Numbers Track the Growth of the Silent Film Industry

From its inception in 1896, the silent film industry grew steadily. Thirty years later, it was the fifth largest industry in the United States, the country where 80% of all films were made. By then, it employed about 275,000 people, counting all phases of production, distribution, and exhibition. Roughly 80 million people went to the movies each week. Each week! To put that in perspective, the population of the United States in 1930 was 123 million. Okay, that’s 80 million admissions; some people might have gone two or more times in a week, others none. Still, it’s a lot more than today, with a population of more than twice as much (309 million).

In 1930, the Depression caused attendance figures to drop to about 50 million per week. That picked up during World War II, then from 1946 to 1960, attendance plunged by 75%, thanks to television coming to virtually every American home. Today, with people watching DVDs at home, the number is down to 24 million per week. Another reason for the decline is cost. Silent movies costs varied from place to place, as they do now, but they were far cheaper than today’s movies. For example, in 1920, an average silent movie cost from 10 to 25 cents. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $1.13-2.82, far less than the $9.50 I paid last week for a ticket.

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