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Edison's Motion Picture Business Comes To a Close

Even as Porter enjoyed increasing prosperity in the mid teens, the Edison company encountered an array of problems. A major blow to Edison's motion picture efforts in mid-decade involved the Motion Picture Patents Company. The MPPCo had sued almost all unlicensed domestic film producers between 1909 and 1911. While it enjoyed initial successes against these independents, Carl Laemmle in particular challenged the validity of MPPCo patents in court and eventually won. Meanwhile the MPPCo-licensed film producers started their own film exchange in mid 1910, absorbing many of the rental companies owned by or affiliated with the "trust." The resulting General Film Company then bought out many of the remaining licensed exchanges; and when a renter refused to sell, he found that his license was quickly cancelled. Tactics such as these led the U.S. government to bring an antitrust suit on August 15, 1912. Much damaging evidence was submitted, and on October 1, 1915, the courts found the Motion Picture Patents Company guilty of antitrust violation.[56] Edison and other licensed producers then became liable to pay injured parties triple damages. This defeat was not only a costly financial and commercial setback but a public relations disaster.

Although Edison's motion picture enterprise suffered setbacks in many areas, the principal ones were in the area of filmmaking. The talent of its staff was weakened by the departure of Dawley, Laura Sawyer, and other personnel to the Famous Players Film Company in mid 1913. In March 1914 the Bronx studio suffered a major fire, which disrupted production. Yet Edison's decisive failure centered on its refusal to make a timely transition to full-length feature filmmaking. Edison released only one-reelers throughout 1912 and most of 1913, even as the average number of prints sold per subject fell from 40 to about 30.[57] That August, Edison introduced one two-reeler per week. Sales quickly picked


up, halving the previous decline. Feature films (and even two-reelers were sometimes considered features at this stage) were in immense demand while one-reelers were becoming "filler."[58] Nonetheless, Thomas A. Edison, Inc. regularly released four one-reelers and one two-reeler each week through the beginning of 1915.[59] In mid 1914 Edison began to release one three-reel subject a month, but such "features" only became a regular part of Edison's weekly output on March 1st, 1915.[60] By then The Birth of a Nation had opened and Famous Players had been regularly releasing pictures of four to six reels for a year and a half. In the fall of 1915 Edison was barely selling 22 prints per subject through the General Film Company—a money-losing proposition. Before the end of the year, Edison had ceased to make one-reelers for regular release.[61]

William Hodkinson, president of Paramount Pictures Corporation, which distributed all the films made by Famous Players, had come to rely on block booking (in which a theater contracted for all its programs over a given year) and arrangements whereby his company received a percentage of the gross receipts. These commercial strategies ensured healthy profits, while the General Film Company's failure to pursue such innovative methods was a major reason for Edison's lack of profitability in the feature area. Finally, in mid 1915, Edison began to have outside distributors handle its features as well as the General Film Company. This included both Paramount and George Kleine.[62] Negative costs were expected to be about $15,000 per five-to-six reel film with the cost of prints adding another $6,000. Profits, it was assumed, would be substantial. The Kleine-Edison Feature Service was inaugurated with the release of Vanity Fair on October 6, 1915, starring Minnie Maddern Fiske, the renowned, but aging, stage actress who had already appeared in Famous Players' Tess of the D'Urbervilles . Income was disappointing, however, and the picture may have never recovered its cost of $28,676.

The advent of features and World War I (which curtailed foreign markets) destroyed Edison's profitability. The Motion Picture Division would have lost $25,000 during the 1915 business year had it not been for a special $50,000 charge against Edison's foreign division. The following year, it made profits of $2,480 on sales of $566,120. To compensate for the decline in revenues, Edison brought in an efficiency engineer, S. B. Mambert. Mambert was determined to keep expenses down. When filmmaking costs went up from $1.35 per negative foot in May 1915 to $1.71 in June, Horace Plimpton was fired. L. W. McChesney became head of the Motion Picture Division that August, even as Charles Wilson remained general manager of Thomas A. Edison, Inc. Ironically, bureaucratization and petty paperwork proliferated in an attempt to reduce waste. The impact, other than further disruption, seemed small—costs for September rose slightly, to $1.773 per foot. Directors were ordered to work with an exceedingly low (1.33 to 1) shooting ratio, which inevitably hampered production and curtailed quality.[63] The cost of a film more than the potential


box-office success of a picture seemed to be foremost in the minds of Edison executives.

Since the second half of 1915, the Edison company had released its films through a variety of organizations, diffusing its identity and often creating minor conflicts between exhibitors, who found their exclusives undermined. The Paramount deal, which had looked highly promising in 1915, progressed slowly and then soured after Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky staged a coup and forced Hodkinson's departure in June 1916. Only three features were sold to Paramount. Beginning October 1916, the Kleine-Edison Feature Service was expanded to become the K.E.S.E. Service, involving Kleine, Edison, Selig, and Essanay. Edison also made films for McClure Pictures during 1916.[64]

Edison pictures, irrespective of distributor, appealed to moralistic, middle-class reform groups. Immediate pleasures of the flesh were shown to cause long-term misery. The Stoning (released March 25, 1915), for example, warns against premarital sex. It is the story of a naive middle-class girl (played by Viola Dana) who is misled, seduced, and abandoned by a railroad conductor. Though befriended by a virile, reformist minister, she is otherwise snubbed by the community and finally commits suicide. This moralizing tendency was only intensified when America entered World War I in April 1917. As many influential groups called for heightened moral purity and cleanliness, Edison inaugurated a series known as "Conquest Pictures." These programs were meant to provide "cleaner and more wholesome films, which could be exhibited with safety before any member of the family." The results proved disappointing.

Thomas Edison put much of his commitment to innovation in the area of technology. Edison had subsidized several aspiring inventors who claimed to be close to solving the problem of producing color films. They never succeeded, but two products closer to the inventor's concerns reached fruition. The Home Projecting Kinetoscope, often referred to as the Home P.K., and the updated "Kinetophone," which projected motion pictures with synchronous recorded sound in a large theater, looked back to Edison's first caveats. Each, unfortunately, would have a devastating effect on his motion picture enterprise. The Home P.K. was designed for use in homes, churches, and noncommercial venues. Its 21mm strip contained three 5.7mm images across its width; thus each foot of film contained 210 frames. Seventy-seven feet of film provided fifteen minutes of screen time. (This compactness recalls the miniscule images generated by Dickson's cylinder experiments over twenty years before.) People would buy the machine and a few films, which could then be exchanged for new ones at a small cost. The Home P.K. was launched in late 1911 and sold by many of Edison's phonograph dealers. Pictures were taken from the catalog of outdated Edison subjects—with some acquisitions made from other MPPCo-licensed producers. Edison also had personnel make science and educational subjects specifically for the Home P.K. The new motion picture system was complicated to operate and


encumbered by technical deficiencies. Although it represented a major investment of money and energy, the Home P.K. never became very popular.[65]

The kinetophone, in contrast, enjoyed an initial success when it opened in February 1913.[66] The American and Canadian rights were sold to a company set up by prominent vaudeville organizations. They embraced the kinetophone because it gave them a way to differentiate their moving pictures from those being shown in regular picture houses. Vaudeville theaters therefore made long-term (three- to six-month) commitments to the machine, with Edison receiving a rental that varied from $150 to $200 per week. With more than fifty machines playing these houses, gross income exceeded $10,000 a week. In addition, as many as a dozen exhibition units toured the country, presenting the novelty in small-town theaters for a few days at a time. Each reel of film was only six minutes long, and pictures usually showed mediocre vaudeville acts or scenes from plays. Although business boomed through the summer, people began to lose interest. As one of Edison's associates fumed, "The public is interested in seeing Talking Pictures as a novelty, once or twice, and then they want longer subjects and first class acting."[67] Although American interest in the kinetophone novelty seriously faded by the fall of 1913, Edison had also sold kinetophone rights to various parties throughout the world, including Japan. These organizations started somewhat later and often continued to be viable well into 1914; the onset of World War I delivered the final blow to these enterprises in many instances.[68]

With all the technical energy put into the Home P.K. and the kinetophone, the regular Edison 35mm projectors were not kept up-to-date. In 1909 and 1910 profits from the projecting kinetoscope averaged $135,000 per year, down substantially from the $200,000 average of the previous two years but still respectable. Sales fell 30 percent in 1911 and were declining rapidly by 1912. Within another two years, this once profitable part of Edison's business had all but ceased to exist. A half-hearted revival was attempted with the development of a new model, the "Super-Kinetoscope," in 1915; but it was expensive to manufacture and too highly priced. The revival effort was quickly abandoned, and with it all attempts to produce motion picture hardware.[69]

Throughout the 1910s Porter had retained his interest in motion picture technology. In the throes of leaving the Edison Manufacturing Company, he developed the Simplex projector with Frank Cannock. This machine, promoted by Richard Hollaman of the Eden Musee, was first sold commercially in 1911.[70] The rise of the Simplex projector coincided with the decline of the Edison counterpart. Even at Famous Players, Porter had continued to experiment with technological innovations. In June 1915, he and William E. Waddell gave a demonstration of projected stereoscopic moving pictures. As exhibitors would do in the 1950s, they provided spectators with glasses sporting a red filter for one eye and a green filter for the other. According to one report, "the audience at the


Astor Theater was frequently moved to applause by the beauty of the scenes which gave one the impression of looking at actual stage settings and not the shadowy figures of the ordinary picture."[71]

When Porter sold his shares in Famous Players, he used some of the proceeds to buy shares in the Precision Machine Company and became its president. Under his supervision, the company's Simplex projector became the industry standard. Again Porter returned to his passion for mechanical invention. In 1917-18 Porter was vice-president, and Dawley secretary-treasurer, of the Sunlight Arc Company, which marketed innovative lights for studio filming. Competition from a major corporation soon proved their undoing.[72] At the Precision Machine Company, Porter developed several pieces of new equipment, for example an inexpensive motion picture camera that exhibitors could use to take local views. These were not notably successful, and when the company merged with the International Projecting Company in 1925, Porter did not become an officer of the new corporation, but slid quietly into retirement.

Porter, once known as Thomas Edison, Jr., was actively involved in the film industry for roughly thirty years—the same length of time as his role model and one-time boss. By the beginning of 1918, Thomas A. Edison was looking to sell the Bronx studio and leave the filmmaking business. In February, thirty years after the "Wizard" had his interview with Eadweard Muybridge, the actors and production staff at the Edison Studios were laid off. On March 30, 1918, Thomas A. Edison, Inc. sold its studio and plant to the Lincoln & Parker Film Company for $150,000 cash and $200,000 in common and preferred stock. Edison's role in filmmaking, as well as his aspirations as a movie mogul, had come to an end. But for this very reason, he could finally become a figure revered and romanticized by all sectors of the motion picture industry. Until his death on October 18, 1931, he helped to shape the public memory in regard to his role as "father of the motion picture industry."[73] Porter, not unlike Edison, continued to tinker in a machine shop during his years of retirement. Yet after losing much of his money in the stock market crash of 1929, the former filmmaker became a recluse and a largely forgotten figure. He lived with his wife in the Taft Hotel, off Times Square, until he died on April 30, 1941, shortly after his seventy-first birthday.[74]

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