Hollywood, the mecca of the movie and television industry and the land where dreams come true. The fairy-tale narrative around this land has been glorified with the same success that they create awesome movies, television products, and superstars. It’s the American Dream itself; a humble and giving land that managed to fight adversity and thrive. However, though some of it is true, the real story of why Hollywood became the capital of entertainment in the world has everything we love in a good movie. Great landscapes, an ambitious villain, the wish to thrive, and mobsters.
The truth is, that Hollywood was simply a cheap land, near to Mexico, that independent filmmakers saw as idyllic to escape from one powerful man that dominated the industry, the one and only Thomas Alva Edison. So, in theory, the inventor of the incandescent lightbulb, the phonogram, film, and the film cameras could also be granted the title of the unintentional founder of Hollywood. The story goes like this.
Edison’s contributions to cinema
Edison managed to create what many had tried before, the moving pictures. He patented the kinetoscope movie viewer in 1891, though it was actually developed by his assistant William Kennedy Dickson. The idea of the kinetoscope was to promote one of Edison’s previous inventions, the phonogram, and thus sell a pair of products capable of projecting both sound and moving images in one. Still, synchronizing them was a real challenge, and failing to do so gave rise to the popular silent film era.
Being the businessman that he was, Thomas Alva Edison founded the very first movie studio in the United States, Black Maria. The studio, located in New Jersey, created the first silent movies in history, and seeing the popularity his invention was acquiring, Edison, as he did with pretty much everything he created, resorted to patents to hinder any possible competition. In other words, Edison wanted to make sure he held the monopoly of the film industry and that all the profits would go to his purse.
Eventually, he paired with other people who thought like him and held important patents to create the Motion Picture Patents Company, or as it was known the Edison Trust. This made it impossible for any independent moviemaker or studio to create films outside Edison’s business scheme without facing the consequences of intense lawsuits that would take them to bankruptcy. Edison’s tactics weren’t only in the legal field. It was well recorded that to deter the production of competing studios, he would resort to unorthodox and illegal methods like hiring mobsters.
The situation was suffocating for independent filmmakers, and wanting to escape from Edison’s violent restrictions, a group of several independent studios decided to look for a new haven to create without constraints. Still, Edison had power in almost all the country, yet, California seemed like the ideal spot to carry out their plans since, back in the day, it would take time and money, even for the powerful Edison, to cross the country. Not only that, California offered great weather that could allow studios to film basically throughout the entire year and not force them to stop productions, and more importantly, it was really close to Mexico, so they could easily escape the law if Edison were to chase them. So where to in California?
Hollywood’s agricultural origins and urbanization
In the mid 19th century, the land that now is known as Hollywood had literally nothing but a small hut. In the following couple of decades, the land proved to be quite fertile for people to live from it. It soon became an agricultural community that was named Cahuenga Valley. As it happens with everything, eventually a powerful man discovered this hidden oasis and soon would turn it into a money-making city. That man was Hobart Johnstone Whitley, a politician, and real state businessman who saw in Cahuenga Valley a great opportunity to fulfill his dream of living on a ranch.
Though his fig ranch managed to operate for one year, Whitley knew this lad was promising. He built houses, and the Hollywood Hotel, which was built where today is the iconic Dolby Theater. By the turn of the century, Hollywood, as it was named was already a thriving small city. In 1910, it became part of Los Angeles.
The Monster Awakens: Hollywood’s Golden Era
Whitley’s new haven seemed like the best choice to start over. As we mentioned, the weather was pleasant almost the entire year, it was way too far from Edison’s hands, and more importantly, would give them a safe and fast passage to escape if needed. In 1915, the court favored the Independent studios by ruling the United States vs. Motion Picture Patents Co. It stated that the Edison Trust was in their right to respond when copyrights infringements were committed but had no right to use their power as a “weapon to disable a rival contestant or to drive him from the field.” This came to be known as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and from then on, filmmakers were free from Edison’s cruel monopoly.
The first film completed in this new movie haven was The Count of Monte Cristo in 1908. It had been started in Chicago but was finished in Hollywood. However, the very first movie made entirely there was a short film called In Old California. It was released in 1910 when the studios were still frightened by Edison’s company and his mobsters. When the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was ruled, most of the independent movie studios had relocated to Hollywood.
Free to create without constraints, the movie industry was ready to experiment and expand its business. This time of growth and rising popularity as an entertainment product was known as the Golden Age of Hollywood, where the main five movie studios thrived. Warner Brothers, RKO, Fox, MGM, and Paramount, as well as the small studios Universal and United Artists, dominated the industry producing hundreds of films yearly.
As they say, the rest is history. And on a good note, no one had to flee to Mexico to escape mobsters.