Although Amer­ican films were sold abroad, U.S. firms concentrated on the domestic market. As a result, France and Italy were soon to move ahead of the United States and control the international film trade until the mid-1910s.

France. Pathé versus Gaumont


After the Lumière Brothers and Mèlies, two other firms that were to dominate the French film industry were formed. Charles Pathé was a phonograph seller and exhibitor in the early 1890s. In 1895, he purchased some of R. W. Paul’s imitation Kinetoscopes, and the following year formed Pathé Frères, which initially made most of its money on phonographs. From 1901, however, Pathé concentrated more on film production, and profits soared. The firm expanded rapidly. In 1902, it built a glass-sided studio and began selling the Pathé camera, which became the world’s most widely used camera until the end of the 1910s. Within a few years, Pathé Frères would be the single largest film company in the world. It was also one of the earliest film companies to become vertically integrated. A vertically integrated firm is one controlling the production, distribution and exhibition of a film. By 1905, Pathe employed six filmmakers, all over­ seen by Ferdinand Zecca, each making a film a week, encompassing a variety of genres.

Max Linder in «Seven Years of Bad Luck» (1921)
Max Linder in «Seven Years of Bad Luck» (1921)

Among Pathé’s most profitable films were series starring popular comics: the Boireau series (with Andre Deed), the Rigadin films (with the music-hall star Prince), and, above all, the Max Linder series. Charles Chaplin once re­ferred to Linder as his «professor». He, in fact, carries a very similar aesthetic to his appearance, often wearing elegant clothes, top hat, and dapper moustache.

Charlie Chaplin and Max Linder
Charlie Chaplin and Max Linder


Its main rival in France was a smaller firm formed by inventor Lèon Gaumont. The firm Gaumont began producing films in 1897 with mostly actualities made by Alice Guy, the first female film­maker. Building a production studio in 1905 made Gaumont more prominent, largely through the work of director Louis Feuillade, primarily known for the serials Fantômas, Les Vampires and Judex.

«Fantômas» (1913), by Louis Feuillade
«Fantômas» (1913), by Louis Feuillade

Italy. Growth through Spectacle

Italy came somewhat late to the film production scene, but beginning in 1905 its film industry grew rapidly and within a few years. Although films were produced in several cities, Rome’s Cines firm (founded in 1905), Turin’s Ambrosio (1905) and Itala (1906) soon emerged as the principal companies. The new firms were handicapped by a lack of experienced personnel, and some lured artists away from French firms.

In 1908, the Ambrosio company made The Last Days of Pompeii, the first of many adaptations of Edward Bulwer­ Lytton’S historical novel. As a result of this film’s popularity, the Italian cinema became identified with histori­cal spectacle. Italians were among the first who consistently made films of more than one reel (that is, longer than fifteen minutes). For example, in 1910, Giovanni Pastrone, made The Fall of Troy in three reels. The triumph of this and similar films encouraged Italian producers to make longer, more expensive epics, a trend that culmi­nated in the mid 1910s.

Denmark: Nordisk and Ole Olsen

That a small country like Denmark became a significant player in world cinema was largely due to entrepreneur Ole Olsen. In 1906, he formed a production company, Nordisk Film, and immediately began opening distribution of offices abroad. Nordisk’s break­ through came in 1907 with Lion Hunt, a fiction film about a safari. Because two lions were actually shot during the production, the film was banned in Den­mark, but the publicity generated huge sales abroad. Although a few smaller companies started up dur­ing this period, Olsen eventually managed either to buy them or to drive them out of business. Nevertheless, it was one of these short-lived small firms that made the two-reeler The Abyss (1910, by Urban Gad), which brought instant fame to actress Asta Nielsen (Gad’s wife). Together with Max Linder, she was one of the first international film stars after she moved to Germany. The Danish industry remained healthy until World War I cut off many of its export markets.

Previous: Cinema of attractions in the 19th Century.
Next: 1900s: Early Cinema in the United States

Author: Bea Cabrera

Freelance Filmmaker with a passion for big cities, snowboard, cinema and a weakness for the smell of freshly ground coffee. Engineer & Graphic Designer in a previous life, loving and living both: art and technology.  

2 Replies to “1900s: The Beginnings of Cinema Industry in Europe”

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