Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T

Production as the Nickelodeon Era Begins: 1905–1907 - New Production Companies

film company films edison

T he proliferation of nickelodeon theaters created a huge demand for films and film equipment. Projector sales boomed for the chief hardware manufacturers: Edison (projecting kinetoscope), Lubin (cineograph), Selig (polyscope), Nicholas Power (cameragraph), the Enterprise Optical Company (optigraph), and Charles Dressier (American projectograph). Vitagraph meanwhile ceased manufacturing its projector and concentrated on film production, and the Urban bioscope, imported from England, no longer held an important share of the market. A number of small concerns also entered the field in 1906-1907, including the Viascope Manufacturing Company (viascope) and Eberhard Schneider with his Miror-Vitae projector. By mid 1906, Nicholas Power had forty employees and was turning out approximately two machines a day, or seven hundred a year. By September 1907, Lubin had eighty-six employees whose time was devoted solely to the manufacture of projectors. 1

The skyrocketing demand for these machines is suggested by figures available for the Edison Manufacturing Company. Edison projectors, generally selling for $135, generated $182,134.52 in sales during the 1906 business year, an increase of 131 percent over 1905, and then jumped another 130 percent in 1907 to $418,893.33. Accounting for discounts to agents, Edison probably sold more than 1,500 projectors in 1906 and more than 3,500 in 1907. With the cameragraph and projecting kinetoscope enjoying the best reputations, Edison may have commanded 30 percent of the market. Although some projectors went into vaudeville houses and others replaced damaged or worn-out machines, a large majority were purchased to open nickelodeons at a time when virtually every theater relied on a single projector.

Film supply likewise responded to the intense demand. New subjects coming on the market in January and February 1906 totaled approximately 7,000 feet a month. 2 If one ignores the substantial backlog of subjects available to newly opened nickelodeons and assumes a theater was showing 1,000 feet of film and changing its program twice a week, the rate of film production was insufficient to avoid repeaters. If several theaters were located close together, the lack of variety inevitably created serious problems. Demand was far greater than supply. Moving Picture World subsequently estimated that the following amounts of new subjects were available to the nickelodeons: 3

These figures suggest that the increasing rate of program change, from two to three times a week in November 1906 and from three times to six times a week in the spring of 1907, became practical only when output had reached sufficient levels. Production practices undoubtedly acted as an impediment to the rapid transformation of exhibition. Correspondingly, this new form of exhibition created pressures on film producers that forced and encouraged them to change.

The big March increase resulted from the greater availability of foreign films, primarily through George Kleine, and not from a sudden expansion in domestic production (which only rose dramatically much later in the year). While foreign manufacturers moved successfully into this new market, American producers had difficulty increasing their supply. Some even had periods when their production dipped or suffered temporary disruption. Of the established American producers, Vitagraph and Lubin took most effective advantage of the new opportunities created by the nickelodeon era. Biograph, Edison, and Selig, however, encountered difficulties or failed to expand their film output rapidly.

Various factors kept American production in disarray. Ironically, one was the vigor of the nickelodeon expansion and the immense profitability of picture theaters and rental exchanges. Opening nickelodeons and exchanges could be done more quickly and involved much lower cost than establishing production facilities. The expertise needed to operate a profitable picture house was simpler and took less time to acquire than the skills needed for successful film production. Industry entrepreneurs therefore focused initially on expansion in exhibition and distribution rather than production. Even so, new opportunities in production created short-term disruptions as experienced personnel left long-standing companies like Biograph and Selig to form their own enterprises such as Kalem and Essanay. Output at the affected concerns was curtailed as new personnel established themselves. The building of new studios, while essential for long-term expansion, took energy away from immediate production. In some instances, notably at Edison, the strong demand for films actually reinforced the status quo, since larger print sales per picture meant that facilities for positive-print production ran at full capacity and the company could boast much higher profitability. Finally, established methods of film production and representation were not amenable to a rapid increase in the output of new negatives. While the transformation of these practices was necessary if expansion was to occur efficiently, many production personnel either resisted or failed to recognize the underlying pressure for change and the direction it would take.

The status of Edison’s patents was another factor that deterred a rapid increase of domestic production capabilities. Edison, as detailed earlier, had once again sued all the leading American producers and foreign importers between late 1902 and 1905. On 26 March 1906, Judge George W. Ray handed down a decision that narrowly interpreted Edison’s camera patent and would have allowed film producers to operate without fear of infringement. Yet, Edison’s lawyers promptly appealed the case to a higher court, and intense uncertainty still reigned within the industry. There was little incentive for substantial investment in a studio and plant that might easily prove worthless. On 5 March 1907 the court of appeals rendered a new decision that reversed part of the lower court’s ruling. The case, in fact, involved two types of cameras: the Warwick camera, a standard 35-mm camera made by the Warwick Trading Company in England and used by many producers, and the old Biograph camera with its unusual method of moving the film forward and punching holes in the film just before each exposure. According to the judges, Alfred C. Coxe, E. Henry Lacombe, and William J. Wallace, the device that moved the film through the Warwick camera was “the fair equivalent” of the mechanism patented by Edison and so infringed on Edison’s invention. They declared, however, that the Biograph camera was not an infringement since it operated on a different principle. This decision allowed Biograph to function without further legal interference as long as the company used 35-mm equivalents of its old 70-mm cameras. But while freeing Biograph, the opinion offered strong support for Edison’s legal position in his many other suits. Both parties were, therefore, sufficiently content that neither appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Legal developments became even more ominous as Edison’s lawyers reactivated the inventor’s infringement case against William Selig. Thus, the climate for investment in American film production grew steadily worse as the nickelodeon era began. 4

The shortage of domestic films was also due to specific shortcomings at Biograph and Edison. Neither company effectively exploited the opportunities presented by the nickelodeon boom, even though they alone were spared the many legal uncertainties facing their American competitors. One might expect that they would increase their supply of new pictures to meet the increased demand, but this did not happen. In fact, for extended periods of time, each company actually decreased its rate of production, albeit for opposing reasons. Biograph became less and less profitable and, incredibly, was on the verge of being closed by mid 1907.

New Production Companies

The demand for films also encouraged the formation of new production companies. Capital acquired from other areas of the industry usually provided the means as successful entrepreneurs in distribution and exhibition moved into production. Early in 1906, the Miles brothers became seriously committed to making story films and constructed an elaborate studio in San Francisco. They might have become major producers if the earthquake and fire had not destroyed their facilities. Although the financial setback stymied their attempts, they continued to make actualities (S HRINERS ’ C ONCLAVE AT L OS A NGELES , C AL ., M AY 1907), and they established a reputation for filming important boxing matches. When T HE G ANS -N ELSON C ONTEST , G OLDFIELD , N EVADA , S EPTEMBER 3, 1906 was shot in Nevada, it was announced during the preliminaries that President Roosevelt’s son (Theodore, Jr.) was at ring-side; according to a press account, as the fans cheered, “Some one stood up in the crowd and yelled: ‘Show yourself and turn your face toward the moving pictures.’” On 26 November 1906 the Miles brothers shot T HE O’B RIEN -B URNS C ONTEST , L OS A NGELES , C AL ., N OV . 26 TH , 1906 under Cooper-Hewitt lights, which turned blood to a sickening green. By mid 1907, they had engaged Fred A. (George) Dobson, a former Biograph cameraman, to take actualities in the New York City area. 43

Harry Davis moved into film production on 22 May 1906, when his new Pittsburgh-based company shot a local Knights Templar parade. 44 A Decoration Day baseball game between Pittsburgh and the Cincinnati Reds was next shot, and both films were shown at Davis’ Grand Opera House in early June. Company offices were located above the Dreamland penny arcade and across the street from the Grand Opera House. Davis employed James Blair Smith, formerly in the Edison Company, as a cameraman and technical expert. G. M. Anderson came from Vitagraph to write and stage pictures for forty dollars a week. Only a few films were made, including one chase comedy, before Anderson moved on to Selig. By the following year Davis had withdrawn from the production field. 45 The exchanges did not purchase his films in large quantities, and playing these original subjects as “specials” in his various theaters may not have markedly increased box-office receipts, at least once the initial novelty had passed. The costs and effort of production proved too high, causing Davis to shift his expansionary energies into setting up film exchanges to service nickelodeons, particularly his own.

It was not until 1907 that businessmen in the motion-picture field moved into production in substantial numbers. The Kalem Company began operations on 12 April and was incorporated on 2 May. Fifty shares of stock were issued: twenty-nine went to Frank Marion, ten to Samuel Long, and ten to George Kleine (with a single share going to employee Walter Hatt). Kalem (the company’s appellation was an acronym derived from the initials of these owners’ last names) had offices at 131 West Twenty-fourth Street in New York City and production facilities at Marion’s home in Sound Beach (near Greenwich), Connecticut. Its first picture was T HE R UNAWAY S LEIGHBELLE . 46 When the company started actively selling films in June, it already had a half-dozen completed subjects to offer. With stock company and repertory theaters closed for the summer, an array of experienced players joined the enterprise, including Gene Gauntier (whose real name was Genevieve Liggett), Joseph and Fred Santley, Ed Boulden, Joe Sullivan, and Gus Carney. As Gauntier later recalled,

Mr. Marion had been compelled to give up directing because of increasing duties in the business end. It was a lucky contingency and made the difference between success and failure for the infant project. Mr. Olcott accepted the position of director for the summer at the munificent remuneration often dollars a picture. He gathered about him a score of actors who were personal friends and threw himself whole heartedly into the work (“Blazing the Trail,” unpublished MS, n.d.).

Sidney Olcott (actually John Sidney Allcott) became the company’s regular director and was soon producing almost one new subject a week, with Gauntier writing many of the film scripts. The films, most of which were comedies, were noted for their elaborate intertitles, which included cartoons as well as text (and continued the emphasis on intertitles evident in earlier Biograph films made under Marion’s supervision). In the fall, however, Gauntier left to assume the title role in the stage play Texas. 47 A firmly established stock company of actors had yet to be introduced.

Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, which began its existence as the Peerless Film Manufacturing Company, was formed in Chicago by Gilbert Maxwell Anderson and George K. Spoor, who filed incorporation papers in late April. Anderson, who continued working for Selig even after their plans were well advanced, had finally accomplished his goal: ownership in a film company. Spoor, however, retained the controlling interest, owning fifty-one of one hundred shares of stock, with forty-eight going to Anderson and one to a third board member. Gilbert P. Hamilton, who began his motion-picture career as a projectionist for the Eidoloscope Company and eventually worked for Spoor’s Kinodrome firm as an operator, was promoted to cameraman and worked closely with Anderson. By the end of July, their developing and printing facilities were set up and Essanay advertised its first film, A N A WFUL S KATE , a 612-foot comedy that took advantage of the roller-skating craze to show a tramp on rollers. Anderson’s experience enabled Essanay to turn out popular films, and according to Billboard, “Its first productions were grabbed up so quickly that the factory was run night and day.” 48

By August the Filmograph Company had completed and was selling several comedies working within well-established genres, including Y OUNG A MERICANS , about mischievous boys playing pranks on a variety of adults, and W ORK FOR Y OUR G RUB , a tramp comedy. This new Philadelphia concern hired Fred Balshofer, a former Lubin cameraman, to photograph the films. The firm was short-lived, however, and when Balshofer visited New York, he found a job with the Actograph Company, which had been recently formed by Norman Mosher, Edward M. Harrington, and Fred L. Beck (who was later bought out by A. C. Hayman). By late August, Balshofer was taking films from the front end of a train going through Sacandaga Park, a summer amusement center with a Hales Tour car that subsequently showed the local view. The Actograph Company’s first official release, S PORTS OF THE A DIRONDACKS , appeared in early September. By 1 December they were preparing to make fiction films starring Mosher’s dog, Mannie, who had appeared in many Edison and Biograph films. 49

In Detroit, William H. Goodfellow, owner of the successful Detroit Film Exchange, started the Goodfellow Manufacturing Company, which was turning out long story films by September 1907. The month before, the St. Louis-based O. T. Crawford organization, which owned many theaters and several exchanges, had announced its intentions of going into production. Its first film was taken at the International Balloon Races in St. Louis on 21 October; Crawford, however, was constructing a studio and planned to make “clean comedy and thrilling dramatic subjects” under the name American Films. 50 By fall 1907, a rapidly increasing number of industry personnel were starting their own production companies, and threatening the dominance of established producers, particularly Edison and Biograph.

Production Trends - Prestige Pictures, Musicals, The Woman’s Film, Comedy, Social Problem Films, Horror Films, Conclusion [next] [back] Proctor, Barbara Gardner - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Barbara Gardner Proctor

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or