October 14-20, 2013

By Molly Rector

Last week, for the first time since the 1980s, the world’s oldest cinema – L’Eden Cinema in La Ciotat, France – opened its elegantly restored doors to the public as a normally functioning movie theater.  L’Eden was originally a performance space for plays, until the Lumiere brothers screened their film “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” there in the late 1890s.  Though motion pictures had been shown in other cinemas before, L’Eden is the oldest original cinematic structure still standing today.  

Like many old theaters, L’Eden has been through a tumult of openings and closings, for some time operating for only one film festival week out of every year. Now, L’Eden will be open on a day-to-day basis, and in addition to screening “normal” films (as they are called on the press release), the theater will feature a permanent exhibit about the history of cinema and the origin of animated pictures. While L’Eden holds obvious value for lovers of cinema history, the biggest question facing the single-screen, 166-seat theater, is how well that historical value will translate into economic viability: in an industry in which twenty-screen theaters with hundreds of seats are not atypical, how do smaller theaters compete?  

Movie theaters often seem to capitalize on a kind of nostalgia that people have for an era that represented fewer choices than does the era in which we live now.  In talking with me about this, a friend pointed out to me that the experience of going to the movies is, in a way, an experience of giving up control and submitting to the pace of a film – that a moviegoer can’t hit fast-forward at parts she doesn’t like, or pause when she wants another snack.  

In addition to nostalgia for fewer choices, smaller theaters also seem to capitalize on nostalgia for the way things used to be done while also making innovations that move things forward.  For example, there are several small movie theaters in Portland, Oregon that succeed by synthesizing the close intimacy of a small theater setting with the option of having a meal during the film – combining “dinner and a movie” into a singular experience.

Similarly, L’Eden expects to survive by innovation – fulfilling that nostalgic yearning for the past, while also moving the theater experience forward on a technological level. Guy Guistini, president of the association L’Eden des Lumières (responsible for the renovation of the theater), made certain to point out to reporters that L’Eden has been renovated with technology that engages audiences on that level – for example, through social media sites – and in this way stays true to the history of the theater itself, which came into being as the world of entertainment “was moving from fixed to moving images, which was a technological breakthrough.”