Film Industry, History of

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The process of getting from the early "magic lantern" inventions to the modern motion picture industry has involved a multitude of incremental steps taken to advance both the technology of film and the economic structure that supports the creation, distribution, and exhibition of films. Specific important inventions include the lightbulb, photography, flexible film, the motion picture camera, and the film projector.

Early Photography

Joseph Niépce, Louis Daguerre, and William Henry Fox Talbot are the three major inventors who worked to develop the techniques of photography during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Niépce and Daguerre eventually became partners in France and worked to refine the techniques of photography that are the predecessors of modern instant photography. Talbot, an Englishman who was not aware of the work of Niépce and Daguerre, discovered a method of photography that enabled the making of multiple prints through the use of a negative. It is Talbot's technique that is most akin to the photography process that is used in the modern film industry.

In the 1870s, Eadweard Muybridge, a British-born photographer, created the first "motion picture" by using a series of twenty-four cameras set at one-foot intervals to photograph a horse as it galloped along a racetrack. As the horse passed each camera, its hooves tripped threads that were attached to each of the cameras, thereby creating a series of twenty-four images that showed a horse in motion.

Film Inventions

In 1882, Étienne-Jules Marey became the first person to eliminate the need for multiple cameras. The French inventor did this by capturing motion with a photographic gun that initially used a glass plate that rotated like a gun barrel to capture the pictures. While others subsequently developed similar primitive camera techniques to photograph motion, it was the American inventor Thomas Edison, with the help of his assistant William Dickson, who ultimately developed the basic film camera system that would become the standard equipment of the film industry. After seeing Marey's invention, Edison became convinced that the ultimate solution required a flexible film stock. Therefore, he asked George Eastman, an early leader in the creation of photographic products, to develop such a stock. Eastman successfully produced the flexible stock (patented in 1884), which, according to Edison's specifications, was thirty-five millimeters wide and had two rows of perforations (four holes per frame) that ran the length of the film. By 1892, Dickson had developed a fully efficient camera, the Kinetograph, that used sprockets to advance fifty-foot lengths of this film stock through the camera to capture films that lasted less than thirty seconds.

The Kinetograph was heavy and bulky, so it was left in a permanent studio that was built especially for it in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1893. This studio, the Black Maria, turned on a track and had a roof that opened in order to capture the light that was needed for the camera to function properly. Vaudeville acts, jugglers, boxers, and the like were brought in to perform for the camera. The films that were produced using the Kineto-graph were displayed in Kinetoscopes, machines that allowed one person at a time to look inside and view the film as it moved in front of a viewing lens. They were coin-operated machines that Edison considered to be the future of the film industry. He concentrated on selling these machines to entertainment parlors and was not particularly interested in the possibility of "projecting" the films for a larger audience to view. Projection, he reasoned, required fewer machines and would bring less financial reward.

Louis and Auguste Lumière, on the other hand, believed that projection would be profitable. To that end, they invented a portable camera, the Cinématographe, that also was capable of projecting the finished film. In December 1895, the French brothers gave the first paid public exhibition of motion pictures (each lasting about a minute) in the basement of a Paris café. Almost immediately, the demand for their film shows resulted in the international production and distribution of their moving photographs.

Film Content

Not only was the Lumière projection method different, their subjects were also different. The Lumières and a team of photographers armed with cameras captured pictures of life as it was in the various cities and towns of the world. Other inventors followed suit, and the competition in the film industry had begun.

The early realistic subjects of the Lumière films gave audiences delight in just seeing movement captured and projected for an audience. Some of the Lumière films are critically acclaimed pieces of photographic art as well. These films were silent, but eventually, live musical accompaniment became common practice. Soon, however, audiences began to tire of the normal everyday realism as the novelty of the medium began to grow thin.

In 1896, magician Georges Méliès was filming everyday life on the streets of Paris when a camera malfunction led him to realize the potential for filmmakers to create new kinds of magic with film. He developed many kinds of special effects, including stop action, fadeouts, reverse motion, and slow motion. Perhaps because these effects worked best within the context of a story, Méliès began to make films that portrayed story lines and followed a narrative structure. His A Trip to the Moon in 1902 is probably the most famous of his stories. Such storytelling became the new attraction to the nickelodeons—small storefront projection houses that held fifty to ninety patrons, each of whom paid a nickel to see films.

Almost all films up to this point were created with a fixed camera. Under these circumstances, film content was restricted to a static presentation of the full action that took place in a specific rectangular area in front of the camera (similar to the proscenium presentation of a play performed on a stage). This all changed when Edwin Porter, another Edison assistant, filmed The Great Train Robbery in 1903. Although he followed the new storytelling trend, Porter used new techniques of editing and camera work. He edited the film so that it was clear to the audience that action was happening simultaneously in different locations. He also placed the camera on a moving train, occasionally turned the camera on its pedestal, and moved it from up to down to follow the action. This panning and tilting of the camera was a novel approach to telling a story, and its implementation by Porter signaled a major change in the art of creating motion pictures.

Almost all early films, such as those created by Porter and Méliès, were no more than one reel in length, which limited the length of the films to around ten minutes each, although many were even shorter. The audience, it was thought, could not sit through a film if it were as much as two reels in length. Another characteristic of the time was the lack of known "stars." Films were promoted by the name of the director or studio where they were made. Films might be touted because they were from Edison's company and directed by Porter, for example. Most trained stage actors during this period avoided acting in the films because movies were not seen as serious art. Actors were afraid of being pigeonholed in these less desirable roles if they were seen in a movie. Thus, there were no actors' credits and no names in lights to promote the release of a new picture.

Prior to 1910, companies were spending around $1,000 per movie for their one-reel productions. This budget covered the cost of set pieces, film, developing, editing, and the equipment needed for the production, as well as $5 per day per actor for their services. Such limited budgets meant that directors did not shoot many repeated takes to capture a scene for a film. In fact, most early movies were filmed in a couple of days.

Film Art Emerges

The history of the film industry took another major turn when a struggling playwright and stage actor, D. W. Griffith, began working in films. He made his directing debut in 1908 with the creation of The Adventures of Dollie for the Biograph Company. His early films followed many of the regular patterns that had been devised by those who came before him, but Griffith began to expand the limits of what was expected of film art. In fact, it was Griffith more than any other person who turned motion pictures into a serious art form, giving it a language that was different from the language of the stage.

Griffith, like Porter before him, realized that the standard practice of setting up a camera and having actors move into and out of a steady shot was insufficient. He realized that the lens had much more potential than the simple framing of a continual space for acting. Griffith learned to use a wide shot of the full scene to establish a setting, provide close-up shots of individual elements of the scene to direct the audience's attention, and supply medium shots to establish greater intimacy between the audience and the actors. He also learned to create specific moods or feelings by the way he juxtaposed shots, used matting to darken the edges of the frame, and paced the cuts between different shots within a scene. As this all implies, Griffith considered the basic element of moviemaking to be the individual shot rather than the entire scene. This forever changed the way movies were made. No longer could the camera act like an audience member at the theater. Now it had become an active player in the construction of the film, showing the viewers exactly what it wanted them to see from a strategically chosen angle and for a specific duration of time.

The changes that Griffith made occurred between 1910 and 1915, and they culminated in the controversial 1915 film The Birth of a Nation (based on the 1905 novel The Clansmen by Thomas Dixon). With each motion picture, Griffith had gradually convinced his backers to allow him to experiment more and more with style, form, and length. He began making films two reels and then four reels in length. Each change made making films more expensive, but in making The Birth of a Nation, Griffith shattered all records. It was the first feature-length American film, it was twelve reels long (165 minutes), and it cost a staggering $110,000 (some say as much as $125,000) to produce. However, estimates of its gross box-office revenues are around $50 million due to its artistic mastery as well as its controversial subject matter that applauds ingrained racial prejudice.

While French and Italian filmmakers had created feature-length films several years earlier, they were basically film versions of stage plays with the camera playing the role of observer rather than interpreter. These films influenced the American film scene, but the Europeans lost their lead when World War I began to limit the distribution of European films and made the chemicals necessary for their production scarce. This allowed the American film industry to surpass the European industry in influence and economic development.

During the 1910s, the star system began to emerge in America with actors, such as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, becoming bigger draws than directors. This occurred simultaneously with an increase in promotion and advertising that increased audience expectations for the films that they were going to see.

The Biograph, Vitagraph, and Edison companies (the three principal early American producers of films) joined forces by combining their patent claims and forming the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) in 1908. Through this company, they tried to exert monopoly control over the industry between 1909 and 1917, primarily through the control of their patented products. However, the proliferation of independent companies and the increasing quality of their films made pursuing alleged patent infringements difficult. Because the MPPC was based in New York, independent production companies moved to Chicago before eventually moving on to southern California, where they were even further away from the control exerted by the MPPC. Thus, Hollywood, with its proximity to vast open spaces and its whole range of topographical features from ocean to mountains, became the production center of the industry.

In the early years, prints of films were sold to distributors. Later, renting the films allowed each exhibitor to show a greater variety of films. Renting also allowed the production companies to retain ultimate control over the distribution and use of their films. As a result, block booking became a common practice, whereby exhibitors were forced to show several mediocre films produced by a company if they wanted to show the one blockbuster attraction created by the company.

The Studio System

The studio system, which flowered from the 1920s to the 1940s, featured big production companies that signed actors to exclusive multiyear contracts. Methods of mass production evolved, which resulted in products that were no longer the work of one master artist, but instead were the result of a collaboration of many artists with specialized skill. These mass-produced films, however, began to have a standard look (e.g., having large chorus lines in musicals) or formula (e.g., ending a western with a shootout where the good guy always won). Although there would be slight differences from movie to movie, they would still be just variations on proven formats. Because studios found that audiences kept coming back to see familiar products, new and unique products were more risky investments.

Synchronized sound made its first real hit in the 1927 The Jazz Singer, although the film featured fewer than four hundred spoken words. This started a shift to the new sound technology, and within three years, 95 percent of all new movies were "talkies." Many small independent exhibitors and production companies were unable to support the increased costs of production and sound technology, so they were driven out of business. Additionally, many silent screen actors found themselves out of work as the use of words to tell the story forced changes in the styles of acting and required polished voices to accompany physical expression.

During the Great Depression, movie audiences began to dwindle as economic difficulties caused them to tighten their budgets. Audiences dropped from weekly totals of ninety million to sixty million between 1930 and 1932. The industry responded with the first color film, Walt Disney's animated short film Flowers and Trees (1932), as well as with new genres such as feature documentaries, gangster movies, horror films, and musicals. Because the major studios controlled all of the production, distribution, and exhibition aspects of the business, they were guaranteed an audience for their films regardless of quality, and this contributed to the survival of the industry, mostly intact, through the Depression and World War II. This is not to say that there were no quality productions. In fact, many of the most highly regarded films of all time were created during this period, including Citizen Kane (1941), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and King Kong (1933).

Between 1945, when World War II ended, and 1948, the film industry reached its zenith with an annual production of more than four hundred movies. In 1948, however, the studios' hold on all aspects of the film business (from production through exhibition) was ended by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Paramount Pictures. This ruling, also known as the Paramount decision, forced the end of block booking and required studios to sell off their exhibition divisions. This ended guaranteed exhibition of the films that were produced by the major studios and allowed independent filmmakers to get their work to the public. At the same time, television was beginning to take hold as a new medium, giving people the ability to see entertainment at home— and many families were moving to new suburbs. These factors, along with accusations that prominent members of the film industry had Communist connections and ideologies, led to dwindling attendance at the box office.

The Television Era

As television took hold during the 1950s, the film studios initially took an adversarial position to the television industry. Studios refused to allow their stars to appear on television, boycotted television as an advertising medium, and denied the use of old films for television content. Instead, the industry changed to compete with the new medium, adopting the widescreen format and producing spectacular productions with lavish sets, thousands of actors, and grand vistas. Studios began to try to appeal to smaller segments of the audience with particular films rather than trying to appeal to everyone with every film. They also began to push the boundaries of socially acceptable taste, practice, and beliefs—something that television was restrained from doing.

In subsequent years, the film industry finally adopted the television medium as an ally rather than an opponent. This cooperation has resulted in financial profit from such things as videocassette rentals and fees for showing movies on cable television. In fact, several cable networks, such as Home Box Office (HBO) and Turner Classic Movies (TCM), have devoted almost their entire schedule to showing movies. While attendance at the box office has remained flat for the film industry, overall exposure to the products of the industry is as strong as ever (thanks to these television outlets), ensuring that the film industry will continue to be a dominant media presence.

See also:Chaplin, Charlie; Disney, Walt; Edison, Thomas Alva; Film Industry; Film Industry, Careers in; Film Industry, Production Process of; Film Industry, Technology of; Griffith, D. W.; LumiÈre, Auguste/LumiÈre, Louis; MÉliÈs, Georges; Television Broadcasting, History of.


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Black, Jay; Bryant, Jennings; and Thompson, Susan.(1997). Introduction to Media Communication, 5th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ceram, C. W. (1965). Archaeology of the Cinema. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Ellis, Jack C. (1979). A History of Film. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Rhode, Eric. (1976). A History of the Cinema. New York: Hill and Wang.

Stephen D. Perry

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