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Edison and His Licensees

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The symbiotic relationship between the Edison Manufacturing Company and its licensed affiliates functioned effectively in many situations. To cover the Dewey celebration, Edison manager James White organized and coordinated eight camera crews, many composed of licensed filmmakers. By relying on its licensees, the Edison group covered more locations than Biograph. Arrangements among the licensees were handled equitably as prints simultaneously reached all the license-affiliated theaters. The subjects were then quickly copyrighted and offered for sale to other exhibitors, enabling Edison to achieve a profit. Edison also depended on Vitagraph for developing and duping uncopyrighted Lubin and Amet films, which it then marketed.

Perhaps half of the films sold by the Edison Company in the period between 1898 and 1900 were made by its licensees, while the other half were made by White and Heise. By the end of the century, acted films had become a larger part of the Edison Company’s repertoire: approximately 40 percent in 1899 (32 of Edison’s 77 copyrighted subjects) and in 1900 (27 of 69). Vitagraph supplied many popular comedies (MAUDE’S NAUGHTY L ITTLE BROTHER copyrighted by Edison 16 November 1900) and various trick films (H TE CLOWN AND THE ALCHEMIST copyrighted by Edison 16 November 1900). Blackton and Smith combined the mysterious and comic in A VISIT TO THE SPIRITUALIST , which, according to the Edison catalog of March 1900, was “acknowledged by exhibitors to be the funniest of all moving magical films.” Using double exposures and stop-action techniques, the film showed a country rube who is mesmerized by a spiritualist and “sees funny things.” A handkerchief turns into a ghost. The rube tries to shed his clothes, but they jump back onto his body. The naive farmer is once again a victim of the sophisticated city and modern technology, in this case the motion-picture camera.

After James White recovered from an illness contracted in the Far East, he assumed multiple roles: producer, salesman, department executive, cameraman, and actor. Blessed with a sparkling personality, the kinetograph department manager used his position to enjoy life to its fullest. He not only made the ADVENTURES OF JONES series, a group of nine short comedies that were shot intermittently during 1899 and 1900, but sometimes played the title role. In these brief vignettes, Jones is a clubman, a well-to-do businessman (the catalog description suggests a broker) who indulges in alcohol and extramarital sex, and must often pay for his excesses. In JONES’ RETURN FROM THE CLUB , a fight ensues after the drunkard insults and abuses a helpful policeman. In WHY M RS . JONES GOT A DIVORCE , Jones seduces the pretty cook, only to be discovered by his wife. White also produced reenactments of military battles taking place in the Philippines (ADVANCE OF KANSAS VOLUNTEERS AT CALOOCAN and FILIPINOS RETREAT FROM TRENCHES ) and South Africa (BATTLE OF MAFEKING ). Like McCutcheon, this manager performed many functions that would later be assigned to different individuals and whole departments.

James White may have been a problematic executive, but he understood what many exhibitors wanted: groups of related films that could be sequenced into larger units. During the summer of 1900, he visited the Paris Exposition, enjoyed the sights, and shot at least sixteen films (PANORAMA OF PARIS EXPOSITION, FROM THE SEINE ). On his trip, he may also have picked up a new piece of camera equipment—a panning head for the tripod—since the camera now swiveled with much greater ease than in earlier Edison productions. The photographer indulged the camera’s new-found freedom in PANORAMA OF PLACE DEL’ OPÉRA , where his framing follows one carriage, then picks up and follows a bus, and finally assumes a static position as the frantic vehicles move on- and off-screen. For PANORAMA OF EIFFEL TOWER , White moved the camera vertically, first showing the base of the tower, then tilting up to its top, and finally returning to eye level. Edison camera pans, however, still lacked the evenness and precision found in Biograph’s camera movements from this period.

The vast majority of films at this time still consisted of one shot, but in the latter part of 1899 White made several multi-shot films. As with the 1897 SUBURBAN HANDICAP , he was ready to impose his editorial ideas when the situation seemed appropriate. SHOOT THE CHUTES SERIES showed that familiar pastime from three different vantage points. The camera was placed first at the bottom of the chutes, then at the top looking down the ramp, and finally in a boat as it went down the ramp and into the basin. With two or more takes made from each camera position, the film totaled 275 feet. White made two multi-shot acted films late in 1899 as well, both of which were “picture songs,” an application of the song-slide idea to motion pictures. As described in the March 1900 Edison catalog, the more elaborate was the six-shot LOVE AND WAR , in which a soldier is promoted to the rank of captain for bravery, meets and marries a Red Cross girl, and returns home to his parents. The Edison Company also supplied the necessary words and music. The illustrated-song idea allowed the production company to assume responsibility for the complete organization of picture and sound. Since these appropriations of editorial control remained infrequent, however, they did not challenge the exhibitor’s dominant responsibility for the arrangement of scenes.

Although Edison’s licensing arrangements provided his company with a diversity of film subjects for its customers, the licensor-licensee relationship did not work as well as the inventor must have initially expected. Four of the five New York-based exhibition services with permanent outlets were licensees, yet the Edison Company did not prosper. Its profits from film sales fell from more than $24,000 a year for the 1896–1897 and 1897–1898 business years to sums fluctuating between approximately $13,000 and $20,000 for each of the following three years. Gross income from such sales was also considerably reduced. While the sale price of films had been driven down during the course of 1898 to fifteen cents a foot, the number of feet sold either remained steady or decreased slightly.

The licensing arrangement often benefited the licensees more than the licensor. Since licensed exhibitors made their own films, their demand for Edison’s product was much lower than if they had been without this capability. In addition, many licensee activities were such that Edison could not make a profit. Frequently, news films were not turned over to Edison until their economic value had faded. Vitagraph sometimes serviced its clients by giving them special films that would have been of no interest to anyone else. When the First American Vaudeville Excursion, which toured with a vitagraph, went to Cuba early in 1899, a film was made of the members’ departure, developed on board ship, and shown in a Havana theater on their arrival. Likewise, when Paley’s kalatechnoscope presented local views in Worcester, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1900, the trade press reported that they “drew very heavily.” But while Paley received substantial remuneration from this undertaking, the films were of no economic value to Edison (they were neither copyrighted nor offered for sale). 29 Since Paley’s and Vitagraph’s incomes were derived chiefly from their exhibitions, they considered film sales of little importance. Yet such sales were the keystone of Edison’s motion-picture business.

Edison, frustrated by his licensing arrangements, tried to shift the commercial balance in his favor when he contracted with the Klondike Exposition Company in March 1899. Organized by Thomas Crahan of Montana, the Klondike Exposition Company acquired two large-format motion-picture cameras that the Edison Company had built the previous year, in clear emulation of Biograph. That summer,accompanied by Edison’s motion-picture expert Robert K. Bonine, Crahan went to Alaska to make films for possible display at the 1900 Paris Exposition. From the exhibition of these films, Edison was to receive 20 percent of the net receipts, but the cameras failed to operate properly, and the company exhausted its cash long before any films were ready. Thus this attempt to establish a new kind of licensing arrangement failed.

The symbiosis between Edison and his licensees became increasingly tense. Perhaps attempting to redefine the relationship, Edison failed to acknowledge (through either cash or credits) Vitagraph’s royalties on print sales. Finally, “Pop” Rock threatened to sue for an accounting. As a result, Edison terminated Vitagraph’s license on 20 January 1900 and forbade any activities that did not use Edison films and machines. Since such restrictions were certain to ruin Vitagraph’s business, the Vitagraph partners responded by turning their company over to a new corporation of the same name that was owned by George S. W. Arthur, Albert Smith’s father-in-law, and Ronald Reader, an earlier associate of Blackton and Smith from their days on the Lyceum circuit. This “new” management then rehired the “old” partners as employees. Forbidden to violate Edison’s patents, Blackton and Smith simply had someone else turn the camera crank. While this bold ruse allowed Vitagraph to continue its operations for a time, Edison challenged the evasion in court. Judge E. Henry Lacombe believed that Blackton and Smith had conspired to disobey the court’s earlier injunction and was ready to punish them with imprisonment. He insisted, however, that Edison first pay for a close examination of the new corporation and its stockholders.

In the fall of 1900, before further action was taken, the Edison Company reconciled its differences with Vitagraph. White was eager to market the HAPPY HOOLIGAN SERIES , a group of comedies that Blackton and Smith had made over the summer. When a hurricane struck Galveston, Texas, in September 1900, Albert Smith traveled to the devasted town and photographed the aftermath. Using the new tripod head, he filmed the ruins in long, sweeping panoramas. Eight subjects, including SEARCHING RUINS ON BROADWAY , GALVESTON, FOR DEAD BODIES , were copyrighted, and between seventeen and thirty-five positive prints of each subject were sold. In resuming a licensee relationship with Edison, the new American Vitagraph Company acknowledged Edison’s patents (making future attempts to avoid court injunctions impossible) and agreed to pay Edison a 10 percent royalty on its exhibition income. This seemed certain to provide Edison with a new source of profits from his licensee. Similar arrangements also may have been made with Paley.

Edison faced many difficulties in the motion-picture field: not only were profits low, and licensees recalcitrant, but Biograph was posing very serious competition. Biograph’s profits for the first two months of 1900 were more than Edison’s total film-related profits for that entire year. Its spirited legal defense against Edison’s patent-infringement suit stood a strong possibility of success, and if it won, Edison’s licensees were certain to join the ranks of its competitors. Discouraged, Thomas Edison contemplated selling his business to Biograph. On 12 April, Biograph executive Harry Marvin paid Edison $2,500 as an option for the right to purchase Edison’s motion-picture interests for $500,000. 30 When the financing fell through, however, Edison withdrew from the arrangement and began to restructure and expand his business—even as Biograph was finding itself in a less favorable commercial position.

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