World’s oldest cinema is still alive and flickering

Eden Théâtre is an icon of independent cinema in France

27 June 2018
By Jane Hanks

It may be 120 years old next year but the world’s oldest surviving cinema, Cinéma Eden Théâtre at La Ciotat on the Côte d’Azur, is still showing films and attracting audiences, with 25,000 in its red seats last year.

It showed its first films – a selection by the pioneering Lumière brothers – to a paying public on March 21, 1899 and is now an icon of independent cinema in France.

With three cinema groups accounting for 52% of the national market (82% in Paris), independent cinemas are under pressure as films make most money in the first weeks of release, when independents cannot get them, and with no money to modernise they feel old-fashioned.

However, Les Lumières de l’Eden association volunteers are determined to keep the Eden alive. Despite a €7million renovation, it is not a commercial cinema but an arts cinema for independent producers that regularly has top industry names to public events. President Michel Cornille said: “In an age where images are central, when you come in this building and know the birth of the moving picture was here in this place, there is an immense emotion. It has a soul. You can feel its history.”

Although the Eden is the last survivor it was not the first cinema: “The first showing of a moving picture was in La Ciotat, but not at the Eden. It was at the home of the Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, who are regarded as the inventors of cinema.

“The first showing of a film to a private audience was to 150 guests at their home on September 21, 1895.

“The first time the public paid to see a film was again by the Lumières - in Paris on December 28, 1895. The building it was shown in no longer exists. There were other cinemas across the world at that period but none are still standing.”

The association has a poster from the first Eden performance, advertising 19 films on March 21, 1899.

The building was built in 1889, the same year the Eiffel Tower was completed, and called the Eden Théâtre as the word cinema did not exist.

It continued with theatre, music-hall and films until the Second World War but faced rising TV competition and then, in 1982, its director died in a robbery. It closed for nearly 30 years.

The building had been central to the town’s cultural life – “half of La Ciotat met the other half of La Ciotat at the Eden-Théâtre. It was a place where all ages and all social classes would come” – and people were disappointed to see it crumble into disrepair.

Renovation funds via Marseille’s year as European Capital of Culture helped it re-open on October 9, 2013, as a replica of the original cinema.

It draws audiences from far and wide with guests such as Anna Karina, the muse of Jean-Luc Godard, and Marcel Pagnol’s grandson, Nicolas.

Mr Cornille added: “The importance is to make sure our cinema continues to be a meeting place for discussion and we try to keep this alive.

“La Ciotat people have a special relationship with cinema. Many are cinéphiles, film buffs, and support what we do here.

“We do not show the blockbusters, but we encourage film innovation with many up and coming, and inventive producers. Cinema was born here and it keeps on growing here.”

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