When the Lumiere brothers sent out invitations to the first public film screening on December 28, 1895, they caused quite a sensation. The show, which took place in the cellar of the Grand Cafe in Paris, lasted 20 minutes and at the end, everyone, the organizers said, was “speechless, surprised and indescribably amazed.” For the first time, the 32 members of the audience had seen moving pictures. The success was overwhelming.

Although Auguste and Louis Lumiere had already patented their film gear — cinematographs, camera and projector — on February 13, 1895, they were not alone in their invention of movies. Inventors in Great Britain, the United States and Germany were also working on creating devices that would make moving pictures possible.

Auguste and Louis Lumiere in 1900

Cinema technology introduced by Auguste and Louis Lumiere was technically superior to competitors abroad

On November 1, 1895, a couple of weeks before the Lumieres, the German brothers Max and Emil Skladanowsky presented their projector. However, their device was technically inferior to the one presented by the Lumiere brothers, and it was thanks to technical superiority and commercial marketing that December 28, 1895 went down in history as the day when cinema was born.

The age of streaming

A century and a quarter later, that would actually be a reason to celebrate. But because of the coronavirus pandemic this year, no workshops or events have been organized — in stark comparison to events that took place five years ago when cinema turned 120. At the time, the Grand Palais in Paris recognized the achievements of the Lumiere brothers with a comprehensive exhibition.

But the industry probably doesn’t want to celebrate, especially when this year has proven to be catastrophic for films. All over the world, cinemas have been forced to shut down as governments try to keep the virus in check. And even when some theaters opened in Germany and other countries this summer, the blockbusters were missing.

The Netflix logo is seen against a backdrop of a caption saying coronavirus disease [COVID-19]

Streaming has helped producers save costs and bypass film theaters

Instead, the streaming business is witnessing a boom, with the sales figures of companies like Netflix and Amazon overtaking those of standard cinemas. Many film production companies are looking to see whether they could do away with theaters entirely. Soul, the latest Pixar film, for example, will bypass theaters and directly premiere on the streaming platform Disney+.

Death of cinema?

The death of cinema has been predicted again and again — with the widespread introduction of television in the 1950s, or the advent of video cassettes in the 1980s. But never have things looked as bleak as in this year: With losses of up to 70%, many in the industry think that cinema, in its conventional form, is doomed.

German film and television producer Uli Aselmann, who produced the 2017 movie Jugend ohne Gott, said the experience of going to the movies needs to be made special again. Others like Lars Henrik Gass, head of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, believes that as cultural venues, cinemas should be accorded a museum-like status and subsidized as a cultural enterprise.

Meanwhile, German cinemas seem to be heading toward extinction, especially with the latest lockdown that was put in place shortly before Christmas. In a recent press release, Christine Berg, head of the German Union of Film Theaters (Hauptverband Deutscher Filmtheater, or HDF), said the new lockdown would wipe out many cinemas. “We will close this year with losses of around €1 billion, including concessions. We cannot cope with that,” she said.

German cinemas have been shut for the last 5 1/2 weeks. According to a mid-April survey conducted by the HDF during the first lockdown, 58% of the cinemas responding to the questionnaire estimated they would be able to survive only for the next two to three months. More than half a year later, the situation is likely to be much worse.

This article has been adapted from German by Manasi Gopalakrishnan