Prints

How the First-Ever Film Screening Shook Paris

By Sotheby's

The birth of modern cinema as we know it lasted under 20 minutes and there were fewer than 30 people in attendance. It was a humble gathering for what was actually a momentous occasion: the first ever public screening of a film. An exceptionally rare poster designed for that seminal screening - a true piece of cinema history - features in the Original Film Posters Online sale.

On the 28 December 1885 in the Salon Indien of the Grand Café in Paris, the Lumière brothers debuted their invention of the cinématographe showing a series of short films, each lasting under a minute, depicting everyday French life. It was hardly a red carpet premiere: the cinématographe was propped up on a step ladder while the film was projected onto a white canvas that resembled a bed sheet. The Grand Café was usually a meeting place for gentlemen billiard players and the small basement was decorated like an oriental lounge.

When the film began the crowd were so shocked that one woman screamed in terror at the moving images, and there were rumours of magic tricks to explain what they witnessed. One man even complained that it was unfair to make a mockery of the public in this way.

Beforehand, the screening had been treated with suspicion and invited members of the press did not bother to show up. However, within two days the newspapers realised that a pivotal moment in popular culture had taken place, and began covering the new phenomenon. On the 1 and 2 January 1896, over 2,000 people paid one franc each to view the Lumière brothers’ films.

It was then that posters, such as this rare example, were plastered across Paris. There were two designs used, and this one featuring artwork by Henri Brispot, shows the curious crowd waiting outside the Salon Indien before they became the first members of the public to see film. Within a few months, Lumière cinemas had opened in all major international cities, and screenings had been held for most heads of state across Europe including the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia.

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