How Independent Filmmakers Escaped Thomas Edison's Monopoly and Founded Hollywood in the 1910s

By Roger Goode | June 10, 2024

Go West Young Man

In the early 1910s, a group of visionary independent filmmakers embarked on a daring journey westward, seeking freedom from the iron grip of Thomas Edison's monopoly on film technology. These pioneers, driven by creativity and the promise of new opportunities, found their sanctuary in the sun-soaked landscapes of California. There, amidst the rolling hills and endless sunshine, they laid the foundation for what would become the epicenter of the global film industry: Hollywood. Join us as we explore the compelling story of how these maverick filmmakers broke free from Edison's control, transforming a small California town into the glamorous heart of cinema.

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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.

Meanwhile In Chicago

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

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.