As I understand it, home television sets first became commercially available in the US in 1938 and grew in popularity throughout the 40s and 50s. Before people had televisions, did they have a way of rewatching movies after watching them at the movie theater? Was it like live theater, in that there were "revivals" every so often where people could go and rewatch them? Was there a way for people to buy film reels and play them with home movie projectors? Or would a person watch a movie once and then never again?
Although opportunities certainly existed for repeat viewing of movies before the advent of television, this was not 'generally' the case. Reasons for this included limited long-term availability of movies for viewing, the constant supply of new movies churned out by the studios and the cost of home-viewing equipment.
However, although the large majority of movies were only seen once by most people, there were exceptions; some movies were re-released and there is clear evidence that some people did take the opportunity to see a film more than once. Also, some film companies targeted this segment of the market when re-releasing films. Finally, one could buy prints of some films for home-viewing (assuming one had the necessary 16mm equipment), and there were even home-delivery systems.
Mostly, in answer to,
How many times, then, does a given spectator usually watch a film? In the classical Hollywood era, the most likely answer to this question would probably have been "only once."....Repeat viewing was... a practice not favored by a distribution system almost fully geared to novelty. Up until the early 1940s, film production ran from 500 to 800 films annually, and films were distributed through a system of runs, zones and clearances that favored rapid turnovers. Accordingly, films hardly ever stayed on the bill for more than one week or even a few days.
Source: Vinzenz Hediger, 'You Haven't Seen It Unless You Have Seen It At Least Twice Film Spectatorship and the Discipline of Repeat Viewing'. In Cinema & Cie, 2004
Nonetheless, those few days to a week were enough for the thousands of die hard fans of such hugely popular stars as Rudolph Valentino, Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford and others to attend more than once. According to letters from theater managers published in the Motion Picture Herald in the 1930s and 1940s, it was not uncommon for patrons to return to see a movie again a day or two later.
If one was prepared to travel, the opportunity to see a film again several months or more certainly existed as
An average film took two years to descend the ladder of the distribution system, from urban first run in prestigious movie palaces, to lower-run and rural theaters.
After this, though, prints were usually destroyed as they were, by then, worn out to the point of being unwatchable. Thus, for the large majority of films released, one would be unlikely to have the opportunity to see them again. However, for the much smaller number of A pictures (prestige films with major stars and big budgets) and also lower budget films which were big hits, the opportunity was more likely to arise. Some films did have long runs and thus provided ample opportunity for repeat-viewing. For example, Random Harvest ran in the prestige movie theater for 11 weeks in 1942, and The Ten Commandments (1923) for 62 weeks between 1923 and 1925. The latter was re-released later, with the publicity clearly aimed at repeat-viewing by saying the film had to be seen twice to be fully appreciated.
Films were also sometimes re-released or prints re-issued, but this practice was limited in the 1930s. For example, the Los Angeles writer Manuel H. Rodriguez recalls seeing the 1931 releases Dracula and Frankenstein on a double bill in 1939; although he wasn't a repeat-viewer, the opportunity was there for those who had seen them 8 years earlier and wanted to again. During WWII, re-releasing became more common due to more limited production:
While the bulk of re-releases were older A-films, re-releases could include more recent and less exceptional films in times of need. This was the case particularly in the 1940s and during the war years, when the industry output of films dropped by 24% from 536 in 1940/41 to just below 400 in 1945....To fulfill the programming needs of lower-run theaters in the war years, the distributors would fall back on their catalogue of already released films and used old A-films to replace the B-films they no longer produced in sufficient quantity....Columbia landed an unexpected success with the re-release of two Frank Capra films, It Happened One Night  and Lost Horizon  in 1943, to the point where the studio had to dig into its limited wartime supply of raw stock to strike new prints.
Finally, those in possession of 16mm equipment would have been able to acquire prints for some films:
... in the mid-1930s producers and distributors began to strike 16mm prints of films that had run their two-year course of distribution in theaters. These 16mm prints were destined to what in the age of cable and home video came to be called "ancillary markets:" they were sold to owners of 16mm equipment for home viewing – Universal called their selection of films for sale the "Horne Film Library" –, or they were distributed to nontheatrical venues such as community centers and churches.
1927 advertisement in 'Country Life' for 16mm home movie equipment. Source
So how many homes had 16mm equipment? There don't seem to be any firm figures on this; in 1930, Variety estimated 200,000 homes had this equipment, but this figure is considered "a gross overestimation". At any rate, this was clearly something for the more affluent, plus the middle class and various public but non-theatrical venues such as libraries, churches, universities and even airlines (the first in-flight movie was in 1921).
Old movie releases, along with shorts, specially-made newsreels and other odds and ends could be obtained and even be delivered to your door:
Film libraries proliferated to deal in the new gauge; a vast library of titles was made available through an international rental and purchase system....A series of smaller agencies also entered the fray. These libraries functioned occasionally as stand-alone rental agencies but mostly made use of department stores, drug stores, camera shops, and mail-order systems, creating sizable networks of moving image circulation and exchange. For instance, in New York, large department stores such as Macy's and Gimbel's, and camera stores such as Willoughby's, attached film rental agencies to their photography counters.
Source: Haidee Wasson, 'Electric Homes! Automatic Movies! Efficient Entertainment!: 16mm and Cinema's Domestication in the 1920s'. In Cinema Journal, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Summer, 2009).
Whether or not you could get a particular film would depend on, in part at least, the studio that made it. Universal and Columbia saw the potential extra income, but others shunned it; if you were a fan of one of MGM's stars ('more stars than there are in heaven' according to the publicity department), you were out of luck. Further, by the early 1930s, constrained budgets caused by the depression had dampened initial enthusiasm among all but the wealthy.
It was commonplace as late as the 1960s to watch a movie in a movie theater multiple times in one sitting for a single admission charge. It was called "continuous showings" and this term was included in movie ads to let the public know that (1) you could watch the movie repeatedly and stay all day if you wish, and (2) you could arrive any time, watch the movie from arrival time to the end, and then watch the beginning as soon as the next "showing" starts.
The phrase "this is where I came in" explained your leaving in the middle of a movie. There was just a brief delay from the end of one showing to the beginning of the next showing, sometimes filled by a short feature, a newsreel or a cartoon.
It was also commonplace to see a blockbuster movie multiple times on different dates. I heard schoolchildren gauge their religious devotion by how many times they had seen The Ten Commandments over the summer.
SOURCE: Personal experience, New York City, 1960s.
My experience was you only watched a movie once. because the movies were only shown about a week and one did not go to movies more than once a week and usually less often than once a week ( Chicago , 40's , 50's ). TV had nothing to do with movies; In the 40's it was a fuzzy black/white 9" screen, in the 50's it was a fuzzy black/white 16" screen . So no comparison to a movie theater. And chances were that the TV would stop in the middle of a show and you would take the suspected vacuum tubes to the drugstore to test , hopefully find a bad one and the store had a replacement. Young people today are so spoiled with the ease of modern electronics. No concept of watching TV in the 40's,50's 60's,70's. I watched a couple movies twice because they were free at National Guard summer camp and there wasn't much else to do.
I remember passing a movie theater which was showing a 20-year-old film. I also remember in high school reading a catalog of movies available in 16 mm or maybe 8 mm.
In the 1960s CBS had a number of rural comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), Green Acres (1965-1971), and Petticoat Junction (1963-1970). And one recurring joke in those shows was that the rural backwoods areas were so far behind the times that their theaters still showed silent movies, and the people there thought that silent movie stars were still vary famous and popular.
And when I was a child a building in Philadelphia that I was driven past occasionally was said to be a theater showing silent films, which would have been decades old. However, I don't remember who told me that, and both my father and my older sister were known to joke and tease with inaccurate information from time to time.
It depends, even I have seen many movies more than once in the cinema. But I actually wanted to point out that as spoils of war (WWII) the Soviet Union got ahold of lots and lots of pre-war movies and also cinema projectors. So young people of those times in the Soviet Union had the opportunity to see many German and Hollywood movies. And as I read and heard from memories, they went to see some popular movies (like Tarzan, for example) even tens of times. Tickets were actually pretty cheap and it was very common entertainment.
Before television sets became commonplace, did people generally watch movies only once?
You are cracking me up. Reminds me when I explained the concept of pay phones to my daughter. Phones in public places used for making calls at a cost of a dime or quarter. My daughter was very confused and asked how we texted.
TV's became common place in the 1950's after WWII when new innovations made them more affordable. First National TV network was NBC in 1951. The first cinematic movie which aired on prime time TV was the Wizard of Oz, November 3, 1956.
Color TV's came to the market in the 1960's.
Generally when TV's were introduced people didn't watch movies. When TV's became mainstream in the 1950's people opted for the novelty of staying home and watching free programming rather than go out and pay for movies. It took years for the film industry to adapt. Those who did watch movies "generally" only saw them once. However there were exceptions and options if one had the money and interest films were available to purchase.
I'll always remember Howard Hughes. One of the wealthiest men in the country in 1930s - 60s. Hughes obsessively fell in love with certain films and watched them hundreds and thousands of times.
How to Recreate Howard Hughes' Legendary Movie Screening Room. Dissatisfied with the movie selections on KLAS-TV, the local CBS affiliate, the former studio head purchased the station so that he could dictate the programming schedule. "We knew when Hughes was in town," wrote Paul Anka in his 2013 autobiography My Way. "You'd get back to your room, turn on the TV at 2 A.M., and the movie Ice Station Zebra would be playing. At 5am, it would start all over again. It was on almost every night. Hughes loved that movie." Owning KLAS had its perks. If Hughes wanted to replay a scene, he simply called the station and ordered a studio technician to rewind the footage.
When Howard Hughes became deaf, he built himself what must have been one of the first home theatre systems. Hughes owned a library of feature length movies in the form of 16mm reduction prints. Probable beyond the means of most people though.
My personal experience growing up in the 60s and 70s was that folks generally saw a film once. I can remember a number of times missing seeing a film because it had left the theater already. Some budget theaters would only get films after the full price theaters had completed their run, so you might catch them there, but the prints were not always in great shape by then.
One nice thing was that most theaters only had one large screen; I don't recall seeing small screen multiplexes to maybe the 80s. There were fewer movies coming out, so they needed them less, though the big budget films often monopolized the screens when they came out. Sometimes two films would be alternating in the same theater, creating a "double feature".
Some movies had begun to make it to TV by the mid-to-late 60s. I recall seeing many popular movies that had left the theater that way; there were "shows" like "Movie of the Week", and you'd check your TV Guide magazine (everyone seemed to get TV Guide), or the newspaper to see what the movie was. Generally there was a movie show on each of the 3 networks once a week, as I recall, but I'm not sure. You could also catch older movies on local station (like WGN in Chicago); I saw a number of films from the 40s and 50s that way.
I think the time frame that you list supplies a partial answer:
Before people had televisions
This is actually a relatively narrow time frame. The first "talkie" was released in 1927. That gives you less than 30 years of film production to consider. And an important thing to keep in mind about the films produced in that era is that the production pipeline was very heavily weighted towards the creation of film versions of best-selling novels and popular plays and musicals, and also to historical figure biography. As a result, if you wanted to revisit material you enjoyed in film, your avenue for doing so might be to seek out the original work in text or to see a stage production. If you enjoyed the Leslie Howard version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, for example, in the absence of the ability to rewatch the film your next step might be just to read the book.
The narrow time frame also means that TV came on as a possible option for "reruns" relatively quickly for films released in the last third or so of the overall period. It is not unusual at all for me to watch a movie on TV that was released between 2000 and 2010; some of those films are 20 years old, but my first viewing of them "seems like yesterday."