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How Thomas Edison (Sort-of) Created Hollywood

Thomas Edison, Eastman Kodak, 1928

1928. Eastman Kodak with Thomas Edison (behind motion picture camera) in Rochester, New York, demonstrating new Kodacolor film. From Library of Congress.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the East Coast of the country considered Los Angeles to be a nice place and pleasant one to visit, but too far away and too inconsequential to really matter. Just getting to Los Angeles wasn’t easy, involving an arduous four-day trip by train or a much longer journey by sea.

At the time, movie-making was centered on the East Coast, specifically in the New Jersey/New York area. This where the nation’s first film production studio was located, established by Thomas Edison, inventor of the movie camera (kinetographic camera) and movie viewer (kinetoscope). Edison is revered for introducing amazing inventions that changed everyday life. Yet, he was also known to be a ruthless businessman. He used his patents to impose control over users, whenever possible, and extracted lucrative license fees. He joined forces with other motion picture patent-holders to form the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), essentially a monopoly of patent-holders. MPPC inserted clauses in sales contracts that anything created or exhibited with their patented equipment was subject to MPPC control and licensing. Anyone caught violating the clause was dragged into court. The MPPC was never satisfied with simply rooting out infringement, however. They sought to ruin violators, hanging them out, so-to-speak, as examples. Since virtually all motion picture equipment was patented by MPPC, this essentially made them absolute masters of film production and exhibition. The courts, particularly in the Eastern United States, only seemed too happy to enforce their monopoly.

Edison Motion Picture Studios, Bronx, New York, Circa 1907

Circa 1907. Busy Edison Motion Picture Studios in Bronx, New York. Several film shoots are taking place simultaneously. Films were silent at the time, so, sound was not an issue. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Southern California, however, was far from the East Coast and judges in California were less favorable to monopolistic practices. Land was cheap and plentiful and labor was mostly non-union. Local business and real estate interests offered generous incentives. Besides, the weather was nicer and there was a wide variety of exotic locales, allowing films to be made year-round in almost any kind of environment. The West Coast became a refuge for filmmakers seeking to escape the oppressive MPPC monopoly. William Selig of Chicago was the first film producer to move to Los Angeles, establishing a studio in Echo Park in 1909. In 1910, the California Motion Picture Manufacturing Company began making films in Long Beach. In 1911, David Horsley, a producer from New Jersey, established Christie-Nestor Studios, the first movie studio established in the Hollywood community. Others quickly followed to Hollywood, creating a “movie colony” there. Within a year, 15 film production companies were making films in Hollywood and, by 1915, 60 percent of films were coming out of Hollywood. Hollywood had exploded from a small rural community of 5,000 in 1910 to a populaiton of 35,000 in 1920. The center of the movie business had shifted from New Jersey/New York to Hollywood. However, MPPC remained an ongoing legal threat.

Nestor Studios, Hollywood, Circa 1916

Circa 1916. Christie-Nestor Studios, first movie studio located in Hollywood. In the Security Pacific National Bank Collection at Los Angeles Public Library.

In 1913, in hopes of ending MPPC’s crushing monopoly, William Fox of Fox Film Corporation, along with the owners of Paramount and Universal, brought a complaint to the U.S. Government, accusing MPPC of violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The government adopted their case and, in 1915, in United States vs. Motion Pictures Patents Company, convinced the court to turn against MPPC. The court ruled that the acts of MPPC constituted a conspiracy and monopoly in restraint of interstate trade, thus violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered MPPC to completely disband. Edison and his cronies had pushed filmmakers out to Hollywood, with the result that Hollywood ended up as the center of the movie business.

-- Thomas Edison: The Unintentional Founder of Hollywood, Saturday Evening Post, by Garrett O'Brien
-- Thomas Edison’s Plot to Hijack the Movie Industry, Arstechnica, by Matthew Lasar.
-- Lights! Camera!...Wait! Is There a Patent for That?, Ex Libris Juris, Harris County Robert W. Hainsworth Law Library.
-- The History of Film - Pre-1920s by Tim Dirks.
-- United States v. Motion Picture Patents Co, Wikipedia.
-- Motion Picture Patents Company, Wikipedia.

Also see: Long Beach - the Original Hollywood