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Where Hollywood Began: 80 Fifth Avenue, #SouthOfUnionSquare

Today, the film industry brings one city to mind: Hollywood. But prior to 1915, when films were just gaining possibility and popularity in the United States, New York City was the center of the film industry. That stranglehold over the film industry, as well as its eventual move west, were thanks to Thomas Edison and the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), headquartered at 80 Fifth Avenue, in the area South of Union Square which was the center of that center of the film industry, from 1909 until its dissolution in 1917. 

80 Fifth Avenue, 1937. Photo courtesy of MCNY Digital Collections.

The MPPC was preceded by the Edison licensing system, which operated between 1907-1908. The licensing system came by way of Edison’s control over nearly all major U.S. patent for film production and projection in the early 20th Century. Edison was a driving force behind the birth of the United States’ film industry in the late 19th Century and he immediately began to enforce limitations on the use of what he invented.

Moving Picture World, 1909

The Edison company used its hold over the film world to suffocate its competitors. Starting at the turn of the century, if one the notable film companies (Essanay, Kalem, Pathé Frères, Selig, or Vitagraph) used any other machinery than the Edison company’s, they were sued for copyright infringement. The Edison Company carried out this practice until the other companies were worn down by the lawsuits. Though many of the suits did not hold up in court, the constant legal engagements crippled film production in the U.S. and reduced the market to two companies: Edison and Biograph. Biograph used a different design for their camera which didn’t infringe on Edison’s copyrights and therefore was not affected by Edison’s continuous lawsuits. Biograph was also located in the area south of Union Square. 

Latham Loop, courtesy of WikiCommons

While the other notable companies were not able to produce their own films, they began importing British and French films. Then, these companies approached the Edison Company to strike a licensing agreement, one from which Edison notably excluded Biograph with the hope of shutting the company out of the market. When excluded from this deal, Biograph retaliated by purchasing the Latham loop which allowed film strips to be shot and projected for extended periods of time; this was a crucial piece of ingenuity at the turn of the century. Edison tried to sue for control of the patent, but was unsuccessful. Then, negotiations began and the Edison licensing company was restructured into the Motion Picture Patents Company, with 16 members, including Biograph. 

The MPPC restricted films to one to two reels at 10 minutes each. It didn’t allow for the acknowledgement of actors’ names in the films, as the MPPC believed that notoriety would encourage actors to ask for more money. It refused equipment to uncooperative companies and sought to drive out small or indie film companies. 

Edison Catalogue, 1903, Courtesy of Rutgers Thomas A. Edison Papers

However, the MPPC was not entirely a hindrance to the growth of the film industry. Commercial film for entertainment purposes began with Edison’s peephole kinetoscope at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. By the early 20th century, theaters and public showings became popular and people were viewing films for entertainment around the country. As means of advertisement for the films that companies would put on each week, on a predetermined date, they would release motion picture catalogues. In addition to advertisements, the catalogues explained in what order to show the films, a general plot description, equipment descriptions, stills from production, and advertising material for the local theater where it was being shown. 

Moving Picture World, Courtesy of the Media History Project

As the film industry began to grow, within the confines of the 16 companies in the MPPC, catalogues were not as important. Advertisements were made in local papers, and the film news was now being printed in trade journals supported by the growing film industry. These included Views and Film Index, owned by Vitagraph and Pathé; Moving Picture World, which carried detailed synopsis of films released in the United States; and Moving Picture News.

Soon, major cracks in the MPPC’s viability began to form. The indie film companies that the MPPC had refused to work with sued, or began moving west to Hollywood. Hollywood boasted cheap labor, open land, year round sunshine, and a multitude of filming locations within a short distance. In addition, the courts out west did not look as kindly on the overreach by Edison’s multiple patents. And if the patent restrictions were upheld, the distance made regulation hard for court marshals or Edison’s hired hands to enforce.

Then, 1915 a civil antitrust suit was brought against the MPPC for violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act by forming a monopoly of the film industry. The MPPC was found to be in violation of the law which they appealed to the Supreme Court. But while appealing to the Supreme Court, MPPC had another case, MPPC V. Universal Film Mfg., rise to the Supreme Court level. This case not only invalidated MPPC’s patents on the Latham loop, a keystone of the company, but is an early example of patent misuse doctrine. The Supreme Court found that MPPC had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and both parties dropped the lawsuit. The MPPC was disbanded, and as the old Edison Trust died, the Hollywood Film system began. Soon it was these upstart companies that moved our West to avoid Edison’s heavy handed overreach and domination of the industry which rules the film business, and not Edison.

The area south of Union Square played an extraordinary role in the beginnings of the film industry. Film was made, shaped, and advanced within this area. 841 Broadway, was the home of the Biograph Company from 1896 through 1906. The Biograph Company is famous for its early advances in filmmaking technology and was one of the first and most recognized American film studios. 70 Fifth Avenue, in its early years, was the home of the National Board of Review of Motion pictures, founded in 1909 to fight government intervention in the film industry and known today simply as the National Board of Review. In its 111-year existence, the Board played a profound role in shaping the motion picture industry in America, single-handedly deciding what content would or would not appear in film by either granting or denying their stamp of approval for movies: “passed by the National Board of Review.”

Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square

To help landmark 80 Fifth Avenue, home of this incredible film history and so much more, and other buildings in this area, click here. To read more history of the buildings and area south of Union Square, and our preservation efforts in the area, click here.

To explore our film history tour of the area South of Union Square, click here.

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