Hollywood Renegades Archive

The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers

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COBBLESTONE ENTERTAINMENT

Thomas Edison.

The Edison Movie Monopoly

The Motion Picture Patents Company vs. the Independent Outlaws

by J. A. Aberdeen


In December 1908, the motion picture inventors and industry leaders organized the first great film trust called the Motion Picture Patents Company, designed to bring stability to the chaotic early film years characterized by patent wars and litigation. The Edison Film Manufacturing Company, the Biograph company, and the other Motion Picture Patents members ended their competitive feuding in favor of a cooperative system that provided industry domination. By pooling their interests, the member companies legally monopolized the business, and demanded licensing fees from all film producers, distributors, and exhibitors.

A January 1909 deadline was set for all companies to comply with the license. By February, unlicensed outlaws, who referred to themselves as independents protested the trust and carried on business without submitting to the Edison monopoly. In the summer of 1909 the independent movement was in full-swing, with producers and theater owners using illegal equipment and imported film stock to create their own underground market.

With the country experiencing a tremendous expansion in the number of nickelodeons, the Patents Company reacted to the independent movement by forming a strong-arm subsidiary known as the General Film Company to block the entry of non-licensed independents. With coercive tactics that have become legendary, General Film confiscated unlicensed equipment, discontinued product supply to theaters which showed unlicensed films, and effectively monopolized distribution with the acquisition of all U.S. film exchanges, except for the one owned by the independent William Fox who defied the Trust even after his license was revoked.

Independent "outlaws" like William Fox defied the trust, and ultimately beat the trust producing films many Trust companies were reluctant to showcase. Pictured here is one of Fox's earliest sensations, the sex vamp, Theda Bara.

Many of the early independents were resilient film exhibitors who ventured into production when they found their supply of film threatened. Carl Laemmle (Independent Motion Picture Company or IMP), Harry E. Aitken (Majestic Films), and Adolph Zukor (Famous Players) were among the pioneering independents who protested the Trust, and then laid the foundation for the Hollywood studios. Having entered the business through exhibition, they determined that they liked production better, and got out of the theater business as the nickelodeon boom ended around 1911.

As the independent outlaws flourished, the Motion Picture Patents Company was also hit with antitrust charges by the United States government. In October 1915, the courts determined that the Patents Company and its General Film division acted as a monopoly in restraint of trade, and later ordered it disintegrated. But clearly by the time the decision was handed down, the independents had already outmaneuvered the Trust. The Edison monopoly had taken a retrogressive stance to the innovative industry reforms introduced by the outlaws.

At a time when the American independents and foreign filmmakers were creating feature length movies, the Trust clung to the familiar short-film format. Generally speaking, the Patents Trust also resisted turning their stock actors into recognizable performers, while the outlaws like Laemmle and Zukor were developing the star system into a powerful marketing tool. Furthermore, by moving their studios out west, the outlaws were not only capitalizing on California's optimal year-round outdoor shooting conditions, they were also pioneering a division between the east-coast business headquarters and the west-coast production operation that became another trademark of the Hollywood studio system. Historians of early film have pointed out that each of these innovations originated within the ranks of the Patents Company. However the unwillingness of the Trust to adapt to the changes cleared the way for the rise of the Hollywood studio system while the Edison monopoly perished.

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SOURCES

Information on the Motion Picture Patents Company, General Film Company, and Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Company from Bowser, pp. 27-36, 79-85, 221; Lahue, Dreams for Sale, pp. 19-22; Stanley, The Celluloid Empire, pp. 12-18; Hampton, History of the American Film Industry, pp. 64-82; Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film, pp. 81-94, and Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights, pp. 526-527.

See Bibliography.

 

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