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Cinema industry trends
before 1900

Karina Aveyard traces the history of cinema in Australia from the end of the 19th century.

The first motion pictures arrived in Australia in the mid-1890s and were run on the Edison Kinetoscope. On 30 November 1894, theatrical entrepreneur James McMahon opened a Kinetoscope Parlour in a converted shop at 148 Pitt Street, Sydney. Customers paid a shilling to view the films via eyepieces on successive Kinetoscope machines. Each machine showed a different film and could be viewed by only one person at a time. Early attendances were encouraging, with Murray (1994) reporting that the Kinetoscope Parlour attracted 22,000 patrons in its first five weeks and Sabine (1995) quoting 25,000 in the first month.

After their Sydney premiere, the Kinetoscope machines toured Australia for a year. They returned to Sydney in 1896 but a lack of new films and the emergence of film projection caused attendances to drop.

(Murray 1994, 5; Sabine 1995, 12; Long 1993a, 42)

Internationally, the first commercial screening of projected short films took place in France: on 28 December 1895 in Paris, the Lumière brothers screened motion pictures for a paying public.

(Sabine 1995, 2)

The following year, on 22 August 1896, magician Carl Hertz is believed to be the first person to project a film for a paying audience in Australia at Harry Rickards’ Melbourne Opera House (later known as the Tivoli Theatre). The film was screened as part of a variety show act. Australian tours with similar projection machines followed.

(Sabine 1995, 14; Long 1993b, 40; Long 1996, 43)

The first short films produced in Australia for exhibition covered factual events such as the Melbourne Cup and Queen Victoria’s Jubilee procession. From 1898 the Salvation Army’s Limelight Department also produced short story films that were exhibited as part of their public presentations incorporating songs, instrument solos and lectures. The presentations were a means of distributing religious propaganda, with admissions helping to raise money for the Salvation Army’s social work. During 1899 the presentations grossed over £1,500.

(Shirley & Adams 1983, 8-10; Murray 1994, 6; Sabine 1995, 22)

According to Sabine (1995, 25), ‘by 1900 the foundations of a film industry in Australia had been laid. Most European producers had Australian sales representatives; production facilities were established; and patterns of exhibition pioneered. The movies were soon so much a part of Australian life that the basic wage deemed them one of the necessities of our “frugal comfort”.’

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