Early Film Audiences
The film industry was revolutionized after a single man in Pittsburgh instituted the first venue dedicated only to showing film. Nickelodeon theaters were “small, uncomfortable makeshift theater[s] made over to look like a vaudeville emporium.” Though named for the nickel admission price, historians argue that the price was more typically a dime. Films in the first decade of the 1900s were shown primarily to a working-class audience. Nickelodeon theaters were prevalent in cities across the United States. The same urban centers that were home to a majority of the nation’s immigrants were also home to a majority of the nation’s movie theaters.
Film historians have debated whether a majority of film goers were working or middle class. Perhaps the struggle to determine where the lines of viewership should be drawn is indicative of the large-scale appeal of films and the move toward “mass” culture. Lary May argued that mass culture had the effect of dissolving lines between private and public aspirations of individuals by continuing to “absorb outsiders into the American Dream.” Film created a culture that spread beyond class, race, and sex lines creating a singular ideal. The makeup of film audiences became more homogenized and lines between classes dissolved. Film historians struggle to understand precisely how ethnic the movie industry was in cities. Patrick Mullins estimated that “about one third of all New York City nickelodeons were ethnic-owned or operated.” A Russell Sage Foundation survey claimed that 78 percent of film’s audiences were working-class. One film historian estimated that by 1910, more than 25 percent of New Yorkers attended movies weekly and that 43 percent of Chicagoans were swept up into the Nickelodeon craze. In the Nickelodeon era antisuffrage films remained very common and often played on the same tropes of the old kinetoscope films.