.

  • 2001

The year 2001 is noted for the debut movie of Harry Potter franchise, Lord the Rings and Shrek franchise. These monumental and much-anticipated films were Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring and Shrek.

A new category for Academy Awards: Best Animated Feature was created by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Shrek won the trophy.

  • 2002

Treasure Plan, Animated science fiction film was released by Walt Disney Pictures. It was the first film to be screened in regular and IMAX theaters, simultaneously.

Popular spy trilogy, The Bourne Series made its debut with The Bourne Identity, starring American actor, Matt Damon.

Sam Raimi’s superhero film, Spider-Man was released. Based on Marvel Comics character of the same name, the movie was the first entry of the Spider-Man film series.

  • 2003

Finding Nemo succeeded The Lion King as the highest grossing animated feature of all time. However the record was soon broken by Shrek 2 (2004).

  • 2005

George Lucas completed his six-film series, with the release of Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith.

  • 2008

Christopher Nolan’s superhero film based on DC Comics character Batman, The Dark Knight Rises was released. It was the first feature film to have been at least partially shot in IMAX technology. The movie was a sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins and is widely considered as the best superhero film by film critics.

British drama film, Slumdog Millionaire was released. The movie was directed by Danny Boyle and co-directed by Loveleen Tandan in India. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning eight including Best Picture and Best Director.

  • 2009

James Cameron’s epic science fiction film, Avatar was released. The movie became the highest grossing film of all time, surpassing Titanic.

  • 2010

Christopher Nolan’s science fiction thriller, Inception was released.

  • 2012

Director Joss Whedon’s American superhero film, The Avengers was released. The film has become the 3rd highest grosser in the history of cinema, behind Titanic and Avatar.

The Dark Knight Rises was released, completing Nolan’s Batman film trilogy.

  • 2013

Director Zack Snyder’s American superhero film, Man of Steel was released, starring Henry Cavill as Superman.


1. Movie History

2. Chronology of Film History

3. Timeline - Early Cinema

4. Moving Pictures That Talk - The early history of film sound

Arts | Movies

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