How Thomas Edison (Accidentally) Created Hollywood

Hollywood: the undisputed capital of the movie industry.

Hollywood’s dominance has endured for almost a century, but it wasn’t always that way;

in fact, for the first twenty years of the American film business, Hollywood was just

a tiny agricultural village without a studio in sight.

In this video, we’re gonna see how Thomas Edison inadvertently transformed this village

into the global movie powerhouse that we know today.

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At the dawn of the 20th century, the people of Hollywood were growing citrus trees.

The center of the film industry wasn’t New York either, nor any other city in America.

Instead, that title belonged to Paris, where the two biggest studios alone were distributing

twice as many films in the US as all the American studios combined.

Ironically, even though America played a huge part in the development of film technology,

in terms of actually making movies the US was practically a backwater and this was not

by chance, but by design.

You see, the first decade of the 20th century saw a massive battle for the future of the

American movie business: a battle of patents.

Thomas Edison was the most powerful participant: in 1893 he had built America’s first movie

studio and he held many of the most important patents for motion picture cameras and projectors.

Using his vast resources, Edison would buy up movie patents by the dozens and he would

file lawsuits against pretty much anyone who dared to compete with him.

Edison’s approach was so successful that throughout the 1890s the American movie industry

was effectively his company and the one competitor who had the pockets to oppose Edison’s litigation:

a company known as Biograph, which had invented a different camera from the one covered by

Edison’s patents.

As Nickelodeons spread across America from 1905 onwards, Edison’s studio became the

second biggest one in America, behind only Biograph.

It produced over a thousand movies in its first ten years, including what is almost

certainly the first cat video in existence.

At one point, however, Edison’s camera started becoming too successful: new studios were

emerging to capture the immense profits to be had in the Nickelodeon business faster

than Edison could sue them.

In 1908, Edison finally decided to switch strategies: instead of trying to sue everyone,

Edison would bring all the studios together to create one single entity that would dominate

the entire industry.

By pooling all their patents and connections, the movie studios could ensure that no one

would challenge them and unsurprisingly, almost everyone backed Edison in this proposal.

The Motion Picture Patents Company came to encompass all the big names of American film

and it secured total control over the Nickelodeon business.

The Film Trust, as it came to be known, started charging Nickelodeon theaters for everything:

in the past Nickelodeons could outright buy movies from the studios, but now they could

only rent them.

On top of that they had to pay a licensing fee for every projector and $2 a week for

the theater itself.

The Nickelodeons, of course, had no choice: they could either pay the fees or have no

movies to show.

But some of the theaters went with a third option: they started importing movies from


Now, during the patent battles in America, European cinema had matured significantly.

Feature-length films were becoming increasingly popular in Paris and from there they made

their way to America, where they actually became big hits.

Pretty soon some studio executives were trying to make feature films of their own, but there

was one big problem: the Film Trust would not allow them.

You see, in the eyes of the Film Trust, feature-length films were a competitor to their Nickelodeon

shorts, which is why Edison was fully against them.

Now, because the Film Trust was based out of the East Coast, anyone who wanted to make

movies “illegally” had to move as far away from there as they reasonably could.

The West Coast and specifically Los Angeles became the destination of choice for renegade

movie makers seeking to usurp Edison’s monopoly.

LA had several benefits that made it very attractive: it was connected by rail to the

East Coast where all the technology was coming from, and yet it was also just about a hundred

miles from the Mexican border, where any film producer could hide their equipment in case

Edison successfully sued them.

Of course, the renegade producers weren’t exactly flush with cash, so they didn’t

buy land in LA itself, but rather in a small town on the outskirts where land was cheap:


It is there in 1912 that four studios first began their quest in bringing the feature-length

film to America.

You can see just how successful they were in this chart: from 1912 onwards the young

Hollywood movie industry expanded at an incredible pace.

As the four studios grew in power they started fighting back and in 1915 they supported antitrust

prosecution by the US government, which deemed the Film Trust to be an illegal monopoly and

ordered it to be broken up.

With the East Coast monopoly gone, Hollywood was free to take over the movie industry and

not just in America, but in Europe as well, where the First World War had decimated local

film production.

Of course, Thomas Edison didn’t really care all that much about this missed opportunity:

he was never really into filmmaking, always more on the technological side of things.

But if you’re passionate about movies and wanna learn how to make them you’re gonna

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You can expect to see my next video in about two weeks, and until then: stay smart.