Cinema was one of the prominent public institutions of the 20th century, and despite experiencing a slight decline in the twenty-first, it remains a significant feature of the global cultural landscape. At its heart is the proposition that getting together with strangers in darkened public venues to watch movies together makes some kind of sense. This is clearly both a spatial and a social practice, involving decisions based on considerations of place, timing and other people. Yet the history of this changing social experience has proved difficult to accommodate within the traditional practice of film history, that has been focused on the history of films. Instead, cinema has been bracketed with history for the purposes of demonstrating that popular films make bad history; or conversely that history films are ‘celluloid evidence’ of the vanished past, that will entertain and engage history students. This essay examines the reasons why a social cinema history has been slow to develop, and charts the recent emergence of a new mode of cinema history focused on the social and spatial dimension of film distribution, exhibition, and everyday practices of cinema attendance.