Everything in this article is at the very least incomplete. There’s no way you can even begin to cram the almost 150 years of film history into one article. There are whole books written about every single entry here. Consider all of these stepping stones for you to branch out into other directions down the almost limitless rabbit holes that is the history of cinema.
Who invented movies?
Like many inventions, the origin of motion pictures on film is murky. Several people probably invented what we think of today as movies around the same time. In any event, there are multiple important people in the early days of cinema whose complementary contributions helped create what we have and know today.
These significant figures in film history include George Eastman, of Eastman Kodak fame, one of the creators of the film, the Lumière brothers in 1895 who developed a practical movie camera, Thomas Edison who projected film and built an early studio, Eadweard Muybridge who in 1877 used a series of still cameras to take photos fractions of a second apart and Louis Le Prince who created Roundhay Garden Scene, a two-second movie from 1888 that survives to this day.
Before all of that, William George Horner invented the Zoetrope, a spinning wheel that showed moving images when viewed through a slit. The Zoetrope is remarkable because it is technically everything that a traditional movie is and functions in the same way, but Zoetropes face limits in the length of a moving image they show. It took film and projectors to make a novelty into a practical industry.
What is important is that by the dawn of the 20th century, people were suddenly making exceptional movies and thrilling audiences around the world. Two movies include Thomas Edison’s “The Great Train Robbery” and Georges Méliès “A Trip to the Moon.” Both movies came in under 20 minutes and delighted audiences who saw the world come alive before them in a way that must have seemed like magic.
The silent era 1880s – 1920s
In film history, the first movies were without synchronized sound, but that didn’t stop them from being widely popular. Cinema was a new and inexpensive form of entertainment. Unlike the theater, which required live actors, played to an audience of one at any time.
In Hollywood, the silent era featured forceful directors and motion picture studios needed to come up with the amount of money necessary to create movies — to pay for props and people and film and developing and technicians and set designers and the entire industry that we still know today. In 1919, some of Hollywood’s biggest names, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks rebelled against the studios and started United Artists, promising to give actors more control of their own careers.
Germany banned foreign films after 1916. Because of this, the expressionist filmmakers created epic masterpieces like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” mesmerized audiences with sweeping science fiction stories.
“The Russian’s Are Coming!” movies weren’t all Hollywood and Western Europe — in Russi, a film was having a moment as well, where Sergei Eisenstein was becoming a potent force in filmmaking. His 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin,” about a mutiny on a ship is a classic. You don’t have to see the whole movie, but you should be familiar with the famous scene on the Odessa steps: its six minutes of action was the John Wick of its time. Likewise, 1924’s “Aelita” by Yakov Protazanov is a science fiction thriller that involves a Martian queen who falls in love with an Earthling, revolution ensues.
The talkies – 1927
In 1927 “The Jazz Singer” released, synchronizing sound and images for the first time. The 1952 comedy “Singin’ in the Rain” is a depiction of the difficult shift to talking pictures that had taken place just 25 years before with a number of silent stars finding themselves unemployable as films began to rely more on voice acting than body language and facial expression.
The rise of the horror movie – 1931
Horror movies existed very early on in film history, but they had a renaissance in the 1930s where “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” “The Invisible Man,” “King Kong,” “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Werewolf of London” were all produced within four years of one another.
The mouse that roared: Walt Disney – 1920s
Walt Disney arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s and started producing moving cartoons, painted directly onto film cells. In 1928, he produced “Steamboat Willie” and its star, Mickey Mouse. By the 1940s, Disney produced feature films including “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” and “Bambi.” Like Georges Méliès before him, Disney produced content that carried people away from reality rather than recreating films steeped in the real world (Edison’s train robbery was based on an actual event). Disney continued to make blockbuster cinema throughout its history. In recent years, despite some trouble in the early 2000s, Disney remained a formidable player, buying Lucasfilm, home of the Star Wars franchise for more than 4 billion dollars in 2015.
The studio system 1927-1948
Typically when we say “the Golden Age of Hollywood” people are talking about the time between 1910 and 1969 when the big studios ruled motion pictures. Studio’s like MGM, Paramount, RKO, Columbia and Warner Brothers made careers with the snap of a finger and controlled almost the entire film industry. In the late 1940s, antitrust lawsuits broke up much of the centralized power.
Television kneecaps the studios – 1950
We can’t discuss film history without including television. In the 1950s, American homes began to include television sets. By that time, broadcast TV stations were widespread According to Steve Wiegand’s “U.S. History for Dummies” there were about three million TV owners in the beginning of the 1950’s and 55 million by the end. Television prices went from $500 to about $200. Production of television shows competed directly with movie productions and in the early 21st century as home theaters became more common and more sophisticated, movie ticket sales dropped as people chose to watch films at home. Hollywood adapted and began releasing movies on-demand shortly after theater releases.
The new Hollywood
Lately, in retrospect, some film critics argue that Hollywood’s actual Golden Age was in the 1970s when truly spectacular films like “The Godfather,” “The Exorcist,” “Jaws,” “Apocalypse Now,” and even 1977s “Star Wars” came out. The New Hollywood saw a shift from studios to directors in the vision behind films with stars like Stanley Kubrik, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and others coming into significant power and influence in the industry.
Black filmmakers step on the scene – 1971
Born in 1932, Melvin Van Peebles swiftly became tired of the everyday racism that kept Hollywood from even entertaining his ideas. After hearing that France subsidized filmmakers who made movies in French, he moved there, learned the language and started making movies. 1968’s “Story of a Three Day Pass” got the attention of Hollywood and he received a deal from Columbia Pictures to make Watermelon Man, a movie about a bigoted white man who wakes up one morning and finds that, inexplicably, he’s Black.
Watermelon Man was a success but the studios wouldn’t give Melvin what he wanted, which was complete control over his next movie. Hollywood had very entrenched ideas of what sold and movies about Black people were one thing they thought wouldn’t sell. Melvin raised money privately, wrote, directed, and acted in “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” a 1971 film about a Black man accused of a crime he didn’t commit on the run from the law. The film grossed $10,000,000 and along with “Shaft,” released the same year, proved Hollywood wrong.
DIY: Indie cinema steps into the light – 1989
Another thing that came about after Melvin Van Peebles’ success was the realization that, with smaller and less expensive motion picture equipment becoming available, movies could be made outside of the studio system. In 1989, 26-year-old indie filmmaker Steven Soderbergh broke out of the gate with his indie drama “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” which came in at 1.2 million dollars and shot in 30 days. In the years that followed, filmmakers using consumer and prosumer video equipment.
MTV Killed the Radio Star 1983-1990
MTV launched in 1981 and rapidly became a force to be reckoned with on cable television. Ostensibly a music channel, it was also an enormous force for the creation and marketing of short films some of which had incredibly high production values.
YouTube killed the movie star: influencers, cat videos and toy unboxings – 2015
While MTV was imploding in an attempt to expand beyond music videos, YouTube arrived with an infinite number of channels that could play whatever you wanted, when you wanted to see it. So, instead of having to wait for MTV to play Thriller, a user could find it and play it themselves. The video-sharing platform started in 2005. It hosts terabytes of copyright violations as well as original videos made by people doing almost everything imaginable. Lately, it’s become well monetized as well with some content creators making sophisticated videos and raking in a lot of money.
A Forbes list of the 20 highest paid Youtube stars of 2020 includes Stevin John, whose kids show Blippi made him $17 million dollars in 2019, and 9-year-old Ryan Kaji who’s DIY science experiment and toy review channel — adored by 41.7 million subscribers — earned him an astounding $29.5 million dollars. Youtube is also a great place to look for indie cinema, it’s a parking lot of concept pieces, hopeful pilots and remarkable short films made by creative filmmakers hoping to get noticed. Whether or not YouTube is going to have an entry in cinema history 50 years from now remains to be seen, but its importance today can’t be ignored.
Cable TV comes of age
It used to be that every writer dreamed of having a Hollywood movie made of their novel. But after HBO spent seventy-three hours telling the story of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” books in their blockbuster 7 season epic “Game of Thrones” everybody realized that properly handled, Cable TV was more capable of doing justice to long, complex stories. Netflix spent six hours on Sarah Pinborough’s novel of domestic entanglement “Behind Her Eyes” and Amazon put six hours into telling the story of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet’s 1990 novel “Good Omens.” In 2019, Netflix produced an astounding 371 original titles and changed the tune of film history as we know it.
Bollywood – 1995
While Americans and maybe even some Europeans think of Hollywood as the center of the film universe, in terms of production and revenue, Tinseltown is buried by the Indian film industry which sells twice the number of tickets every year and produces three times as many movies. Indian cinema has been around for a long time, with a Golden Age in the 1940s, but what’s called “New Bollywood” gained worldwide recognition outside of India in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Turkey – 2010
Starting in the early 2000’s Turkey started exporting film and television to the world, with popular series drawing both on two millennia of history shows like Diriliş: Ertuğrul, about the violent founding of the Ottoman Empire, provided serialized medieval intrigue and battle scenes on an epic “Game of Thrones” scale. Turkish cinema is wildly popular in India, Pakistan, South America and across the Arab world as well as on Netflix in the United States.
When it comes to film history, cinema started with a bang. It developed rapidly and because of its expense, stayed largely in the hands of a few entities for years. But as film (and now video) technology improved and got less expensive, the medium democratized rapidly. Now, literally, hundreds of millions of content producers around the world create cinema on every scale imaginable — from home videos to instructional videos to feature films, all distributed on a variety of platforms.
As the mechanisms for watching moving pictures went from expensive projectors in darkened rooms to televisions that plugged into walls, to hand-held inexpensive devices, people’s appetite for seeing the world movie in two dimensions has only increased and recording technology has made it easy for people who love cinema to participate in its creation in an unimaginable number of ways, from production assistant on a small film set, to writing and directing, or, also importantly, to funding filmmakers through crowdsourcing websites.