In our world of Vimeo, YouTube, Netflix and Hulu - virtually anything you want to see is just a click away. Never before has so much content been available to so many with such ease. So as we begin our journey, winding back the clock to the beginning of the previous century, we have to imagine a different time and a different relationship to media.
Movies began in the Nickelodeon - a term that mashed up the word nickel and odeon - a Greek word for a theater for musical performances. For just five cents, audiences could be entertained with a variety of short films and live acts. Nickelodeons were a major part of the American culture - with an estimated 8,000 Nickelodeons in the US by 1908 and 26 million regular attendees by 1910.
But as quickly as Nickelodeons exploded on the American conscious - they quickly went away. As a network of film distribution came into place theaters found that Audiences tended to favor the feature length film and you didn’t need the live vaudeville acts. Of course, the longer films were more expensive to make. Prices for admission necessarily skyrocketed - doubling to 10 cents but now you were seeing feature films with a couple of shorts made with great skill and craft in a much more elegant setting - the mindset of the time demonstrated by this ad from 1915 from a small unknown upstart - Paramount Pictures. Here, casting off the old dingy Nickelodeon of the past for the new Paramount Pictures Movie Palace.
So for a generation or two, movies were something you got out of the house and went to. Only the rich collectors had home movie projectors and private collections of films were mostly scraps, interesting bits from films here and there to show off to their friends at dinner parties.
Even the filmmakers themselves saw little value in their films once the screenings were done. Part of the problem was the inherit danger of storing old film. Nitrate film was used at that time, which was extremely flammable - it would even burn underwater. And as the stuff decayed, it turned into essentially gunpowder leading to some famous unfortunate accidents such as the fire in 1937 at 20th Century-Fox Studios which wiped out all their pre-1935 film stock.
The fact was studios just needed the storage space for new films more than they needed the archvies so they just destroyed old films. An estimated 90% of all silent films ever made are considered lost and gone forever.