Early Cinema


Early production in the preeminent film-producing nations of France, Great Britain, and the United States

The travellers arrive at their destination in Georges Méliès's Un Voyage dans la lune ( A Trip to the Moon , 1902).
has often been likened to a cottage industry. Firms tended to be fairly small and typically operated in an artisanal fashion, which restricted their ability to respond to increased demand with expanded output. When the equipment permitted it, actualités could be filmed by a single cameraperson, but a collaborative model of film-making usually prevailed for fictional works, indicating that a division of labor was deemed appropriate from the outset in the production of story films. France proved most forward-thinking in this regard, particularly the firms of Gaumont and Pathé: the latter moved to a director-unit system of production by 1906, in which numerous directors (overseen by supervising producer Ferdinand Zecca [1864–1947]) worked with their own small crews to put out a film on a weekly basis, while prints were mass-produced, courtesy of a workforce over 1,000 strong. The growth of these companies allowed them to produce films at a prodigious rate and to move beyond the relatively small market of France to become dominant internationally. Diversification of product further differentiated Pathé and Gaumont from their chief French competitor, Georges Méliès (1861–1938). Whereas Méliès tended to concentrate on trick films and féeries (elaborate story films employing fantasy), the other two companies produced a range of films, eventually incorporating melodramas and chase films into the mix. Pathé, always the most enterprising of the French firms, capitalized on the limited capacity of the major American producers of the mid-1900s (Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Selig, and Lubin) and easily dominated the US market once it started distributing its films there in 1904.

England's companies proved far less stable than those of France but still enjoyed periods of prominence, especially in the early years of the twentieth century. There were several notable firms, most of which operated on an artisanal model. These included the company headed by early pioneer Robert W. Paul, whose success in manufacturing equipment led him to film production; those producers belonging to the so-called "Brighton School," chief among them G. A. Smith (1864–1959) and James Williamson (1855–1933), as well as the most successful and durable of the British filmmakers, Cecil Hepworth (1873–1953). The stylistic range of British films was particularly impressive, incorporating the self-consciously inventive trick comedy of two films from 1900, Williamson's The Big Swallow and Hepworth's How It Feels to Be Run Over (both convincing examples of how attractions-era filmmaking could render acknowledgment of the camera's presence a source of uniquely cinematic humor, Hepworth's involving reformulation of the chase film), the enterprising use of cut-ins in Smith's Sick Kitten and transitional devices in his Mary Jane's Mishap (both from 1903), and the multi-shot Rescued by Rover (1905). The latter proved one of England's most popular productions, so much so that Hepworth had to shoot the film several times as each of the negatives wore out. In its fusing of proven plot situations (stolen child saved by heroic dog) with propulsive linear editing, Rescued by Rover points toward the last-minute rescue scenario perfected by D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) a few years later at Biograph.

In the United States, the relatively stagnant production levels before 1908 can be attributed in part to Edison's continued threats of legal reprisals for patent violation. While two firms, Kalem and Essanay, entered into production in 1907, the output of American companies lagged far behind the nickelodeon-fueled demand, allowing Pathé's films and other imports to command 75 percent of the American market. The solution to the patent infringement impasse came in the form of a patent pooling agreement reached in late 1908; after it, productivity by American firms increased significantly.

The company established to implement the conditions of this agreement was known as the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC). All the major American producers became members and complied with its policies. The MPPC aimed to control every aspect of the industry by implementing a system of royalties to be paid for use of equipment and, more importantly, by working to bring distribution practices into line with producers' desires. The MPPC aimed to curb the excesses of distribution that had contributed to industrial instability, primarily the circulation of aging prints and the reliance on duped copies. Moreover, the MPPC exerted control over exchange schedules, introducing regularly timed releases. Exchanges had to be licensed by the MPPC, ensuring that distributors would abide by schedules dictated by producers. (The MPPC extended its control over the distribution sector by taking over the licensed exchanges altogether with the formation of the General Film Company in 1910, bringing it one step closer to becoming an oligopoly.)

Though clearly working for its own monetary gain, the MPPC did effect substantial and positive changes in the American production landscape. Productivity soared from 1909 onward, in part because the MPPC limited the number of imports allowed into the domestic market, but also because its distribution reforms provided security to producers, who could now depend upon predictable delivery schedules. Even so, the MPPC-related firms failed to address all exhibitor needs. In part, these needs arose because certain exhibitors chafed against the royalties imposed upon them; further dissension appeared in the form of exchanges left out of the MPPC fold at the time of the General Film Company's formation. These disenfranchised elements within the distribution and exhibition sector constituted a sufficient percentage of the market to support the emergence of a competing faction of producers, known as the Independents, the first of which appeared in 1909. Their ranks grew over the next few years, leading to a clogged production field of more than twenty manufacturers by 1911, whose production levels were far in excess of pre-MPPC rates. The combined force of MPPC and Independent producers led to the release of over 5,000 films in 1913, the vast majority of them still single reelers.

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