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How Hollywood Started When Independent Filmmakers Moved to California In The 1910s To Escape Thomas Edison's Monopoly

1910s | February 11, 2021

Panoramic view of downtown Los Angeles showing Pershing Square, c.1910. (Charles C. Pierce/Wikimedia Commons)

Before 1915, Los Angeles was just a desert, but Carl Laemmle and a small group of like-minded independent film distributors recognized that its vast, inexpensive space and incomparable light made it the perfect place to build movie studios. It was also thousands of miles away from Thomas Edison and his Menlo Park laboratory. Why would that matter? Well ...

Thomas Edison: Movie Maverick?

By the dawn of the 20th century, Thomas Edison held more than 1,000 patents, and he became as adept at protecting them as he was at recognizing genius and exploiting it. He owned many patents critical to the creation and presentation of movies, like an early motion picture camera called the Kinetograph and an early film projector, but not all of them, and rather than buy up the remaining patents to complete his megalomaniac bingo card, he formed a group with the other patent holders called the Motion Picture Patent Company. If you wanted to make or show a movie, you had to go through them.

Carl Laemmle in 1918. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile In Chicago

Carl Laemmle is a true American success story. He immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1884 and spent the next 20 years working in Chicago. Then, "one rainy night," he recalled, "I dropped into one of those hole-in-the-wall five-cent motion picture theaters." The movie "made [him] laugh," but more importantly, he could help but notice that it made everyone else in the theater laugh, too. "I knew right away that I wanted to go into the motion picture business."

In 1906, Laemmle cobbled together his family's savings, all $3,000 of it, and put it all into what he called the "the coolest theater in Chicago," meaning in 1906 terms that it was well ventilated. The venture was so successful that Laemmle bought another theater and then another before deciding to make his own movies. That's when he crossed Thomas Edison.

Florence Lawrence, c. 1908. (Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research/Wikimedia Commons)

Crossing Edison

To make movies, Laemmle had to find actors, but most of the known actors of the day were signed with Edison's Biograph Pictures, which the Wizard of Menlo Park ruled with an iron fist. He kept his actors under his thumb by preventing them from becoming well known—for example, completely wasting the name Florence Lawrence by crediting her as "The Biograph Girl"—and insisted that his movies, which he vigilantly kept under 20 minutes to retain his audience's attention span, be strictly educational and historical.

Laemmle didn't care about any of that, so he offered Lawrence the one thing Edison couldn't: name recognition. After stealing Edison's lead actress, Laemmle bought film stock and equipment from overseas, resolutely ignored the 289 infringement lawsuits that Edison threw his way, and prepared to make his fortune. To keep Edison's lawyers at bay, Laemmle and his buddies, known as "the independents" (though they went on to form some of the biggest movie studios in Hollywood, such as Warner Bros. and Paramount), headed west where nobody could find them. Even if they did, cross-country travel was prohibitively expensive at the time, and Edison's name didn't carry nearly as much weight on the West Coast. In 1914, Laemmle bought 230 acres of land in the San Fernando Valley for $165,000 and began constructing Universal Studios.

Universal Studios, 2014. (Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons)

Beating Edison At His Own Game

The next year was a landmark year for Laemmle: He finished his studio and finally took the law into his own hands. He and William Fox (who later founded 20th Century Fox) filed antitrust lawsuits against Edison, winning the legal battle for the future of film once and for all. Edison was certain that audiences would continue to flock to his movies, but they jumped ship by the droves in favor of the independents' longer, more entertaining productions. The turn of events humbled Edison considerably. He even accepted an invitation to the dedication of Laemmle's new state-of-the-art studio, where the inventor did what everyone does at a red carpet event: smile, step, repeat.

Tags: 1910s | edison | hollywood

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.