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Carl Laemmle and the trust

29.12.2010

Carl Laemmle was the first to fight back. The future founder of Universal Pictures, Laemmle created the Laemmle Film Service, later known as the Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP), and began a bedrock campaign to shake nickelodeon owners out of their torpor and challenge the Edison Trust. One of the claims that the Trust made was that their ownership of the film industry was based on the fact that each of the ten companies possessed patents that were essential in the production of motion pictures. In truth, the patents were all based on the same basic principles that had been set down by the Lumière brothers, Le Prince, and others years before, but rather than sue each other—which was the situation before Edison created the Trust—the nine companies decided to agree that, among them, they jointly held the requisite patents.


Woodville Latham, which kept projected motion pictures from jamming in the projection gate. Edison had acquired the patent from Latham in 1897 and launched suits against all his competitors at that time; in addition, Edison had also acquired a similar apparatus from inventor Thomas Armat in 1896.


The flurry of lawsuits that followed was designed to keep timid producers in a perpetual state of fear and obligation; to add insult to injury, in addition to forcing exhibitors to screen only films made by the Motion Picture Patents Company and distributed by the General Film Company, the same exhibitors also had to pay a $2.50 per week licensing fee simply for adhering to the Trust’s dictates. This was in addition to the Trust’s licensing fee of ten cents a foot for each film screened by any exhibitor.


Laemmle declared open war on the Trust, aided in a competitive way by William Fox, whose Fox Film Corporation more or less ignored the Trust’s dictates. Laemmle went much further, ridiculing the Trust with satirical cartoons in trade newspapers and exhorting nickelodeon owners to “come out of it” and book films from Laemmle’s rival exchange at a fraction of the cost. Edison responded, as he often did, with lawsuits, coercive action, and, when all else failed, violence, hiring gangs of armed thugs to smash the production and exhibition equipment of those rival producers, distributors, and exhibitors who defied him.


Laemmle’s film exchange was a place where nickelodeon owners could rent, rather than buy, films for exhibition. When Edison tried to block exhibitors from screening Laemmle’s existing supply of Edison Trust films, Laemmle began making shorts of his own for rental and used the industrious Thomas Ince as one of his key house directors—in time, Ince would direct some two hundred short attractions for Laemmle. In addition, a group of small companies—such as Majestic, Rex, Powers, and others—combined to form the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Company, which directly confronted the Trust as a monopoly in court.


Finally, Carl Laemmle struck a decisive blow against the Trust in 1908 by luring actress Florence Lawrence, known as “The Biograph Girl,” away from Biograph and signing her for his IMP Company, where she promptly became known as “the Imp Girl.” Laemmle did this in part because he was willing to give her name billing, something that Biograph, as part of the Edison Trust, was loath to do. Edison felt that if the public didn’t know the names of his actors, they wouldn’t be able to increase their salary demands because of burgeoning popularity. Yet he failed to realize that a star’s popularity could potentially sell a film to audiences on name value alone. Thus, Laemmle created the star system as we know it today. To celebrate Lawrence’s signing, he also staged an elaborate publicity campaign in which he claimed to debunk “the blackest and at the same time the silliest lie” that Lawrence had been accidentally killed by a streetcar in St. Louis. What Laemmle neglected to mention in the splashy series of ads—all with the banner headline “We Nail a Lie”—was that he himself had started the rumors in order to generate publicity for Lawrence’s signing. Nevertheless, the ruse worked, and Florence Lawrence went on to become one of IMP’s major early stars.


All this was too much for Edison and his Trust compatriots, and soon the Motion Picture Patents Company was tied up in a seemingly endless round of litigation. In 1915, the courts ruled that the Trust was, in fact, a monopoly, and Edison’s scheme collapsed. The independents had won and such producers as Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Jesse Lasky, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, and others rushed in to fill the need for product, creating a dynamic and highly competitive studio system that survives to the present day, in such companies as Twentieth Century Fox, MGM, Paramount, Universal, and what became other major Hollywood studios.



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