Thomas Edison Drove the Film Industry to California

filed under: Movies
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Getty Images/Erin McCarthy

The motion picture capital of the United States, if not the world, is Los Angeles, California—specifically, Hollywood. The weather is conducive to year-round shoots and rarely has rain in the forecast. The area has diverse scenery too, with beaches and the ocean as readily available as deserts, forests, and even mountains. On top of that, when some of the first Hollywood studios opened around 1915, land was cheap and labor was plentiful. All the area needed was an industry, and the movie industry made a lot of sense.

Oh, and there was one other reason the movie industry made its way west. Los Angeles was far away from New Jersey—and Thomas Edison was in New Jersey.

Edison, over the course of his career, held over 1000 patents in the United States. He was credited with inventing a bevy of technological devices from the incandescent light bulb to the phonograph. He also had a role in the invention of the Kinetoscope, an early movie camera (although most of the work was done by William Kennedy Dickson, an employee of Edison). And during the late 1800s and into the 20th century, he held many of the patents over the technologies needed to create movies. Edison apparently used these patents as a cudgel.

Because Edison held so many patents, and because these patents applied to both the creation of movies and the technology used to run movie theaters, he was able to cajole other patent holders into forming a consortium which he would lead. Together, these firms formed the Motion Picture Patent Company, and exhibited a near monopoly on the production, distribution, and exhibition of all things film. The MPPC’s Wikipedia entry sums up well how viciously the company enforced its patents:

[T]he MPPC also established a monopoly on all aspects of filmmaking. Eastman Kodak, which owned the patent on raw film stock, was a member of the Trust and thus agreed to only sell stock to other members. Likewise, the Trust’s control of patents on motion picture cameras ensured that only MPPC studios were able to film, and the projector patents allowed the Trust to make licensing agreements with distributors and theaters – and thus determine who screened their films and where.

In short, if you wanted to be in the movie business, you did so at the pleasure of Thomas Edison. And Edison (via the MPPC) was not one to back down. The Company took to the courts to prevent the unauthorized use of everything from cameras to projectors — and in many cases, the films themselves. According to Steven Bach in his book, Final Cut, the MPPC even went to the extreme “solution” of hiring mob-affiliated thugs to enforce the patents extra-judiciously. Pay up — or else.

Many in the film industry, known as “independents,” chose a third option: flee. California made a lot of sense, not only for the reasons listed above, but also because it was in an area where judges were less friendly to the patents awarded to Edison and company. And even if the patents were held valid (or if the MPPC again tried to go with the extrajudicial solution), enforcement would be tricky, as cross-continental travel was expensive and cumbersome for mobsters and federal marshals alike. This time lag was all the “independents” needed, as the Company’s patents were expiring and the organization was losing antitrust cases in the courts.

Hollywood, born out of a desire to avoid Edison’s intellectual property claims, quickly became the primary location of the motion picture industry.

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July 16, 2013 - 5:00pm
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