OPTIMISM AND GROWTH: THE EARLY YEARS
Australians embraced film from the beginning. Edison's "kinetoscope" 31 mm film-viewers arrived in Sydney in November 1884. Over the next five months, twenty-five thousand Australians viewed the machines. In 1898, Henry Lawson's "The Australian Cinematograph" was published, and the story's imaginative use of color and movement encouraged the film historian Ina Bertrand to describe it as "Australia's first screenplay." Lawson's story appeared two years after Australia's first film, Passengers Alighting from the Paddle Steamer "Brighton" at Manly , which was filmed by the Frenchman Marius Sestier (1861–1928) in October 1896. However, it was Sestier's next venture the following month, at the Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, that captured the public imagination when he filmed a number of races, including the Melbourne Cup race of 1896. Unfortunately, Sestier did not believe that there was much future in his occupation, and he left the country with the negative; it was not until 1969 that a copy of the film was presented to the National Film Library in Canberra.
Early film production came from an unlikely source, the Limelight Department of the Salvation Army. Beginning in 1891, the Limelight Department, under the supervision of its chief technician, Joseph Perry (1863–1943), developed slides to accompany religious presentations (it "officially" opened on 11 June 1892). In 1897 Perry began using motion pictures, and he established Australia's first film studio behind the Salvation Army's Bourke Street headquarters in Melbourne, where Commandant Herbert Booth scripted and directed "feature length" presentations of one-minute films and slides. The most well known was Soldiers of the Cross , a lecture on the Christian martyrs that consisted of 15 one-minute films and 220 slides, first screened on 13 September 1900. The popularity of these films encouraged the Salvation Army to undertake secular projects, and in 1901 it produced a thirty-five-minute film, The Inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth , on behalf of the New South Wales government.
The Story of the Kelly Gang , Australia's first fully integrated, secular, fictional narrative film, appeared in 1906. Stage productions dramatizing the exploits of Australia's most famous bushranger, Ned Kelly, were common even before his hanging in 1880, and J. & N. Tait, which held the stage rights to the exploits of the Kelly Gang, encouraged the Melbourne chemists Milliard Johnson and William Gibson to make a film on Kelly's life up to the point where he was captured by the police at the Glenrowan Hotel. With a budget of £1,000, filming took place over a series of weekends in the bush around Melbourne. Although the running time at the first screening on 26 December 1906 was reported to be forty minutes, advertisements for the film claimed its length to be approximately four thousand feet, or sixty-seven minutes, provoking speculation that this was the world's first feature film. The film enjoyed great success in Australia and Britain, where it was advertised as the longest film ever made. It also encouraged the development of the "bushranging genre," Australia's most popular film genre until it was banned by the New South Wales Police Department in 1912. The police justified the ban on the basis that bushranging films ridiculed the law and transformed lawbreakers into heroes. The police claimed that such films would have a negative effect on children and teenagers. The ban lasted until the 1940s.
Australia was a prolific producer of relatively long films between 1906 and 1912. For example, in 1911, when the film industries in the United States and Britain concentrated mainly on short films, more than twenty Australian films exceeded three thousand feet, with nearly half of them greater than four thousand feet. This boom in local production did not last, and during World War I, Hollywood began to dominate Australian screens. By 1920, Australasian Films controlled nearly three-quarters of local exhibition under its Union Theatres banner, and it demonstrated only a sporadic interest in local production. Its main competitor, Hoyts Pictures, was even less interested in local production. In the 1950s Hoyts and Australasian's successor, Greater Union Organisation, was joined by a third national chain, Village Theatres, which became active in the financing and distribution of Australian films in the early 1970s.