Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » The Transition to Story Films: 1903–1904 - Exhibition and Distribution

The Impact of the European Industry on the United States

films american british gaston

The European industry continued to play a major role in shaping American cinema even though French and English producers had had little direct access to American markets since 1896–1897. While they sold a certain number of prints to American exhibitors with overseas connections, their films generally reached American screens as dupes marketed by U.S. companies. Undoubtedly the world’s leading filmmaker during the first years of the new century was the Parisian Georges Méliès, whose pictures had been duped by every major American producer. Dissatisfied with this state of affairs, he sent his brother, Gaston Méliès, to the United States to represent his interests. Gaston arrived in March 1903—while the copyright case was still unresolved—and discovered, for example, that Biograph had been paying Charles Urban one-cent-per-foot royalties for prints of Méliès subjects. The money, of course, had never reached the original artist. 26

To secure the economic benefits of these films for their creator, Gaston opened a New York office and factory in June. Georges Méliès began to make two negatives of each subject and ship one to New York, so that his brother could not only distribute but also print his Star-brand films. (Gaston, as agent, received a salary plus 25 to 40 percent of the profits, the percentage growing as the size of the profits increased.) In his first catalog, Gaston chided American manufacturers, who “are searching for novelties but lack the ingenuity necessary to produce them” and “found it easier and more economical fraudulently to copy the Star Films and to advertise their poor copies as their own original conceptions.” In opening the New York branch, he announced, “we are prepared and determined energetically to pursue all counterfeiters and pirates. We will not speak twice, we will act.” To make the threat real, Gaston took the precaution of registering his films with the Library of Congress, commencing with THE ENCHANTED WELL (© 25 June 1903). This forestalled the duping of most subsequent Star films. 27

Notwithstanding Méliès’s actions, American companies still had a wide choice of European films to dupe. Among their favorites were those of Pathé Frères, such as SLEEPING BEAUTY (January 1903), D ON Q UIXOTE (August 1903), and CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS (March 1904). Several English story films that reached the United States during the summer of 1903 were also duped, including the Sheffield Photo Company’s A DARING DAYLIGHT BURGLARY , Robert Paul’s TRAILED BY BLOODHOUNDS , and Walter Haggar’s A DESPERATE POACHING AFFRAY . While Edison sold only dupes it had acquired surreptitiously through James White, Biograph usually made arrangements with the original producers. In some cases the latter offered to sell either prints made from the original negative (for fifteen cents a foot) or duplicates made from prints (twelve cents a foot). 28

The three British films mentioned above offered two important innovations. First, and in sharp contrast to the earlier fairy-tale films, they were films of violent crime. In A DARING DAYLIGHT BURGLARY , for example, a burglar looting a house is discovered by police, makes his escape, and is finally captured after a prolonged chase, while in DESPERATE POACHING AFFRAY , two poachers are chased by game wardens, with resulting shootings and hand-to-hand fights. Second, these films used the chase as a central narrative element. As a result, the British conveyed a sensationalistic energy that American and French producers soon emulated.

Despite their innovative subject matter, however, British firms did not establish a solid base in the United States. Most producers were small and sold their films through larger distributors, particularly the Charles Urban Trading Company or British Gaumont. Similarly, during the period covered by this volume, not a single British film company opened an American agency, but rather sold films through American sales agents. While Gaumont sold Biograph films in England, Biograph served as the American agent for Gaumont and several other British companies, including Hepworth and Robert Paul. 29 The American company was soon protecting these rights by copyrighting such pictures as British Gaumont’s AN ELOPEMENT A LA MODE (© 1 December 1903 as RUNAWAY MATCH ) and THE CHILD STEALERS (© 9 June 1904).

User Comments

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

Cancel or