While researching this week's Film of the Year, A Corner in Wheat (1909), I came across an article in the January 3, 1909 issue of the New York Times about the “nation-wide wave of moving pictures.” The piece describes the state of the American film industry at that time through technical and economic stats. You probably don't want to waste your time digging through old newspapers (what's wrong with me, anyway?) so I’ll share some of the info:
• Average cost to open a nickelodeon: $4,000
• Number of theaters in U.S. : 10,000
• Exhibitors' employees: 100,000
• Weekly attendance: 45 million
• Price of admission: 5¢ or 10¢ (depending on location)
• Estimated weekly income of all box offices: $3,000,000
45 million weekly admissions in 1909? Wow. That comes to 2.34 billion for the year, or over 900 million more admissions than U.S. movie theaters reported in 2005! Those numbers give us some idea of how popular the cinema was back in the day (and how lucrative- that box office is in 1909 dollars!). Reading Richard Abel's The Red Rooster Scare increases the significance of these figures because the book reveals that at the time—the only time in history—a foreign power dominated the American cinema market. These days Hollywood films outnumber local output in many countries and U.S. companies dominate worldwide distribution, but that trend was once just the opposite. In the early part of the 20th century Pathé Freres of France was the top producer of films screened in America. That's right, most of the money described in that Times article was going out of the country and filling pockets in Europe. If you're wondering how this came to pass, read on.
The success of Georges Méliés’ trick films in the vaudeville circuit and the vast popularity of other films like The Great Train Robbery (1903) encouraged American entrepreneurs to construct buildings for the sole purpose of showing movies all day long. The theaters were dubbed nickelodeons, and by 1909 there 500 in New York alone; every town of any size had at least one. To keep patrons spending nickels in them the owners needed a steady supply of new films. As discussed in an earlier post, France's Pathé Fréres was the only company in the world with the resources to produce enough quality films to answer this demand. Technically and artistically, American film companies were lagging behind partly because many were focused on fighting each other in court over patents and licensing instead of making movies.
To find out how the U.S. companies wrestled control back into American hands, read 1909 - part two.