The Scale of the Screen: Auditorium Size and Number in the American Movie Theater

by Christofer Meissner


[ PDF version ]

Film and media scholars have treated many aspects of the form and history of the movie theater—including business histories of film exhibition, studies of individual theaters and individual theater chains, and examinations of specific historical types such as nickelodeons and picture palaces—but other areas remain relatively unexplored.[1] One of these mostly unexplored areas, which I will treat in this essay in regards to the American movie theater, is that of the historical evolution of the size and number of movie theater auditoriums—the scale of the screen, both in the sense of how big (or small) individual screening spaces have been and in the sense of how many screening spaces are located in an individual theater complex.

Two key factors have shaped the historical development of scale in American movie theater auditoriums. The first of these is a fluctuation between large screening spaces and small screening spaces. In the first half-century of American film history (from roughly the 1890s to the 1940s), the standard size of screening spaces (in the earliest years the term “auditorium” can often be used only very loosely) ranged from very large (in vaudeville theaters and picture palaces) to very small (in the typical nickelodeon). By the 1930s, American film exhibition had settled into a pattern marked by the coexistence of theaters with large auditoriums (in picture palaces) and theaters with smaller auditoriums (in neighborhood and small-town theaters). Later (starting in earnest in the early-1970s), movie theater auditoriums started to become uniformly and persistently smaller, in conjunction with the rise of the multiple-auditorium movie theater.

This rise of the multiplex forms the second factor in the historical development of scale in the American movie theater: the existence of a historical juncture at which the typical theater went from having a single screen in a single auditorium to having multiple screens in multiple auditoriums. At this juncture (beginning in the mid-1960s and lasting to the end of the 1970s), American movie theaters began to “scale” in the sense that the number of auditoriums could range from one to upwards of ten (and after the mid-1990s, upwards of twenty), depending on the needs and strategies of exhibitors. By 1980, the multiplex movie theater became the norm in the United States, thereby creating two vectors of scale for American movie theaters: one scale (the size scale) consisting of the seating capacity of an individual auditorium, the other scale (the number scale) consisting of the number of auditoriums in a movie theater complex.

These two factors can be traced across American film history, with the fluctuations in the size scale dominating the early decades and the shift in the number scale from single-screen theaters to multiplexes (and the later megaplexes) dominating the more recent decades. The historical changes in these two scales can be seen as the effects of the economic and industrial dynamics that shaped the American film industry in its various historical periods. The American film industry has evolved considerably, as it adapted to changing circumstances in regards to the business practices of movie studios and theater chains, to the make-up of the typical movie program in different periods, and to the moviegoing habits of audiences. The changes in the scale of screening spaces, as discussed in the remainder of this essay, are a reflection of this evolution. 

Although the initial public exhibitions of film often occurred in quite small spaces (think of the Lumiéres’ 1895 screening of their Cinematographe in a small café in Paris), the first regular screening spaces for movies in America were large-scale vaudeville theaters. Vaudeville shows, which were well established as an entertainment form in the U.S. when movies made their debut in 1896, took place in large theaters that usually had 1,000 to 2,000 seats or more. Modeling their theaters after European theaters and opera houses, vaudeville exhibitors wished to maximize their audiences and have the ability to compete with the legitimate stage. The structure of a vaudeville show consisted of a series of several unrelated acts, each around fifteen minutes in length, for a total length of around two hours. A program of ten to fifteen short movies (of about a minute each) easily fit into this grab-bag structure. Vaudeville exhibitors aimed to entertain as many people as possible, with as much variety as possible, in a single show—and movies fit well into this format, in large-scale screening spaces, for almost a decade in the late 1890s and early 1900s.[2]

By 1905, movies had become popular and established enough to make movies-only exhibition venues a viable economic proposition for exhibitors and entrepreneurs. For the following decade this mainly took the form of the nickelodeon, a much smaller screening space that was typically in the 100- to 300-seat range. The shorter 15- to 60-minute nickelodeon program allowed for more turnover of (largely working-class) audiences in a schedule of several daily shows that ran continuously throughout the day and evening. Entrepreneurial nickelodeon exhibitors sought smaller spaces because of their low overhead in rent and upkeep, often attempting to avoid the need for a theatrical license that was required for capacities of over 200 or so (depending on the locality).[3] Nickelodeon operators aimed to entertain as many people as possible with as much variety as possible, not by doing so all at once, as vaudeville exhibitors (and later, picture palace exhibitors) did, but rather by having many cumulative daily shows and a continuous audience in a very small-scale screening space.

Starting in the mid-1910s, movie exhibitors seeking to expand their market began to target middle-class audiences, resulting in the emergence of the picture palace. Modeled in part after vaudeville theaters (and in some cases converted from former vaudeville theaters), the gargantuan picture palaces—which ranged from 1,000 to 5,000 in seating-capacity—represented a new exhibition strategy by an American film industry that was beginning to vertically integrate companies that included production studios, distribution arms, and theater chains, controlling the entire path a film took from conception to exhibition. The ornate and lavishly decorated picture palaces paired centralized downtown locations (and, in some cities, also locations in the largest outlying business districts), accessible to most of a city’s residents via mass transit, with the new feature film strategy which by 1920 had created a film program centered around feature-length (90- to 120-minute) movies supplemented by short-subject cartoons and newsreels—forming a full program of entertainment, just as in vaudeville.[4] Picture palaces combined aspects of vaudeville and nickelodeon exhibition strategies: They attempted to entertain as many people as possible at one time in very large-scale screening spaces, they provided variety-rich programming including both features and short subjects (and in the early years, even a live stage show), and they scheduled continuous showings that began at midday or in the morning and proceeded through the evening.


Example of a picture palace auditorium, Alhambra Theatre, San Francisco, California.  Photo credit

At the same time that picture palaces were becoming dominant in American film exhibition (the late 1910s and into the 1920s), neighborhood theaters with smaller capacities (seating anywhere from around 300 to 1,000) were also appearing. These two theater types —large-scale picture palaces showing first-run movies and smaller-scale neighborhood theaters showing movies in subsequent runs after the palaces—would coexist as the spine of American film exhibition from the 1920s into the 1950s. Film distribution and exhibition under the vertically-integrated studio system exploited these theater types using the “run/zone/clearance” system; this strategy maximized audiences for movies in their exclusive first run with several daily shows in a large-scale picture palace, then maximized audiences again in the subsequent runs (after a period of unavailability, or “clearance,” in a particular city, or “zone”) by having films play simultaneously in several of the smaller neighborhood theaters.[5] A moviegoer in these years was able either to see a movie sooner downtown in a large-scale space and at a higher price, or to wait for subsequent runs and see it in a smaller-scale space, in his or her own neighborhood, for a lower price.

This coexistence between large-scale picture palaces and smaller-scale neighborhood theaters persisted into the 1950s. During the 1950s, the structure of the American film industry shifted again due to the 1948 Supreme Court antitrust decision which ordered the movie studios to divorce themselves from their chains of movie theaters. This ruling caused the run/zone/clearance system to collapse.[6] The introduction of television and the migration of audiences to the suburbs further impacted American film exhibition, and the industry went through a major shakeout in the 1950s and 1960s in which most neighborhood theaters and many picture palaces closed.[7]

After the divorcement of theater chains from movie studios was complete, a new system of distribution and exhibition evolved. Under the “roadshow system,” films first played exclusively in a downtown picture palace, just as they did under run/zone/clearance, but for much longer periods—sometimes for more than a year—and usually with special accoutrements such as reserved seat tickets, printed programs, and intermissions (but without short subjects). Subsequent runs in the still-existing neighborhood theaters and newer suburban theaters followed (with short subjects reinstated). Roadshow exhibition, bolstered by new widescreen projection processes, preserved the centrality of large-scale downtown picture palaces, while attempting to boost the “event” status of films in the face of competition from television and the required commute for suburban moviegoers.[8]

Increasingly, though, suburbanites gravitated towards the smaller new theaters being built (usually near shopping centers) in suburban areas. Even though many of the new suburban theaters were in the 1,000 to 1,500 capacity range, large-scale theater auditoriums were becoming less and less viable in the new industrial context of the 1960s. The collapse of the roadshow system in the early 1970s, precipitated mainly by overproduction and overspending on roadshow films, and a resulting industry recession, only accentuated this fact. The huge picture palaces, the scale of which once ensured maximum audiences, had now become liabilities in the face of movie audiences that rarely, if ever, filled their large auditoriums. Exhibitors increased their experimentation with much smaller auditoriums and with multiple auditoriums in a single theater.

The shift from single-screen to multiplex theaters in the late-1960s and 1970s represented a fundamental change in the nature of the American movie theater by introducing another measure of scale, that of the number of auditoriums in a theater. Two-screen (or twin) theaters began to appear in 1962, with the first three-screen (or triplex) and four-screen (or quad) theaters appearing in 1966, and the first six-screen (or six-plex) theaters appearing in 1969.[9] The industrial strategy behind the emergence of movie theaters with multiple auditoriums had several parts: First, theater chains sought to capitalize on the collapse of the studio system (and later, the roadshow system) through new innovations in exhibition. Second, the locations of most suburban theaters in or near shopping centers made the multiplex an attractive format due to its modularity. Third, the increasing fragmentation of the American movie audience, facilitated by the ratings system that was introduced in 1968, made the ability to play several different films simultaneously an attractive programming policy. This same programming policy, involving the option of playing the same film with many closely staggered starting times, paired with the suburban locations of new multiplex theaters, also increased convenience for potential audiences. In multiplexes, moviegoers had a variety of choices (of films and of starting times), in a movie program that by the mid-1970s consisted of only the feature film, preceded by a few preview trailers.

The rise of the multiplex movie theater was accompanied by a more or less permanent decrease in the size scale of the American movie theater auditorium. Extremely large-scale theaters (of 2,000 seats or more) were almost never built after the early 1930s, although many new theaters until the late 1960s featured auditoriums in the 1,000- to 1,500-seat range. When the roadshow system fell apart, one of the only continuing justifications for large-scale auditoriums—accommodating reserved-ticket audiences for roadshows—disappeared. The multiplex format worked better with several small-scale auditoriums; many of the early twin theaters had auditoriums in the 300- to 400-seating range, while later, larger multiplexes often had individual auditoriums with only 200, 150, or in some cases fewer than 100 seats. The saturation-booking system, the distribution and exhibition system that replaced roadshows, favored several small-scale auditoriums to the extent that the multiplex format and saturation booking (in which a movie plays in as many theaters as possible, at both the local and national levels, immediately upon its release) reinforced each other in an almost symbiotic fashion.[10]

Example of a multiplex theatre auditorium, Brookhurst 4 Theatre, Anaheim, California. Photo credit

By 1980, multiplex theaters with small-scale auditoriums had become the mainstream of American film exhibition. In addition to the halt of newly built theaters with large-scale auditoriums of even the 1,000-seat variety, existing large-scale auditoriums were rapidly disappearing, both through the closing of remaining picture palaces and through the conversion of single-screen theaters into multiple-auditorium theaters. Urban renewal in American cities, which caused many of the remaining picture palaces and neighborhood theaters to close and be demolished, also played a prominent part, as exhibitors were happy to sacrifice theaters located in what were now often blighted or unprofitable areas.

The historical development of scale in the American movie theater since 1980 has only strengthened the dominance of small-scale auditoriums in multiple-auditorium theaters. At the end of the 1970s, the six-screen theater was the benchmark for American exhibitors. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the number of auditoriums in a theater complex was scaled up and down from two up to about ten, with the largest theaters in the 12- to 14-auditorium range. The mid-1990s saw the introduction of the “megaplex” movie theater, with auditorium numbers in the 20- to 30-screen range. The upper limit of the number scale seems to have been established with the 30-auditorium theater; the few theaters of this size that have been opened have had trouble maintaining both viable films to program on that many screens and audiences to fill that many auditoriums. The optimum number of auditoriums has settled at about 18- to 20-screens. The increase in the number of auditoriums in the megaplex has also resulted in a slight upturn in the size of some of those auditoriums. Most megaplexes have a few auditoriums in the 300- to 400-seat range, to handle the comparatively large audiences that some movies attract on their opening weekends.

The continuing evolution of scale in the American movie theater auditorium will remain tied to other, broader shifts in the entertainment industries. A return of large-scale auditoriums (especially those of picture-palace dimensions) is unlikely, as industrial conditions continue to favor the lower end of the size scale. On the other hand, when it comes to the number of auditoriums in a theater, conditions continue to work against the lower end of the scale. In recent years, since the advent of the megaplex, multiple-auditorium theaters on the lower end of the number scale—such as twin, triplex, and even many six-plex theaters—have disappeared just like their picture palace and neighborhood theater predecessors, as smaller and older multiplexes have lost economic viability due to an inability to compete with their larger and newer megaplex kin. Also in recent years, a variety of home viewing options, such as DVDs and streaming movies over the Internet, has provided increased competition for movie-going as a social practice.

The historical development of the size scale and the number scale for American movie theater auditoriums is only part of the evolution of American film exhibition, which has involved larger shifts in the American film industry and in American cinema over a timespan of more than a century. I have tried to show in this essay how the development of this one specific set of characteristics regarding American movie theater auditoriums has been the result of larger industrial and cultural dynamics. As with most historical phenomena, complex forces interacted broadly to create shifts of various kinds at much lower levels. Events that were at quite a remove from the specific issues of auditorium size or number (such as a Supreme Court decision, or a pattern of population migration) guided industrial policy and business strategies within American movie studios and theater chains, which in turn impacted more fine-grained practices like auditorium seating capacities and the optimum number of auditoriums in a theater complex. Other factors, such as the nature of the movie program at different points in American film history, played additional roles in determining how the size and number of American movie theater auditoriums shifted over the decades. The evolution of auditorium size and number in the American movie theater continues, now in light of new competitive pressures related to home viewing, with future developments in the scale of the screen perhaps involving questions about the viability of the very practice of film exhibition in any kind of auditorium.


[1] These treatments are exemplified in the work of Charlotte Herzog, “The Archaeology of Cinema Architecture: The Origins of the Movie Theater,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 9 (1984); and in the work of Douglas Gomery, “Movie-Going During Hollywood’s Golden Age,” North Dakota Quarterly 51:3 (1983).

[2] Douglas Gomery, Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), 13-14; Charlotte Herzog, “The Movie Palace and Its Architectural Style,” Exhibition: The Film Reader, ed. Ina Rae Hark (London: Routledge, 2002), 53-54; Robert C. Allen, “The Movies in Vaudeville: Historical Context of the Movies as Popular Entertainment,” The American Film Industry, ed. Tino Balio (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 57-82.

[3] Gomery, Shared Pleasures, 18-20; Barbara Stones, America Goes to the Movies: 100 Years of Motion Picture Exhibition (N. Hollywood, CA: National Association of Theater Owners, 1993), 20, 22, 24-25; Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1990), 417, 428-29; John Izod, Hollywood and the Box Office, 1895-1986 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 9-10; Joseph Medill Patterson, “The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama,” The Saturday Evening Post 180:21 (November 23, 1907), reprinted in George C. Pratt, Spellbound in Darkness (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1973), 48; David Robinson, From Peep Show to Picture Palace (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 90-93, 146-47; Daniel J. Czitrom, Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 47.

[4] Herzog, “The Movie Palace,” 51-52, 60-61; Gomery, Shared Pleasures, 37, 59; Izod, Hollywood, 42; Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1990), 125.

[5] Izod, Hollywood, 40; Gomery, Shared Pleasures, 67-68; Thomas Schatz, Boom to Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1997), 16; Tino Balio, Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1993), 20.

[6] Gomery, Shared Pleasures, 89; Izod, Hollywood, 129-30; Schatz, Boom to Bust, 326-28.

[7] Gomery, Shared Pleasures, 83, 85-86; Izod, Hollywood, 143; Schatz, Boom to Bust, 28, 293-94.

[8] John Belton, “Glorious Technicolor, Breathtaking CinemaScope, and Stereophonic Sound,” in Hollywood in the Age of Television, ed. Tino Balio (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 186-87, 202-03; Stuart Galbraith, A History and Analysis of the Decline of the Roadshow Mode of Motion Picture Exhibition, 1965-1975 (Ph.D. diss University of Southern California, 1997.

[9] “4 Theaters Under One Roof in Kansas City is Durwood Circuit’s Newest Project,” Boxoffice, 5 September 1966, 9; “World’s First Six-Theater Complex Opens in Omaha Under ARC Banner,” Boxoffice, 24 January 1969, NC-1.

[10] William Paul, “The K-Mart Audience at the Mall Movies,” in Exhibition: The Film Reader, ed. Ina Rae Hark (London: Routledge, 2002), 79-80; “Over-Saturation,” Independent Film Journal, September 3, 1975, 3-4; Lee Beaupre, “Industry,” Film Comment 14:5 (1978), 68-72, 77.

Christofer Meissner is an instructor of film, media, and communications at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, North Dakota. His Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Kansas charted the historical development of the multiplex movie theatre in the 1960s and 1970s.