A Brief History of the Film Industry

In 1895 when the Lumiere Brothers first exhibited projected film in a Parisian cafe, they thought their new invention was a gimmick that would die in a few short years. They did not anticipate the creativity with which their successor would expand upon their work.


The majority of the Lumiere’s films were very simplistic by today’s standards. They were actualities, recording everyday commonplace things, or they were girls dancing or strong men flexing, or occasionally simple “gag”  stories. But they essentially depended on the novelty of the technology.


Soon after their intention debuted, however, another Frenchman named George Melies had some ideas that would take film from novelty to a medium for telling elaborate stories. Melies had a background in magic and was a showman through and through.


The Lumieres would not sell him a camera, so he made his own. One day, his homemade camera jammed, then started again. As a result, a carriage in the street seemed to disappear, thus creating the first special effect.


Melies became known for his elaborate sets and fantastic stories of magic and science fiction, most notably A Trip to the Moon (1902). But despite his great innovation, Melies still approached movies a bit like a stage play, and never fully realized the possibilities of what could be done with the camera itself.


With The Great Train Robbery (1903) Edwin S. Porter began realizing some of those possibilities. He used editing as a tool to tell the story, rather than just a necessity. His film also included one of the first times in which an actor’s entire body was not shown, or an early sort of close up.


In the time after the Lumiere premiere, a vast array of production companies had sprung up around the world, but especially in France, Germany, England and the United States. In the United States, an oligopoly had formed in the film industry, where the Motion Picture Patents Company, spearheaded by Thomas Edison, tried to control who could be in the American film business and who could not. The Motion Picture Patents Company also sought to limit it’s members from making features, since the American film industry at the time was based around short.


But the influence of longer films coming out of Italy and Germany were inescapable. In the United States, a filmmaker named D.W. Griffith was already becoming one of the most influential artists of early cinema.


He pioneered continuity editing, expressive camera, flashbacks, precursors to montage and many other pivotal elements of film language. He also became the first director to get billing. People knew who he was, he was valuable and he wanted to make longer movies. After making hundreds of short films for Biograph, he finally left and made the piece for which he is best known: The Great Train Robbery (1915), a racist epic about the Civil War, and the first major feature film made in America. It was a sensation (both positively and negatively), and the US film industry began it’s transition to feature films.


From a business standpoint, things in the US evolved as well. After a series of anti-trust lawsuits, the Motion Picture Patents Company finally fell apart. Only a few years later, however, other behemoths like Universal and Paramount formed and soon enough Hollywood was in the grips of the classical studio era.


This was a time marked by extreme power in the hands of studio executives while actors and directors were bound to a particular company, with limited creative control, for extended periods of time.

Filmmaker and entrepreneur Thomas Ince was pivotal in establishing the division of labor and continuity shooting scripts that are cornerstones of the modern Hollywood production pipeline.


The era of the movie star was already in place. It began when early production companies began receiving letters asking for more movies with “that Biograph girl” or “that Vitagraph girl.” From there it was not long before A list film actors became household names and pivotal to the branding of movies.


This time also began an exodus of the film industry from New York to the west coast. As sets became more elaborate, and studios needed more room, the open spaces and cheap real-estate of California became very appealing. Other benefits included the reliably sunny weather and the variety of landscapes within a close proximity.


As production in Europe tapered off during World War I, the American film industry stepped up to fill the void. Soon the US was the biggest film exporter in the world. Though Europe did regain some market share in the wake of the war, the US, with it’s relatable stories and high production value, would remain dominant.


Hollywood became adept at taking the best ideas, and the best filmmakers, from around the world and making them their own.   


By 1920, many of the systems were already in place that would dominate the film industry throughout the 20th century.


Elfelt, Peter” photo provided by The Film Museum


Author: Owen Essen

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