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Sunday, April 22, 2012


By Bill Timoney
From the Spring 2011
New York Actor
SAG Magazine

“The movie business began in New
Jersey, but moved to Southern
California because the weather was better

Most people consider the preceding
statement an accurate description of the
birth of the American cinema, but it’s not.
The wrong part is the “because” part.
Did movies begin in New Jersey? Yes.
Inventor Thomas Edison — working
in his West Orange, N.J. lab between
1891 and 1893 — took out patents on
his Kinetoscope and
Kinetograph inventions
that he claimed made
him the father of the
motion picture.

Does Southern
California have
“better” weather than
the Garden State? It
undeniably has more
days of sunshine, which
early filmmakers relied
upon to light their

Edison’s motion
pictures were shown
in coin-operated
machines that preceded
the nickelodeons. His
invention became so
popular that other
businessmen entered
the booming market
seeking to profit from
a public’s insatiable
hunger for this new
form of entertainment.
But Edison fought
these new film
companies, most of
which were based
across the Hudson
River in Manhattan
and adjoining towns.

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He claimed anybody who made, sold or
showed a film owed him money. If you
picked up a camera and exposed a frame
of film, you had to pay Thomas Edison.
Edison attacked the competing film
companies, such as Vitagraph, Kalem,
Selig and others, with lawsuits, which
cost them time and money to battle. So, in
1908, the heads of these companies met
to determine if they could pool enough of
their own filmmaking patents to challenge
Edison’s annoying legal threats. But they
were surprised when an uninvited guest
showed up at their meeting — Thomas
Edison offered his competitors a deal:
He’d stop beating them with lawsuits
if they’d join him. In September 1908,
Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company
was born. The member companies agreed
to make motion pictures the Edison way
— single-reel running time only, with no
artistic aspirations. They also agreed to
pay Edison a piece of their earnings. In
return, Edison gave trust members — and
only trust members — permission to make
and distribute films. The trust would not
permit new members to join, and only
licensed exhibitors would be allowed to
show motion pictures — trust motion
But many exhibitors objected to the
trust’s licensing terms, and many fledgling
filmmakers banned from ever joining the
trust still wanted to make films. So they
declared themselves independent of the
trust in open defiance of Edison.
Indie exhibitors like Adolph Zukor
and William Fox bought films from
Europe, where works of multi-reeled
artistic achievement had been made and
distributed to great acclaim. Indie film
producers like Carl Laemmle bought film
stock and camera equipment from Europe
and made their own product to sell to
independent exhibitors.
Laemmle took
particular delight in
defying Edison’s trust.
He named his company
IMP, which he claimed
stood for Independent
Motion Pictures. But the
company’s logo revealed
the true intention behind
the company name: it
showed an impish creature
bedeviling what looked
suspiciously like the Edison
Trust logo!
Edison attempted to drive
the independent filmmakers
out of business by forming
the General Film Company.
GFC lawyers attacked
the indie filmmakers and
exhibitors with lawsuits.
The GFC also employed
thugs who enforced
Edison’s trust through
intimidation. GFC enforcers
confiscated unlicensed films
arriving at the East Coast
docks from Europe. They
destroyed equipment and
threatened actors. They
assaulted exhibitors and
burned down exhibition
halls. They terrorized every
independent they could find.
But they had to find them first.
The determined independents stayed
in business by staying one step ahead
of the GFC. Since Edison was based in
New Jersey, the independents made films
elsewhere. They forced Edison to hire
more lawyers and more thugs as they kept
moving beyond his reach.
The independents became adept at
quickly setting up, shooting and striking
a location before trust goons could be

tipped off to their presence. They moved
so fast that it might be argued that the
nickname “movies” was coined for them.
In fact, audiences began to refer to films as
“movies” as early as 1906, and by 1912 it
was in popular use, although discouraged
as vulgar by the industry.
The independents finally settled in
Southern California because, well, the
Pacific Ocean stopped them from going
any farther. Proximity to the Mexican
border came in handy when they got
advance word that GFC thugs were
approaching. When a young director
named Cecil B. DeMille wore a holstered
six-gun while making The Squaw Man in
Los Angeles, he wore it in case he had to
defend his cast and crew from the GFC.
The Squaw Man was made and released
early in 1914, around the time the Panama
Canal opened. A large harbor was dug
in Long Beach, Calif., just south of Los
Angeles, to accommodate large ships
arriving from Europe through the canal.
Now independents could get equipment
shipped directly, avoiding the East Coast
harbors guarded by Edison’s enforcers.
Edison would need to spend even more
time and money expanding his GFC across
the entire country.
Then a San Francisco court declared
Edison’s MPPC to be an illegal
monopoly. That ruling, combined with
the independents’ five-year war of
attrition, prompted Edison’s surrender.  He
disbanded his MPPC trust and gave up his
claim to a motion picture monopoly.
The independents chose to remain in
Southern California, where the name
Zukor became synonymous with the preexisting Paramount Pictures, the original
William Fox Corporation gave birth in the
1930s to 20th Century-Fox, and Laemmle
built his theme park-like Universal
By 1915, when the new Universal
Studios formally opened, the war was
over. Edison retained his claim to the title
“father of the motion picture,” and the
independents now had an unrestricted
right to make movies. They also had a new
base of operations, a place that offered
more varied and exotic filming locations
than the East Coast — a place that would
soon come to be known as Hollywood, no
matter whether it really was Culver City or
So yes, the American Cinema began
in New Jersey and relocated to Southern
California. But as to why it went west,
sunshine had nothing to do with it.
A SAG member since 1978, Bill Timoney
recommends that those interested in this
topic read the essential work “Early
American Cinema” by the great film
historian Anthony Slide (Scarecrow
Press). Also recommended is the multivolume “The History of The American
Cinema” (University of California Press),
particularly the first two volumes — “The
Emergence of Cinema: The American
Screen to 1907” by Charles Musser, and
“The Transformation of Cinema 1907-
1915” by Eileen Bowser.

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