Silent Cinema


It was a specific technological development that ended the mature silent period, but it was an international event of epoch-defining magnitude that helped mark its beginning. By and large, World War I, which began in 1914, had a disastrous effect on most national cinemas in Europe, hastening a decline already apparent for some (England, France) while halting the momentum experienced by others (Denmark, Italy). Only two countries, Sweden and Germany, emerged from the war with their national cinemas in a stronger position than when it began. Both benefited from restrictions placed on them during the war, primarily in the form of a blockade on imports imposed in 1916. While Sweden saw its own domestic industry bolstered by the blockade (and an ability to export to Germany), Germany's thrived, particularly because the ban was sustained there until 1920. Demand for films meant that the number of production companies in Germany grew exponentially, reaching 130 by 1918. A year earlier Germany's government had taken steps toward centralization of the industry, with the formation of Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft, or Ufa, which merged production, distribution, and exhibition via a vertically integrated, state-run model. After the war, Ufa passed to private ownership but remained the primary distributor for German films. Ufa's massive studios also allowed Germany to mount films whose scale and production values rivaled those from its only true competition within the international market during this period—Hollywood.

Coincident with a push into wider markets by the country's manufacturing sector, the American film industry continued to make inroads internationally in the years prior to World War I. But the war diminished the producing capacity of its chief rivals, Italy and France, opening the market to US domination more readily. Benefiting from its geographic separation from the wartime deprivations plaguing Europe, the American film industry capitalized on its advantages, increasing direct sales to markets where its presence had been less prominent before the war. The turning point appears to have been 1916, and the United States retained its domination of the international market from that point onward. A key component in that dominance was the industry's ability to spread its exporting might across regions, so that by the close of the decade exports to all the major markets (save Africa) were much more evenly distributed than ever before. Although Europe was still the major recipient of American films, South America, Asia, and Oceania each accounted for roughly 10 percent of US film export revenue. The United States moved into the 1920s buoyed by the confidence that it was the undisputed commercial dynamo, with an average annual production rate of over six hundred features a year.

Had the war not intervened, matters might have developed quite differently, considering how slowly the American film industry moved into production of features as compared to France and Italy, the pioneers in epic feature filmmaking. And when it did begin to produce features in earnest by 1914, the industry had to contend with the widespread changes to distribution and exhibition such a shift in production strategy entailed. In retrospect, it is evident that the timing of the American switch to features was fortuitous, as it occurred at the onset of the war, when the United States could best afford these substantial disruptions to its industrial system. The chief impediment to America's wholesale adoption of the feature film was the existing distribution system, which, since the early days of the General Film Company, had concentrated on renting packages of short films, typically at a set price, to any theater capable of paying. Arguably, adherence to this method of distribution had inhibited attempts to experiment with longer films, especially when those which had been produced were released in a staggered fashion as a series of discrete single reels, incorporated into a standardized package of other shorts.

Other distribution options did eventually present themselves, though they proved of limited value for handling the large number of features the industry would come to release annually. One such approach was road-showing, borrowed from theatrical models, whereby a film moved from city to city, with venues rented specifically for the purpose of showing that title. For large-scale productions that lent themselves to splashy publicity campaigns, such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), the most famous example to be distributed in this fashion, road showing made sense; but it was not workable for a steady stream of features. Another strategy was the state rights system, wherein the rights to distribute a film would be allocated for a prescribed region. Those holding the rights could choose to rent to exhibitors within the region or split up their rights further. Although the state rights system also provided films with more individualized advertising campaigns than the package approach afforded, it remained a piecemeal approach to distribution, with no national reach. What features required were the more developed publicity mechanism associated with roadshowing and state rights, coupled with the comprehensive coverage of territories General Film and its ilk had provided.

The first satisfactory alternative arrived in the form of Paramount Pictures, which offered exhibitors a full annual slate of features, replete with advertising. Formed in 1914 by bringing together eleven local distributors, Paramount was soon releasing the films of Famous Players Motion Picture Company, one of the premiere producers of feature-length films. Paramount's ability to advance funds to the producers whose features it released translated into greater security for those producers, who, in turn, were able to expand their production budgets. Adolph Zukor (1873–1976), the head of Famous Players, recognized the centrality of distribution to production strategies and soon engineered the merger of Paramount and his firm in 1916, along with another important production company releasing through Paramount, the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. The resulting production-distribution combine, Famous Players-Lasky, set the standard for what would become a discernible tendency toward mergers and consolidation within the American film industry over the remainder of the silent period. The ultimate goal was vertical integration, wherein one firm owned and operated all three sectors of the industry: production, distribution, and exhibition. Famous Players had started primarily as a producer, acquired distribution three years later, and then finally began buying theaters in 1919, ultimately merging with the large regional theater chain, Balaban and Katz, in 1925. First National, which became vertically integrated in 1922, grew in the opposite fashion. Formed in 1917 by a group of exhibitors who resented Paramount's abuse of block booking (wherein exhibitors were forced to accept the entirety of a release schedule in order to secure any of the films on offer), First National first moved into distribution before establishing its own production facilities five years later. Nearly all the major players within the American film industry would be vertically integrated by the 1920s, and most of these firms had been operating within the industry since the mid-teens in one form or another. Tracing the mature

Buster Keaton in The General (Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, 1927).
studio system to the advent of the feature film may be something of a simplification, but the seeds of that system were definitely sown in the upheavals produced by the shift to feature production.

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