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American Cinema in the 1910s

A still from The Double Crossing of Slim.

Virtually all aspects of American cinema changed dramatically during the 1910s. At the beginning of the decade, the film industry was dominated by the Motion Picture Patents Company (known in the industry as "the Trust"). Movies were short, typically around fifteen minutes, and exhibited primarily in nickelodeons. By the decade's end, however, the Trust was abolished and the industry's most powerful corporations were those pursuing vertical integration, i.e., ownership of film studios, distribution companies, and theaters. Picture palaces and other more upscale venues largely usurped the nickelodeon, and one- and two-reelers took a backseat to feature-length films in exhibitors' programs. What follows is a brief overview of the most significant changes that took place in the three interrelated sectors of the film industry in the 1910s—changes that the Aitkens adapted to and, in some cases, helped usher in. 



Movies Move West
America's earliest film studios, including Edison, Vitagraph, and Biograph, were based on the East Coast (there was also a strong contingent in Chicago). Around 1910, however, many companies sent filmmaking units west. The advantages were manifold and included: abundant sunshine, dramatic natural locations for popular genres like the Western, and the ability to avoid the zealously litigious Trust's watchdogs. By the middle of the decade, the Los Angeles area had become the epicenter of American film production, although many companies maintained business offices in New York.

Stars Rise
Prior to 1910, films were advertised and sold on the basis of the company that made them and/or their subject matter; actors were generally not identified in credits or promotional materials. In part through the efforts of curious movie fans, studios began to reveal (and exploit) the names of some of their most popular performers, including Florence Lawrence, "the Biograph girl," and Florence Turner, "the Vitagraph girl." Before long, the most well-loved stars could command high salaries and were at high risk of being courted away by rival studios. This developing star system dovetailed neatly with the rise of the feature film and its accompanying distribution model, which gave studios the incentive to lavish resources on particular performers and films in hopes of huge profits—incentives not present during an era of tightly budgeted short film production and fixed-price distribution (see below). 

Features Arrive
The years 1908 to 1914 are often referred to as the "one-reel era." One reel, or 1,000 feet of film, had become the standard film length at most studios, and the distribution and exhibition sectors were structured accordingly. (The duration of a one-reel film could vary between eleven and seventeen minutes, depending on projection speed.) Studios occasionally produced films that unfolded over multiple reels, but each constituent reel had to be able to be screened and enjoyed by patrons independently. Following the example of feature-length films from Europe, American studio heads began experimenting with movies of five reels or more around 1912. Adolf Zukor was a leader in the importation of European features as well as the development of American feature filmmaking. By 1915 his company, Paramount, was distributing thirty features a year, most from the Famous Players-Lasky studio. Although there remained a market for one- and two-reel films (especially comedies and cartoons) until the 1950s, feature-length productions dominated major studios' activities by the late 1910s. 


The Formation of Exchanges
During cinema's first decade, film prints were often sold directly to exhibitors. As filmgoing's popularity increased, there emerged a greater demand for prints and fast turnover of product, making the direct-sale model obsolete. As a result, film rental exchanges, like the one founded by Harry Aitken and John Freuler in Milwaukee in 1906, cropped up across the country, providing the foundation for regional and ultimately national distribution networks. In 1910, the Trust consolidated numerous regional exchanges to form a distribution arm, the General Film Company. The "independents," including the Aitkens, quickly responded with their own distribution combine, the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Company (known as the Sales Co.). Internecine strife led to the dissolution of the Sales Co. in 1912, with two companies, Mutual (led by the Aitkens) and Universal, emerging in its wake. 

Feature Distribution
Entrepreneurs seeking to distribute features in the early 1910s typically had to work outside the existing system, which was based on fixed costs per one-reel film and daily turnover at theaters. To be profitable, features needed dedicated promotional campaigns and longer runs at higher ticket prices. Many of the earliest features shown in the U.S. were distributed via the "roadshow" method, whereby the distributor rented a venue (often a legitimate theater or opera house) in which a film played for weeks or even months before moving to a different city. In order for features to evolve from these ad-hoc, one-off affairs to the mainstream of filmmaking and distribution, studios like Famous Players-Lasky had to commit themselves to producing enough features per year to provide theaters a year-round supply of films. 


In the medium's first decade, there were few dedicated venues for film exhibition. Movies typically appeared alongside other popular amusements, notably vaudeville performances, in a variety of contexts – in theaters or at fairgrounds, brought by itinerant showmen or local impresarios. Around 1905, movies found a home in the nickelodeon, a small storefront theater offering round-the-clock cheap programs of films, often accompanied by some live entertainment. The nickelodeon craze ebbed in the early 1910s, and new movie houses (in some cases converted "legitimate" theaters) tended to be larger and more luxuriously appointed – befitting the prestige and increased expense associated with the new features. The 1910s saw the rise of a number of powerful regional exhibition chains, such as Loew's (New York) and Balaban & Katz (Chicago); these would later become the backbone of the exhibition sector for the vertically integrated film majors of the 1920s through the 1940s. 

Related Links:

Silent Era

Domitor - Association for Study of Early Cinema

Early Cinema Gateway

Bibliography/Further Reading: 

Balio, Tino, ed. The American Film Industry. Rev. ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. 

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. 

Bowser, Eileen. The Transformation of Cinema: 1907-1915. Vol. 2 of History of the American Cinema, ed. Charles Harpole. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. 

Fuller, Kathryn H. At the Picture Show: Small-Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996. 

Gomery, Douglas. Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992. 

Keil, Charlie. Early American Cinema in Transition: Story, Style, and Filmmaking, 1907-1913. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001. 

Keil, Charlie, and Shelley Stamp, eds. American Cinema's Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 

Koszarski, Richard. An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. 

Usai, Paolo Cherchi. Silent Cinema: An Introduction. London: British Film Institute, 2003. 

Waller, Gregory A. Main Street Amusements: Movies and Commercial Entertainment in a Southern City, 1896-1930. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.