The history of motion pictures

The purpose of this lecture:

1. to provide a brief overview of the development of motion pictures

2. with an emphasis on the economic culture that developed historically.

3. This has meant an emphasis on profits and

4. an avoidance of controversy.



I. Early moving pictures

Note the term used in the early days of the industry: Moving pictures. Pictures that movied. From the 1850s on, there had been experimentation by photographers and others in reproducing human motion. First short motion pictures arrived in the 1890s.

In their first phase, motion pictures emphasized just movement. There was no sound, usually no plot and no story. Just movement. One of the earliest movie shorts was a collection of 15-30 second scenarios created by the Lumiere Brothers, in France. The first movie "shows," which lasted 5-8 minutes, were a collection of these short scenes: a train arriving at a station, a man watering his garden, men playing cards, people getting off of a ferry boat and a street vendor selling his wares. The early Lumiere presentations in Paris delighted people, drawing huge crowds.

In the United States, at the same time, Thomas A. Edison was producing similar short shows (water going over Niagara Falls, waves crashing at the ocean, two trains colliding).

By todayís standards, these early movies were extremely primitive. Weíve become accustomed to fairly elaborate movie effects (think of the Star War movie series, or the James Bond movies). However, for people at the start of the movie era, even these somewhat primitive films were exciting and highly realistic. For many Americans, the movies brought them their view view of a street car, or of the Pacific or Atlantic oceans. All of this seemed quite real to motion picture viewers. In one film, a train pulled into a station -- coming directly at the viewers. Some theater viewers were scared, thinking the train would come right into the theater; some in front rows panicked and ran out.

This first phase of the motion pictures, in the late 1890s and into the 1900s, emphasized reproducing human motion. The second phase, telling a story, began to emerge around 1900. Film makers moved beyond the technical aspects of just showing motino and began to tell stories. Edwin Porterís 1903 film, "The Great Train Robbery" is a good example of the story telling nature of films. It is the story of a robbery, with a chase scene and the inevitable capture of the robbers.

These early films were quite short, running 5 to 8 minutes long; they were called "one reelers" (they were just one reel of film). In the U.S., these films were produced by a handful of small companies just outside of New York City (Biograph, Essenay, Lubin, Pathe Brothers, Selig, Polyscope, Vitagraph, Edison and Melies).

One of the more dynamic early directors was David Wark Griffith. He worked for Biograph in New Jersey and produced literally hundreds of one-reelres in the period from 1908 to 1912. A director like Griffith might be expected to produce at least two one-reel movies a week. The names of the actors were not released, for fear they would become stars and want higher salaries.

One early Griffith film was "The Lonedale Operator," in 1911. It starred Blanche Sweet; she outsmarted the desperados. This video demonstrates some of Griffithís innovative techniques, including cross cutting (cutting from one scene to another scene, and then back and forth, to develop various parts of a story and to build suspense) and closeups. Some early movie company owners objected to closeups, arguing that paying movie viewers would want to see the ENTIRE person. Closeups, however, could bring drama.

II. The Rise of Hollywood

Griffith and others in the industry wanted to move beyond the simple formula that characterized the industry in the early 1900s. But industry owners were resistant, wanting to keep to one-reelers and limited story telling. These owners monopolized the industry, thorugh patents on key machinery and cameras and through control over distribution.

Consequently, the dissidents left the East completely and moved about as far away as they could get -- to Los Angeles. Well, to a rural area near Los Angeles -- where there the weather was good (lots of sunshine, little rain, so ideal for outside movie work) and plentiful barns (on farms) for inside work. This was Beverly Hills. In Hollywood, Griffith and others began to experiment with longer films, and Griffith produced the first successful full-length feature film.

Birth of a Nation

This was the first successful full-length feature film. It cost $100,000 to make (a lot of money in those days, particularly in a small industry such as the movie industry) but it brought in $18 million in revenues. It ran over 3 hours, was popular, controversial and established Griffith as one of the nationís leading directors. Technically, it was of high quality, with close ups, cross cutting, fadeouts, dramatic lighting. It was a powerful story told with exciting techniques.

It was also a highly racist story. The movie was adapted from a book, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon. In the 1905 novel, Dixon wrote about two familes -- the Camerons of South Carolina and the Stonemans of Pennsylvania. In the 1850s, the two families had become friends; the children of the two families had met; the men had become good friends and some of the family children had fallen in love. Even though the Civil War divides the nation and puts these families on opposite sides, they do not lose their friendship or respect for one another. These are very civilized people.

The problem, as Dixon saw it, and as Griffith would present it in his movie, was the "American Negro." Early scenes in the movie provide an historical overview for the entire era; one early scene shows the first slaves arriving in America and the subtitles note: "The bringing of the African to America planted the first seeds of disunion." "True" union is achieved by the end of the movie, when the two families are re-united thorugh marriage and through white supremacy over blacks.

The controversy over the movie comes from its idealized portrayal of slavery before the Civil War and its highly negative view of freed blacks after the war. The movie shows Northern Radicals (after Lincolnís death) giving too much power to blacks. Blacks are shown as little more than savages, with black men lusting after white women and a variety of other examples of the incompetence or venality of African Americans (shoving whites off sidewalks, running rampant in legislatures).

The movie shows the South Carolina state legisltaure under black control (the subtitle notes that there are 102 blacks and just 23 whites in the legislature). The legislature and its black members are crazed. Black legislators are shown with their shoes off, guzzling booze and eating huge pieces of meant in a sloppy manner. They are also shown leering at white women.

The movie shows a state of near anarchy, with a mulatto (part black, part white), Lt. Gov. Lynch, exercising vast power. He threatens the beautiful white daughter of the Stoneman family.

Whites unite to defend themselves, their honor and their property. The Ku Klux Klan is born and is presented as an honorable and necessary institution. At first, the KKK is ineffective but one event galvanizes the whites: the death of Flora Cameron. She jumps to her death to escape Gus, a former Cameron slave who has joined the black frenzy. Rather than be ravished by Gus, Flora willingly jumps to her death. The Klan later kills Gus.

The KKK saves others from black mobs, too, and restores order.

The racism of the movie led to protests when it was shown and, in some cities, riots. Others objected to the fact that most of the "blacks" who appeared in the movie were really whites in blackface.

The significance of Birth of a Nation

With "Birth of a Nation," movies arrived in America as a middle class medium (despite the racism of the film). The movie demonstrated the power and popularity of movies; it also showed that huge profits could be made.

III. Rise of the Star System

Early films, in the East, had not named the actors for fear of creating stars (and thus raising salaries). As Hollywood grew, in the period after 1912, the industry came to rely increasingly on stars to bring people back to the movies again and again.

Directors would use revenues from a current movie to fund their next project; so each movie needed to make money. A sure way of making money is to use star-power; stars will draw people again and again.

Early stars included Charlie Chaplin. In 1913, he was making just $130 a week, but by 1914, he was getting $10,000 a week ($500,000 a year, at a time when there was no federal income tax). He also got a signing bonus of $150,000.

Other stars included Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Fatty Arbuckle and the Keystone Cops.

By the 1920s, Hollywood studios were relying on stars to carry the movies -- and even creating stars when needed. Theda Bara was such created star. Born Theodosia Goodman, she was the daughter of a Cincinnati tailor. She was transformed by one studio into "Theda Bara" -- an anagram for "Arab Death." She was purportedly the love child of a French artist and his Arabian lover.

Other stars benefited from the star hype. Rudolph Valentino was highly popular with women, although his popularity was starting to wane some around 1925. In 1926, he became ill and died of peritonitis. He had four movies still to be released and had diminishing popularity. So his movie studio resorted to major marketing of his funeral, paying women to be hysterical mourners (fainting, screaming, etc.). His girl friend suddenly appeared (she had been too busy to see him when he was on his deathbed) and fainted at his funeral. His first wife, Jean Archer, claimed to have been spirited to his deathbed by none other than the Angel of Death himself. When Valentino died, his esate was $500,000 in debt; with just his portion of the movie profits, his estate made $1.2 million from the four remaining movies.

Creating stars continues: Monkees in the 1960s, Village People in the 1970s, Milli Vanilla in the 1990s and many of the "boy bands" in the late 1990s.

Stars (whether "created" like Theda Bara or the Monkees, or people who achieve stardom due to their abilities as actors) remain a staple of contemporary movies -- and one of the surest ways of making a movie a success.

IV. Structure of the movie industry

Concentration of ownership long ahs been a characteristic of the movie industry.

1. Edison and the Trust. Edison and several business allies controlled the industry in the pre-Hollywood era. The result of their control on content: one reelers, no stars, very simple, short stories.

2. Adolph Zukor. After a short period of flux in Hollywood in the early nineteen-teens, Adolph Zukor emerged as the key controller of the movies between 1917 and 1927. Zukorís ability to control the industry came from his deal-making and his sense of vertical integration. (a) He controlled production through contracts with stars, directors and producers -- with Famous Players Lasky. Under contract to him were: Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, William S. Hart, Fatty Arbuckle, D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, Thomas Ince, Blanche Sweet and Cecil B. Demille. (b) He controlled distribution through Paramount and (c) his holdings included theaters [exhibition]. He had 303 theaters in the U.S. by 1921. Vertical integration: production, distribution, exhibition.

3. The coming of Sound; the Big 6.

With the coming of sound c 1927-28, control in the industry shifted to a few studios (about 6 in all): Loews, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Columbia and Universal (A few others would emerge in the 1930s).

These companies did not control all of exhibition, but they had about 25% to 33% of it (mostly at first run theaters). They controlled distribution and production.

V. Caution, Self censorship

Not a very daring industry.

Fearful of government regulation, the industry from the 1920s on has engaged in self censorship (ranging from in-house censors to the current rating system). The industy has also cooperated with some external ratings sytems, most of all that set up by the Legion of Decency in the 1930s.

Industry has attempted to please mainstream public taste and to avoid controversy that will hurt it financially.

Least Offensive Programming (LOP)

Lowest Common Denominator (LCD)


VI. Business Practices.

The Golden Age of Motion Pictures

1928-1948. Golden Age of American Motion Pictures. Attendance was going up steadily and there were some great movies. Movies were primarily entertainment in nature (rather than serious or informative documentaries). They steered clear of controversy; they generally avoided depressing topics or too much realism. This was the dream factory.

Several components

1. Formula.

Movies began to develop into a series of formulas, each of which was successful (although each formula might move in and out of popularity).

Formulas included

2. Block Booking.

Films were sold in blocks; exhibitors had to take the entire block. Take it or leave it mentality; exhibitors had little or no bargaining power.

3. Blind selling.

Exhibitors did not know the composition of the entire block.

VII. Post World War II Movies.

Movie attendance had grown steadily after the coming of sound; but in the period after World War II, movie attendance plummeted. Between 1945 and 1948, an average of 90 million tickets were sold each week; that dropped to a low of 45 million tickets in 1960. What happpened?

1. Television

Television became a functional, at-home, equivalent to the movies. Easy to use. As Americans moved to the suburbs and began having families in the late 1940s and early 1950s, going to the movies involved more effort (getting a baby sitter, etc.). Meanwhile, television programming was improving (with the rise of professional sports on TV, some theater and even opera).

2. Movie costs soar

Inflation, rising costs plague Hollywood.

3. Vertical integration ends

The federal government broke up Hollywoodís hold on exhibition in the late 1940s, when it forced the studios to sell off their theaters. The rationale: the studios were operating as a monopoly. The loss of theaters hurt greatly in an era of rising costs; theaters could be very lucrative for ancillary products (popcorn, drinks). Studios no longer had a guaranteed outlet for the exhibition of their films.

4. Innovation.

The movie industry responded, trying to woo viewers back with increasingly sophisticated technicques. These include wide screen (Cinerama) form 1952 on (using three projects and a curved screen, enhancing the illusion of depth); 3-D movies (Bwana Devil, 1952) -- a surprising hit and Aromarama (smells released from your chair, to correspond to scenes on the screen. e.g., jungle smells, incense, etc. Another version of this was Smellovision. Referred to as "the smellies."

Other innovations included the drive in, reflecting Americaís love of movies and of their cars. 1946 there were just 100 in the US; 5,000 by 1956. Family night for $1 (for as many people as you could get into your car).

The Province of Quebec, in Canada, banned construction of outdoor theaters until the 1960s -- they were referred to derisively by legislators there as "passion pits."

5. Emphasis on blockbusters

In an era of increased competition from other media (such as TV), movie industry made fewer movies but went for the big hit -- the big blockbuster that was sure to pull in a lot of people and do well at the box office. Movies such as The Robe, Ben Hur were huge, expensive spectacles that did enormously well at the box office.

6. Emphasis on formulas

Using surveys to ascertain public interest, Hollywood began to create niche or segment movies.


VIII. Hollywood Revival

1. Switch to TV production.

By 1959, Hollywood was a TV town.

Time magazine noted that a single Hollywood show for TV (NBCís Matinee Theater) hired 2400 actors a year for speaking parts, which was 50 % more than the players used by Warner and Paramount studios combined in all of their 1956 movies. The NBC show used 250 scrips a year (as many as the major studios combined for movies).

TV emerges as the biggest money maker for Hollywood. Production companies such as Desilu turned out more footage for TV than the combined output of the five major movie studios.

2. Selling old films to TV.

By 1958, an estimated 3700 feature films had been sold or leased to TV for an estimated $220 million.

3. Home Video

By the mid 1980s, the home video revolution had swept the coutnry. Sony introudced its Betamax half inch home video cassette recorder (VCR) in 1975. Originally priced at more than $1000 (double that in todayís dollars), the cost of a Beta machine and their newer rivals from VHS dropped to just over $300 a machine by the mid 1980s.

An enthusiastic public snapped up the machines. By 1989, two thirds of American homes were equipped to tape off the air or to run pre recorded tapes.

At first, Hollywood loathed the VCR, figuring it would undermine revenues. The studios vastly underestimated the demand for movies-at-home and tried to sell prerecorded movies to the public for $60 and up. Fewer buyers. The significant breakthrough came in the early 1980s, when local entrepreneurs throughout the US began to buy multiple copies of pre recorded movies and to rent them to the public. The terms varied, but usually one had to join a movie club and then rent the tape for $1 or $2 a day. By the mid 1980s, stores renting video tapes seemed to be popping up on every street corner. Even grocery stores have jumped into the buisness.

Hollywood finally saw the value in the tend. In 1986, the returns from ancillary video sidelines exceeded the take at the US box office. During the mid 1980s, about 400 new pre recorded cassettes were being released each month.

If any medium has suffered from this, it has not been the movies -- rather TV.