Early films dating from the 1890s were far shorter and less technically complex than feature films in the twenty-first century. As a rule, they did not require either a script or a large crew. Many were nonfictional films, known as actualités , which in some instances simply involved setting the camera up in front of a street scene (or other view), filming for a short while, developing and printing the film, and then screening it unedited. The Lumière brothers' (Augustère, [1862–1954]; Louis Lumière, [1864–1948]) Lumie celebrated Cinématographe served this type of filmmaking well, as it was a movie camera, printer, and projector all in one. A camera operator equipped with this device could be supplied to vaudeville theaters, which regularly included films in their program; he or she would film local scenes, print them, and project them, all on the same day.
Other popular genres of the time were filmed variety acts and "trick films," which centered on special effects. These films, unlike their documentary counterparts, required staging, rudimentary sets, costumes, and props. Trick films also demanded more innovative production techniques than actualités or variety acts. For example, The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1895) involved stopping the camera after Robert Thomae, the actor playing Mary, laid his head on the execution block, and then using a dummy for the head-chopping sequence.
Trick films and variety acts were most easily made in a studio. The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots was shot in the first dedicated film studio: Thomas Edison's (1847–1931) "Black Maria," which opened in New Jersey in 1892. Although basic by modern standards, it was carefully designed to deal with the various contingencies that filmmaking faced at the time. It had an open roof to allow in sunlight—essential for a period when all filming relied on natural light—and the whole structure rested on a revolving pivot to maintain an alignment with the sun. Other filmmakers followed suit, both in the United States and abroad, including the Biograph Company, which built a rooftop studio in New York in 1896, and Georges Méliès (1861–1938), who constructed a glass-encased studio near Paris in 1897.
Staged films demanded preplanning. In the early days, however, this tended to be minimal and was left mostly in the hands of the film's director. As film companies moved towards mass production, more methodical planning processes were instituted. Careful scheduling allowed efficient use of resources and also ensured a regular flow of product. Increasingly, producers rather than directors assumed greater control over planning projects. Directors, for their part, were progressively relegated to the role of project managers, subject to strict schedule and budgetary controls, and required to shoot the film according to a script developed elsewhere in the system.
Two important management innovations did much to change the balance of power between producers and directors. The first was the institution of production schedules around 1907 to 1909. The second was the introduction of continuity scripts, which were in regular use by the early 1910s. Production schedules helped to manage the flow of activity in order to ensure maximum utilization of studio capacity and human resources. These production schedules depended, in turn, on continuity scripts which provided detailed outlines of each individual film project. As longer narrative films became the dominant type of film production, continuity scripts played the crucial role of indicating the resources such as actors, crew, set, and equipment that would be needed for the production as well as ensuring that the plots were well planned in advance. While these innovations came about partly in response to a growing reliance on narrative films, making it easier to plan and produce them reinforced the eventual dominance of this type of film.
This system, which was firmly entrenched by 1916, came to be known as the "multiple director-unit system." Under this system, each company had several filmmaking units, with each unit headed by a director and including a full production crew. Other resources, such as actors, were drawn from pooled resources which the production company made available to each unit as required. Later modifications to this scheme led to the "central producer system" in which producers took responsibility for supervising a number of simultaneous productions and over-seeing the directors who worked on them. This way of organizing film production was the basis of the system used throughout the US "studio era" (c. 1920–1960), which was dominated by a handful of large, integrated production-distribution-exhibition companies. It quickly came to be seen as a model of best practice for other national industries, many of which adopted its techniques.
The production process established under the US studio system remains in use and dominates filmmaking to this day. There are various reasons for the survival and dominance of this model. To begin with, many of the basic technical requirements of filmmaking have not changed significantly over the years. Second, most of the skills needed for making films are now embedded in craft knowledge and professional practices protected by unions and occupational communities. Finally, the systems of project management that were refined during the studio era continue to yield significant practical and economic benefits. Although the different stages of the production process were developed to meet the needs of live-action fictional feature films, many aspects of this system are used to produce other types of films, such as documentaries and shorts.