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1900s: Early Cinema in the United States

1900s: Early Cinema in the United States

This is the 1900s, pre-Hollywood era. The studios are still based mainly in New York but will move to Los Angeles not long after.

The Nickelodeon Boom

The main trend in the American film industry from 1905 to 1907 was the rapid multiplication of film theaters. These were typically small stores, installed with fewer than two hundred seats. Admission was usually a nickel (hence the term nickelodeon) or a dime for a program running fifteen to sixty minutes. Moviegoing had become less a novelty and more a regular entertainment. Film produc­ers took to renting rather than selling films. Since ex­hibitors no longer had to keep running the same films until they made back their purchase price, they could change their programs two, three, even seven times a week.

The Cascade Theater in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, was the first nickelodeon acquired by Jack, Albert, Sam, and Harry Warner. A sign promised:

«Refined Entertainment for Ladies, Gentlemen, and Children.»

The Warners went on to careers in exhibition and production, eventually establishing Warner Bros. Carl Laemmle, later the founder of Universal, opened his first nickelodeon in Chicago in 1906. Louis B. Mayer, later of MGM (Metro-Goldwyn­ Mayer), ran a small theater in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Other studio executives who started out running nick­elodeons included Adolph Zukor (later head of Para­mount), William Fox (who formed the company that became 20th Century-Fox), and Marcus Loew (whose Loew’s was the parent company of MGM). These men would help create the basic structure of the Hollywood studio system during the 1910s.


Motion Picture Patents Corporation

Or how Thomas Edison was a dick about the film business

90% of the newspapers, magazines, TV stations, movie studios and online news sources we drink in are run by six massive corporations: Comcast, Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Time-Warner and CBS. Is this a shocking warning signal of the deterioration of our Information Age? Or is it history repeating itself?

Back in the 1910s, the more established lead­ers of the industry consolidated power among them­selves and tried to exclude newcomers. They realized that control of the burgeoning film industry would be highly profitable.

Since 1897, the Edison company had tried to force its competitors out of business by suing them for patent infringement. After a court decision, some competitors agreed to pay Edison a fee to be able to go on producing (Association of Edison Licensees), but American Mutoscope & Biograph (AM&B) refused to because their camera had a different mechanism and was not subject to Edison’s patents and dealt with years of suing and litigations collecting money mainly from importers (Biograph Asso­ciation of Licensees).

There was Essanay Studios, the first major outfit to lure Charlie Chaplin away from his Mack Sennett roots with a thick, yummy contract. Kalem Studios, the first to try to make Ben Hur into a movie. Selig Studios, which launched the careers of Tom Mix and Harold Lloyd before gradually becoming a zoo (literally). Lubin, based out of Philadelphia. Vitagraph, which was later bought out by Warner Brothers and used to move Looney Tunes cartoons. And American Pathé, the US wing of France’s (and really Europe’s) biggest studio.

That was it, that was the Motion Picture Patents Company – six studios teaming up with Edison and setting up a system that would keep everyone else out of the business.


The oligopoly

But as the market approached chaos and less films were produced due to spending time in legal issues, Edison and AM&B decided to unite licensing forces and created in 1907-1908 the Motion Picture Patents Corporation (MPPC, also known as the Edison Trust). They also tried to limit importations and while Mélies, Pathé and Gaumont were ok, Italian films and Nordisk were banned.

The MPPC hoped to control all three phases of the industry: production, distribution, and exhibition. Only licensed companies could make films. Only licensed dis­tribution firms could release them. And all theaters want­ing films made by members of the MPPC had to pay a weekly fee for the privilege. Eastman Kodak agreed to sell film stock only to members of the MPPC, and in re­turn they would buy no stock except from Kodak.

The independents

That little loop meant functionality and protest.
That little loop meant functionality and protest.

But one third of theaters refused to pay the fee, serving a market for independent producers and distributors. In 1909, Carl Laemmle turned in his license and created the Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP), a small firm that would later form the basis of Universal Studios. These independent companies claimed to use cameras with different mechanisms, and thus the MPPC hired detectives to gain evidence that producers were using cameras with the Latham loop and other devices patented by the MPPC. But the second severe blow to the MPPC came when court ruled that the technique of the Latham film loop had been anticipated in earlier patents, so now everybody could use any kind of camera freely. Also in 1915, the American government ruled against the MPPC as a trust (a group of com­panies acting in unfair constraint of trade)… so there you go Edison, nice try.

Independent film companies had already been forming another oligopoly themselves, the new oligopoly that would become the Hollywood film industry. These were the plucky, fresh-faced independents who beat out Edison and the MPPC, and because of whom today we face a different oligopoly of media; not because of patent-related dickheadery, but because of an increasingly corporate culture, one that does not appear poised to change gears anytime soon. So… yeah.

The Independent "Pirates": Adolph Zukor (Paramount), William Fox (Twenty Century Fox), Carl Laemmle (Universal), Samuel Goldwyn (MGM), William Wadsworth Hodkinson (Paramount). Defied the law and didn
The Independent “Pirates”: Adolph Zukor (Paramount), William Fox (Twenty Century Fox), Carl Laemmle (Universal), Samuel Goldwyn (MGM), William Wadsworth Hodkinson (Paramount). Defied the law and didn’t pay Edison’s MPPC Patents.

1910: The Move to Hollywood

By 1910 productions began to move from New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Philadelphia to Florida and, especially, Los Angeles. The reasons were:

  • Weather: Its clear, dry weather permitted filming outdoors most days of the year.
  • Diversity of Locations: Southern California offered a variety of landscapes, including ocean, desert, mountain, forest, and hillside. Also, Westerns emerged as one of the most popular American genres and such films looked more authentic when filmed in the real West rather than in New Jersey.
  • Escaping the Patent Wars in New York
  • Assembly line of production:  Europe was devastated by war and could never catch up to Hollywood’s mass production industrial system were everything was controlled (production, distribution and exhibition).

Not only was Southern California the best guarantee of sunshine in the country, along with a bountiful variety of natural topography for different movie genres, but it was an entire nation away from Edison and the other MPPC companies, which were all located in the northeast. As an added bonus, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, was not known for enforcing patent law.


1920s: The Roaring Twenties

In contrast to this fiscal conservatism, society seemed to lose much of its restraint during the Roaring Twenties. The passage of the Volstead Act (1919), outlawing all forms of alcoholic beverages, led to the ex­cesses of the age of Prohibition. Bootleg liquor was readily available, and outing the law by visiting speakeasies or attending wild drinking parties became common even among the upper classes. The film industry benefited from the high level of capital available during this period, and its films reflected the fast pace of life in the Jazz Age and the arrival of sound to movies.

Vertical Integration

The most obvious indication of the growth of the film industry was its increasing vertical integration. The biggest firms jockeyed for power by combining produc­tion and distribution with expanding chains of theaters. This three-tiered vertical integration guaranteed that a company’s films would find distribution and ex­hibition. The bigger the theater chain owned by the firm, the wider its films’ exposure would be. In dealing with the theaters they did not own, they employed block booking, which meant that any ex­hibitor who wanted certain films with high box-office potential had to rent other, less desirable films from the same company.

Vertical integration was an important factor that contributed to Hollywood’s international power. During this same period, Germany was just beginning to develop a vertically integrated film industry. France’s leading firm, Pathé, was backing away from ver­tical integration by moving out of production. No other country developed a studio system as strong as that of the United States.

Big Three and Little Five

The vertically integrated firms that controlled big the­ater chains and constituted the Big Three at the top of the American film industry were:

  • Paramount-Publix,
  • Loew’s MGM, and
  • First National.

Trailing behind them, but still important, were the Little Five, firms that owned few or no theaters:

  • Universal,
  • Fox,
  • the Producers Distributing Corporation,
  • the Film Booking Office, and
  • Warner Bros.

Assembly line production style

The studios developed methods of making films as efficiently as possible. By 1914, most big firms had differentiated between the di­rector, who was responsible for shooting the film, and the producer, who oversaw the entire production. A series of films could be made simultaneously on sets built side by side. The labor of filmmaking was increasingly divided among expert practitioners. The continuity script also al­lowed people working on the film to coordinate their efforts, even though they might never communicate di­rectly with each other. Again, no other country could match Hollywood’s approach. Few firms employed so many different film specialists, and only a small number of studios outside the United States could boast of facilities as extensive as those of big companies like Paramount.


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Cinema of attractions in the 19th Century.

Cinema of attractions in the 19th Century.

Long before film existed the human mind had the ability to play out visual narratives based on the physical constraints of our eyes. Film is an externalization of that ability, where we see outside of our bodies what had previously be confined in our minds. But when did we start creating films and pursuing the capture of movement?

Tom Gunning introduced the term «cinema of attractions». As he puts it:

«the cinema of attractions solicits a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging the viewer’s curiosity.»

Instead of having the audiences focusing on the narrative, films encourage the audiences to remain aware of the act of looking, the impulse and excitement from the image. Obviously, this is very true for the early cinema, when there is not really a narrative involved in the films. Film was first invented to create visual pleasure. At this stage the camera is still, usually only at one angle mimicking theatrical representations.

1890s. The idea

Back in the 1890s, wealthy tycoons had a dispute on whether a horse ever had its four legs up when galloping or not and hired Muybridge to photograph every instant and capture its movement. This is the first time movement was purposely exposed to a camera and the catharsis that will lead to moving pictures.


1900s. The early approaches

Americans will say that Edison invented cinema, while Europeans will say it was the Lumière Brothers. In my opinion, although I may also be unwillingly biased, cinema must imply projecting/broadcasting, and thus I credit the Lumière Brothers for it. But let’s not forget Edison’s implication.

Thomas Edison

After having seen what Muybridge was able to capture from the horse’s movement, Thomas Edison established in the U.S.A. its own studio, usually referred to as The Black Maria. Interested in spectacle, he would shoot short movies in the dark environment of The Black Maria, and would later project them in a Kinetoscope for the public to see. The Kinetoscope was his and his colleague’s (William Kennedy Laurie Dickson) own invention to be able to recreate action. This early motion picture device was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peephole viewer window at the top of the device. It was, therefore, not a movie projector, but it introduced the basic approach of cinema, by creating the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter.

Lumière Brothers

Although The Lumière Brothers are known as the first filmmakers in history for mass media productions, they patented the cinematograph on 1895, a newer version from Léon Guillaume Bouly’s 1893 patent. On the contrary to Edison’s approach, the cinematograph did have a projector to screen the movies, and their films were based on everyday life events, even traveling around the world to bring to Europeans «actualities» of other cultures. Effects, if any, were merely accidents, like the film Demolition of a Wall (1896) that was played backwards becoming the first reverse motion film in history.

Actualities are mainly common events that have no narrative or script. Probably their most important film is The Arrival of the Train at the Station (1885). A simple film of a train entering the station was projected and enjoyed my many as something extraordinary, and it was for the time. Some say people, not used to moving pictures, ran out of the theatre in terror, but that’s nonsense. Remember these movies were black and white and one does not instantly think a train is coming up and «oh hey, I’m colorblind». People knew what were in for and enjoyed the time at the theatre. Although most of the Lumière Brother films were non-scripted, there is an exception. The Watered Watered (or The Sprinkler Sprinkled) (1895) is the first scripted comedy to be projected. It portrays a simple practical joke in which a gardener is tormented by a boy who steps on the hose that the gardener is using to water his plants, cutting off the water flow. Louis Lumière used his own gardener, François Clerc, to portray the gardener.

Other films by the Lumière Brothers include:

La sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Factory)

and Repas de bébé (Baby’s Meal)

George Mèlies. The magician of cinema

The Lumière Brother stated that:

«cinema is an invention without any future»

and sold their camera to George Mèlies, who would become the father of special effects. He sought to present spectacles of a kind not possible in live theatre. That is the reason behind so many primitive cinematic effects in his productions that were, at the time, surprising and enchanting.

In his film Trip to the Moon (1901), objects and people suddenly appear and disappear in an effect now known as stop motion. He came to this idea after processing a film that got jammed, and understood that there was an infinite world of possibilities in film by manipulating and distorting time and space. These tricks had to be accomplished in the camera, while filming; prior to the mid-1 920s, few laboratory manipulations were possible. George Mèlies also pioneered double exposure and fading, by dragging the lightly processed end of a film strip onto the beginning of the next, thus creating a cross-dissolve effect between the two.

In order to be able to control the mise-en-scène and cinematography of his films, Mèlies built a small glass­ enclosed studio.

Edwin S. Porter

Porter was a film projectionist and an expert at building photographic equipment. In late 1900, he went to work for Edison, whom he greatly admired. He was assigned to improve the firm’s cameras and projectors. That year the Edison Company built a new glass­ enclosed rooftop studio in New York, where films could be shot using the typical painted stage-style scenery of the era. In early 1901, Porter began operating a camera there. At this point in cinema history, the cameraman was also the film’s director, and soon Porter was responsible for many of the company’s most popular films.

He tried to emulate Mèlies’s trick photography and incorporated these techniques into his productions. He would extensively use mattes to mask out parts of a frame. In The Great Train Robbery (1903), film that would become the most influential of that decade, he creates a background for the train window by actually cutting away the window from every frame and overlapping the film strip onto a different one. Also, he does use different shots or camera angles (eleven in total) in one single scene and introduces the concept of inter-cutting (or cross-cutting) between to two events that happen simultaneously in different locations. Although Porter never cuts back and forth among these locales, a few years later filmmakers would begin to do so.

Next: 1900s: The Beginning of Cinema Industry in Europe