Hollywood History, Part 2 - The Movie Industry Evolves 1900-1910

The First Nickleodeon
The First Nickleodeon - located in Pittsburgh

With the technology in place for allowing film to be projected and seen simultaneously by multiple viewers, the way was clear for the development of movies as a means of mass entertainment, and in the early years of the twentieth century films moved from being experimental curiosities to becoming an integral part of the new American society. Being silent they appealed to the new Americans, the immigrants newly arrived from Europe, speaking little or no English.


Purpose built movie theaters did not yet exist and so shop fronts, dance halls and any large indoor area were converted into public film viewing areas which became known as "nickleodeons", from the nickel (five cents) cost of admission added to the Greek word 'odeon', meaning 'theater'.

Nickleodeons became venues for cheap, escapist nights out for poor working class immigrants. The first nickelodeon was opened in Pittsburgh in June, 1905 and within a year there were hundreds of nickleodeon theaters around the country. By 1908, there were thousands, attracting some 26 million patrons a week. They were normally standing room only and, as well as one-reel silent films, there were sing-alongs, comedy skits and other vaudeville acts to entertain the paying customers.

The booming business attracted criticism about the nature of the movie's content and there were early calls for censorship. The early nickleodeons were also criticised for their often dangerous and unsanitary conditions for the paying public.

Despite the criticisms, the demand for films increased dramatically in the first decade of the century and the profitability of the new industry attracted an increasing number of entrepreneurs. Gradually the nickleodeons were transformed and replaced by purpose built movie theaters. Movie-going became more and more popular, and the demand for new films to be shown increased. The new filmmaking pioneers were only too happy to oblige. Some future household names got their start in nickelodeons, including Sam Goldwyn, Harry Warner and his brothers, William Fox, and Louis B. Mayer.

They saw the advantages of opening up the film audience to the middle classes instead of just working class immigrants, placing more emphasis on telling a narrative story, and less on the simple ability to show something. They also realized that the movie business had potential for vast profits, not only from producing and exhibiting the film but also from distributing it - selling or leasing it to other exhibitors.

The Growth of the Studios

American cinema began, not in Hollywood, but on the East coast. The original hub of the movie industry was at Fort Lee, New Jersey where the land was much cheaper than across the river in New York City. Many film companies set up studios there around the turn of the century following the construction of Thomas Edison's "Black Maria" studio in 1892.

As well as Edison's company, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company quickly rose to prominence. By 1903 they were the most popular film production company in America . There were several other pioneering studios competing for a share in the burgeoning business including the Selig Polyscope Company, founded in 1896, in Chicago, Illinois by "Colonel" William Selig, the American Vitagraph Company, which by 1907 was making 200 films a year.

As the new industry continued to attract both capital and talented workers, other studios set up at Fort Lee, including Kalem, the Champion Film Company, the Éclair American Company, the Victor Film Company, and the Solax Company. They were closely followed in the next decade by such studios as Peerless Studios, the Kaufman Astoria Studios , Metro Pictures Corporation, and some now-familiar names also arrived at Fort Lee, such as Selznick Pictures Corporation, Fox Film Corporation and Goldwyn Picture Corporation.

The Film Patents Wars 1908

The Edison Manufacturing Company was a key player in the early years and Thomas Edison made a strong attempt to establish control over the industry by forming in 1908, the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), which established a monopoly on all aspects of filmmaking and distribution.

Many of the new studios were working with equipment for which they did not own the legal rights, due to patents which Edison had slapped on them. Edison was an aggressive businessman and he was trying to establish a monopoly on moviemaking apparatus - and ultimately on the making of films. He sued companies he judged to be a threat and harassed them, sending thugs to seize their equipment if they did not conform to his wishes.

A number of film producing companies resisted Edison's strong-arm tactics. Bosses such as Carl Laemmle and Adolph Zukor would not be dictated to

The Move Westwards

The effect of Edison's methods on the movie industry was dramatic and permanent, although not what Edison had intended. Over the next few years, between 1908 and 1912, the majority of studios, finding the East coast too dangerous, simply moved to the West coast, a comfortable distance from Edison and his lawyers and bully boys, and where the sun shone for most of the year. By 1912 most had completed the move and had settled in an orange-growing area near the small town of Los Angeles. It was called Hollywood. A new era was about to begin.

Landmark Films

The start of the 20th century saw many film-makers placing more emphasis on telling a narrative story, and less on the simple ability to show something. As the means of making films improved, the quality of the finished article did also and there were several landmark movies during the period 1900 to 1910.

Voyage to the Moon 1902

One of the most famous of the early movies was 'Voyage to the Moon' a fifteen minute fantasy made by Georges Méliès in 1902. which used innovative special effects and hand-tinted colors.

Mary Jane's Mishap 1903

Made by British film maker George Smith the comedy 'Mary Jane's Mishap' was one of the first movies to make sophisticated use of editing. It also uses a mixture of close-ups and wide establishing shots.

The Life of an American Fireman 1903

Part documentary and part storytelling 'The Life of an American Fireman' combines footage of real-life fires with scenes acted in the studio. Made by Edwin S. Porter, an Edison employee, the movie again makes clever use of editing.

The Great Train Robbery 1903

Also by Edwin S. Porter 'The Great Train Robbery' was one of the most influential films to be made in the early years of the century in that it was the first true "narrative Western" using new techniques such as rear projection and a camera mounted on a moving train. Although it was a short and not a feature, it captured the public imagination and became one of the first true hit movies. For years after, when a nickleodeon opened it usually premiered with 'The Great Train Robbery' and it could still be seen in theaters as late as 1909.

'Rescued by Rover' 1905

Another highly successful narrative short about a dog who helps to save a kidnapped baby. Made by British film director and producer, Cecil Hepworth, the film is believed to be one of the first to use paid actors.

'Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman' 1905

Vitagraph's longest film to date, running to 18 minutes, and a huge success.

'Fantasmagorie' 1908

'Fantasmagorie' was the first animated film. Created by Emile Cohl, who worked for the French company, Gaumont. The action in the movie is rapid, with characters jumping in and out of boxes and blowing up like balloons, but the movie was very influential, demonstrating the narrative possibilities of the cartoon form.

'The Violin Maker of Cremona' 1909

Released by the Biograph studio and featuring seventeen year old Mary Pickford in one of her first starring roles. It was directed by D.W.Griffith who decided to use the naturalistic "film d'art" acting style, bringing theatrical stagecraft to motion pictures.

Hollywood History, Part 1 - Early Technology 1888-1900

Hollywood History, Part 2 - The Movie Industry Evolves 1900-1910

Hollywood History, Part 3 - The Growth of Hollywood and of the Studios 1910-1920

Hollywood History, Part 4 - The Development of Silent Movies 1910-29

Hollywood History, Part 5 - The Rise of the Studios

Hollywood History, Musicals - pre 1940