So far as most American film histories and the US Patent Office are concerned, movies in the United States began with Thomas Edison (1847–1931). First there were the patents on the Edison Kinetograph (the photographic apparatus that produced the pictures) and the Kinetoscope (the "peep show" viewing machine that exhibited them) in 1891. And then there was the first public demonstration of the Edison motion picture apparatus at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in May 1893, the place and date of what most agree was the first publicly exhibited movie. The speed at which things moved from this first showcase (which included the screening of Edison's crude moving picture Blacksmith Scene, showing three men, all Edison employees, hammering on an anvil for approximately twenty seconds) to the production of entertaining and occasionally edifying short movies was astonishingly fast. Edison had his Black Maria Studio in New Jersey fully outfitted by the time the Brooklyn Institute showcase was held. His first full slate of movies was available for screening by January of the following year.
In the spring of 1894, Edison renamed his company the Edison Manufacturing Company. The new name highlighted the business of making and selling Kinetoscope equipment that seemed so promising in 1894, and also clarified Edison's vision about the medium and his role in it. Movies were produced not by artists but by experts in the technology of motion picture production. They were made much as other products of industry were made on assembly lines, by nameless, faceless workers toiling on behalf of the company whose name was featured prominently on the product.
American cinema was initially just Edison, but domestic competition in the new medium emerged fairly soon thereafter. Viewing independent cinema as an alternative to a commercial mainstream, it is with these first companies that took on Edison that independent American cinema began. Edison's first real competitor was the American Mutoscope Company, later renamed the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (routinely referred to simply as Biograph). Biograph was a particularly irksome competitor for two reasons: (1) one of the principals in research and development at the company was William K. L. Dickson (1860–1935), an inventor who resigned from his position at Edison in 1895 after doing most of the work on the Kinetograph and the Kinetoscope; and (2) the company worked in 70mm, a superior format that provided four times the image surface of the Edison and international industry standard of 35mm. With its first slate of films, Biograph courted the carnival crowd. While Edison stuck mostly to documentary short subjects, the Biograph company founders Harry Marvin, Herman Casler, Elias Koopman, and Dickson viewed cinema as first and foremost an attraction. Their first films featured boxing bouts and demonstrations of fire-fighting equipment, but soon thereafter their "bread and butter" became crude gag films (that is, short films that played out a single comic skit).
Once the movies caught on—and it did not take long—several other film companies emerged. In December 1908, when it became clear that such a free market (of independent film producers and distributors) might quickly cost Edison his prominent role in the industry, the inventor created the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) trust. The trust linked the interests of Edison and nine of his competitors: Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Kalem, Selig Polyscope, Lubin, Star Film, Pathé Freres, and Klein Optical. The MPPC effectively exploited key industry patents on motion picture technology to fix prices, restrict the distribution and exhibition of foreign-made pictures, regulate domestic production, and control film licensing and distribution. The trust was supported by an exclusive contract with the Eastman Kodak Company, the principal and at the time the only dependable provider of raw film stock. By the end of 1908, the ten film companies comprising the MPPC owned and controlled the technology and maintained exclusive access to the raw material necessary to make movies. In 1910, the General Film Company, the key middle-man in the film production/distribution equation, joined forces with the MPPC trust, making an already strong cartel even stronger. With the help of General Film (which purchased studio films and then leased them to theaters) exhibitors could more quickly and more systematically change their programs. To meet the increase in demand for product, the studios ramped up production. Everyone made more money.
But despite such intra-and inter-industry collusion, the MPPC trust's domination of film production, distribution, and exhibition was short-lived. The first big problem for the MPPC arose in February 1911, when Kodak, miffed that it did not have a profit interest in the trust, exploited a clause in the original agreement and began to sell film stock to local independents. These independents had organized into a cartel of their own: the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Corporation (or Sales Company). The Sales Company "independents," led by Carl Laemmle (1867–1939), William Fox (1879–1952), and Adolph Zukor (1873–1976), were well organized and fiercely competitive.
After the Kodak defection, non-MPPC production units boasted record revenues; by the end of 1911 they accounted for approximately 30 percent of the film market, a reasonably large piece of the pie in the absence of fair and free trade in the film market. To attract such a considerable market share, the independents introduced an alternative product: the multi-reel picture. As early as 1911, the independents were moving toward producing feature-length films. The MPPC trust maintained throughout its existence a strict single-reel, 16-minute standard.
In a landmark case, The Motion Picture Patents Company v. IMP (Laemmle's Independent Motion Picture Company), decided in August 1912, a US Circuit Court gave the independents access to formerly licensed and restricted equipment. The victory in court put the independents on a level playing field with the MPPC. By 1914, the MPPC was out of business and the so-called independents took over. Laemmle founded Universal, Fox founded Twentieth Century Fox, and Zukor founded Paramount. In the years to follow, what independent cinema would be independent of, and from, would be the very companies that first insisted upon independence from Edison and his cartel in 1911.