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Thomas Edison and the Movie Poster

A photo of an old camera and some old photos 

A casualty of the collapse of The Weinstein Company, "The Current Affair" starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, was originally due for release in 2017. Having now been bought by Lantern Entertainment, it will receive its long overdue release in July 2019. 

In conjunction, we thought it a great opportunity to explore the life of Thomas Edison. Whilst the upcoming film focuses on the cut-throat race to dominate the market for electricity generation, here we focus on Edison's contribution to the movies, and, to the movie poster.

The Strange Twists of Fate...

Thomas Alva Edison was born in Ohio on the 11th February 1847. Largely home and self schooled, the future direction of the young man’s life was set by a potentially tragic event.

 

A photo of the young Thomas Edison

The Young Edison

 

It is the 4th August 1862 and freight cars are being transferred to a siding near Mount Clemens rail station. A frequent occurrence, but today would be different. A carriage breaks free, gathers momentum and thunders towards the station. The pre-school son of station master James Mackenzie stands directly in its path. A quick-thinking (15 year old) Thomas Edison reacts, snatching the toddler away, just as several tonnes of carriage careers past.

Station master Mackenzie evidently believed he owed Edison a great debt, a debt he repaid by teaching Edison the Morse telegraphic system. Edison embraced the opportunity and gained work at the Western Union Telegraph Company, where he would send and receive news reports.

His first invention (which allowed multiple messages to be sent along the same telegraph wire) would be bought by Western Union for the equivalent of nearly $250,000. A life-changing sum of money, and, in a fitting example of karma, just rewards for his earlier heroic actions.

The Serial Inventor

Using these funds Edison established an industrial research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It was here, in 1877, that he invented the Phonograph, the first device for reproducing recorded sound and, in 1879, a viable solution to commercialisation of the electric light bulb.

Menlo Park would grow to the size of two city blocks and earn Edison the nickname "The Wizard of Menlo Park."

Across the Atlantic, a 19 year old Scotsman, William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson (or W.K.L. to his friends), was writing to Edison seeking employment. Four years later, he finally joined the Menlo Park lab.

 

A still of William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson from 1891's Dickson's Greeting

A still of William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson from 1891's silent short-film, "Dickson's Greeting"

 

Eight years later, he and his team, alongside Edison, had laid out the basis of a future industry. They developed the first practical celluloid movie film, a device that used this film to reproduce moving images (the Kinetoscope) and a practical camera (the Kinetograph) to capture moving images.

Edison was, of course, the patent owner. In the first eleven months, they would earn him over $85,000 (nearing $2.5M in today’s money). By 1894 his Kinetoscopes were installed on Broadway at the first moving picture house. By 1895, they had already reached Europe.

W.K.L. Dickson left Edison and formed the ‘American Mutoscope and Biograph Company’, the first U.S. company focussed solely on the production and display of movie pictures.

The Motion Pictures Patent Company

Fifteen years on from the installation of the first Kinetoscopes, Edison Studios (based first in New Jersey and then the Bronx) was a major commercial entity. Edison owned important U.S. patents relating to the industry and used them aggressively to limit competition.

Competing film studios (with the exception of Dickson’s ‘Biograph Company’ who had cleverly used a sufficiently different camera design) were forced to import, rather than produce their own films.

In 1907, these competing studios approached Edison to propose a licensing deal that would allow them to use his patents. Biograph also held an important patent, and, by 1908 agreement had been reached to pool and license 16 patents covering film, cameras and projection. The ‘Motion Pictures Patent Company’ (also known as the ‘Edison Trust’) was formed.

 

Representatives from the founding members of the Motion Pictures Patent Company

Representatives from the founding members of the Motion Pictures Patent Company

 

For Trust members, the MPCC also defined the business models and practices of the participants. It forbid the sale of films, defining a rental model for distributors and theatres, set standard rental rates for all films, and, limited the distribution of key materials and technologies to Trust members – no other entrants to the market were allowed.

The Birth of Hollywood and the One Sheet Movie Poster

As a result, studios outside of the Trust, sought to distance themselves. They looked for areas far from the Trust’s east coast base, where the weather was conducive to film making and where courts were less inclined to uphold patents. The answer was the west coast, California and Hollywood.

Back on the east coast, the Trust also formed the General Film Company to manage distribution of films to theatres. The GFC contracted with the ‘A.B. See Lithography Company’ to produce all of the Trust members' advertising material, and, in doing so, to standardise them too.

Frames to hold the standard formats were put up in cinemas and, inevitably, those studios outside the trust found it easier to adhere to the standard format too.

And so, in 1909, the One Sheet movie poster format (27 in x 41 in) was born.

By 1913, the Trust’s patents had expired and in 1915, the Federal Courts ruled that the members’ actions resulted in an illegal restraint of trade. The company was closed in 1918. Edison sold the Bronx studio the same year.

 

A photo of Thomas Edison in later years

Edison in later years

 

By the time of his death in 1931 from the complications of diabetes, he had amassed a record 1093 U.S. patents. The ‘one sheet movie poster’ isn’t one of them, but it exists because of him and it has endured to this day.

You can see the many posters that we have available, from the 1930s to the present day, here

 

Adam and the Art of the Movies team.

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