Guide to Motion Picture Catalogs:
The Motion Picture Patents Company

Established film producers feared excessive competition from these new firms. They also felt threatened by European productions that were being imported in increasing numbers from a growing number of sources. Anxious to secure their position, these producers hoped to form a trade association that would discourage potential competitors. While Edison was suing many of these companies for patent infringement, as a film producer he shared many of their problems. Furthermore, his patent infringement cases were meeting with only limited success in the courts. For example, in 1907 the courts upheld Biograph's camera patent. This allowed Biograph to operate without the threat of further Edison litigation. In this environment several industry leaders suggested that they form a trade association based upon an umbrella of Edison, Biograph, and Armat patents. The Edison and Biograph companies stood to benefit not only from the reduced competition but also from the substantial royalties that they would receive on their patents. Edison and Biograph executives could not, however, agree on the relative importance of their respective patents. Consequently, the industry split into two rival groups. [57]

The Edison licensees formed one group, consisting of Vitagraph, Selig, Lubin, Pathé, Méliès, Essanay, and Kalem. The Edison Company was not a licensee because it controlled the patents. The other group included the Biograph Company and its licensees: Italian "Cines"; Great Northern Film Company; Williams, Brown & Earle; and Kleine Optical Company.[58] The first two were foreign producers with U.S. representatives, while the latter two were American importers of foreign films. A number of domestic producers were not licensed by either group.[59] Most of these unaligned production companies did not survive because film exchanges associated with the two dominant factions were prohibited from buying films from the independent companies.

By mid-1908 motion pictures were emerging as a form of mass entertainment. The Edison licensees standardized their release patterns. Each production company released its films on a specific day of the week. Exchanges customarily placed standing orders with a production company and agreed to purchase a given number of prints of each release. These films were then distributed to theaters at a price determined by the amount of time a subject had been on the market—the newer the film, the more costly the rental. Distribution thus became standardized and rationalized. Similar developments occurred in film production as methods utilized by large-scale industry were adopted. Methods of motion picture story-telling were also transformed.[60]

These changes in motion picture practices occurred within a context of commercial warfare between the Edison and Biograph interests. In late December 1908, after months of negotiation, the Edison and Biograph groups formed the Motion Picture Patents Company. This corporation licensed nine producers and one importer: Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Lubin, Selig, Pathé, Essanay, Kalem, Méliès, and the Kleine Optical Company. For a few months a monopoly seemed possible, then new commercial opposition arose outside the "trust."

The formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company serves as a suitable endpoint for this microfilm edition of catalogs. The new company transformed the commercial structure of the film industry. Simultaneous changes in production and story-telling methods also had an impact on the role that catalogs performed in the industry. Before 1909, motion picture catalogs not only promoted films but also provided exhibitors with suggestions for combining films into more complex programs and with information to use in accompanying these programs with a spoken lecture. In some cases, theater managers posted film bulletins outside theaters or distributed them as programs. After 1908, motion picture subjects were increasingly self-explanatory and the exhibitor's intervention became less necessary. As Biograph Bulletins: 1908-1912 suggests, advertising circulars gradually dispensed with extensive plot summaries.[61] Increasingly, catalogs featured a company's star players, provided movie gossip, or suggested promotional schemes for the exhibitor to adopt.

As the industry became larger and more complex, catalogs became less important as a form of advertising. Before 1906, film producers and distributors had often advertised in trade journals such as the New York Clipper, The Phonoscope, or Billboard. Yet, these journals covered many other areas of entertainment. During the nickelodeon era, the film industry supported not one but several journals addressed specifically to motion pictures. These included Views and Film Index, owned by Vitagraph and Pathé; Moving Picture World, which carried detailed synopses of films released in the United States; and Moving Picture News. In addition, the New York Dramatic Mirror and Variety developed extensive coverage of the motion picture business. These new trade journals provided a wealth of information about the motion picture business that generally was not available earlier except in catalogs and handbills.

Although the motion picture catalog did not disappear in 1908, its character and role changed. These rare and fragile pieces of paper stand today as incunabula of an era before motion pictures became a form of mass entertainment and a big business. They document the rapid transformation of screen practices, the emergence of a new form of mass entertainment, and the creation of a new industry.

Footnotes

57. The formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company is examined in Janet Staiger, "Combination and Litigation: Structures of U.S. Film Distribution, 1891-1917," Cinema Journal 23, no. 2 (Winter 1984): 41-72; Ralph Cassady, Jr., "Monopoly in Motion Picture Production and Distribution," in Gorham Kindem, ed., The American Movie Industry (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 25-68; and Michael Conant, Antitrust in the Motion Picture Industry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).
58. Catalogs survive for Great Northern Film Company (P-002), Williams, Brown & Earle (E-002, E-011), and Kleine Optical Company (V-451).
59. One such company was the Centaur Film Company, run by David Horsley in Bayonne, New Jersey. A Centaur catalog (see 0-002) was retained by the Motion Picture Patents Company as evidence for a possible patent suit.
60. Changes in story-telling methods are examined in Tom Gunning, "Weaving a Narrative," Quarterly Review of Film Studies 6, no. 1 (Winter 1981): 11-25.
61. Eileen Bowser, ed., Biograph Bulletins: 1908-1912 (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1973).

Previous Page | Table of Contents | Key to Archives | Reel Notes | Next Page

-----