Once Upon a Time…between 1890-1927.
The history of movies did not begin in Hollywood, California. After decades of advances in photographic techniques in the nineteenth century an inventor born in Milan, Ohio and raised (and homeschooled) in Port Huron, Michigan developed the motion picture system as we know it today. Thomas Edison (and his assistant William K.L. Dickson) worked together on the new invention that changed the way people viewed entertainment.
Work took Edison to Canada & Kentucky before he would eventually land in New Jersey and his inventions earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” (Dickson is also known to film historians as the filmmaker Fred Ott’s Sneeze in 1894.)
Edison held patents on over 900 of his inventions including the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph and around 1890 the film camera as we know it. Dickson developed the kinetograph, a sprocket camera and George Eastman (of Eastman-Kodak fame) developed the 35mm film that would pass through the camera and capture multiple images quickly. (A technique commonly used for the last 100+ years in the film industry.)
The main problem with the early camera was it was so large it had to be permanently housed in a studio built in West Orange, New Jersey specifically for it. The studio had a track in it that allowed them to rotate camera positions to capture light coming from an opening in a room.
It’s important to look back at the early developments in film history to how Hollywood became Hollywood as we know it and why recent inventions have shifted the direction for the future of the film industry.
In the years leading up to 1900 the popularity of film grew rapidly. First using machines that allowed people to individually watch short films and evolving to nickelodeons in 1905 that projected the film images in storefronts that allowed small groups of people to watch the same film together. Within two years there were close to 4,000 nickelodeon theaters in the U.S.
New films had to be made quickly as audiences grew. And film moved from showing vaudeville acts such as juggling to telling stories. These films were usually less than ten minutes in length and made in a couple days. In 1903 Edwin S. Porter made the 12-minute film The Great Train Robbery which was seen as groundbreaking for its use of indoor/outdoor shots and use of cross cutting. The film toured the country for years.
This all set the stage for a stage actor and playwright named D.W. Griffith in 1908 to make the film The Adventures of Dollie. Films began to grow in length as well as artistic merdits—as well becoming more economically viable.
Griffith changed the direction of the film industry in 1915 with the release of the longest and most expensive film ever made, The Birth of a Nation. The $100,000 film made $50 million dollars at the box office.
Distribution rights and patent infringements all played a roll in this emerging and profitable new industry. New Jersey, New York (as well as Chicago and Jacksonville) all played a roll in the early development of movies. The New York area and Chicago were a natural start because that’s where the stage talent was located and Jacksonville for its warmer weather and sunshine. But there would be a shift in the film industry. (A common theme we’ll see.)
The industry eventually landed in southern California because of its combination of sunshine, warm weather and the diversity of nearby locations such as mountains, deserts, oceans, cities, open ranch land—and cheap labor. Remember places like New York and Chicago had a long established theater and vaudeville companies that were very popular. Experienced talent does not come cheap. (But producers were just as interested in producing cost efficient films as producers today. So a new industry was born on the backs of those with little or no experience in the new industry. Sound familiar?)
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica by 1915 there were 15,000 people working in the film industry and 60% was located in southern California. During this time films were all black and white and silent. The format worked well for the antics of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the beauty and talent of Mary Pickford.
But that would all change as well in 1927 as talkies came on the scene as we’ll learn in Once Upon a Time… (part 3).