Movies: Initial Patterns of Production, Vitascope Cinématographe

The earliest patterns of American film distribution and exhibition have remained obscured by historical inattention. Gordon Hendricks' detailed studies of the invention of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope, and Biograph leave relatively unexamined the contexts in which these initial cinematic devices were commercially exploited. In most survey histories of American cinema, discussion of this period focuses on the Koster and Bial exhibition of the Vitascope on 23 April 1896.

This event is included in most chronicles of early film history because it demonstrates the popularity of film as a vaudeville attraction. Yet missing from these histories is the integration of this single event into a systematic analysis of the early history of the film industry. What factors led up to the Koster and Bial exhibition, and what was its full significance as a precedent for the marketing of motion picture technology?

By using data collected from the contemporaneous trade press and business records of the Vitascope Company and the Edison Manufacturing Company, I shall consider the first year ( 1896-97) of large-scale commercial exploitation of cinema as a projected medium. The two principal companies involved, the Vitascope Company (licensees of Edison) and the Lumière Company, represent divergent marketing strategies for the American cinema. The success of the Lumières and the concomitant lack of it by the Vitascope Company attest to the determining influence vaudeville exerted on early practices of the motion picture industry.

The history of American commercial screen exhibition begins with the invention of the Kinetograph camera in the laboratories of Thomas Edison. Developed between 1887 and 1891, the Kinetograph was the camera with which, as Gordon Hendricks has noted, "every subject known to us up to May 1896" in the United States was shot. The Kinetograph films were not projected, however, but viewed by means of a peep-show device, the Kinetoscope, which was first marketed in April 1894. During the spring and summer of that year, Kinetoscopes were installed in penny arcades, hotel lobbies, summer amusement resorts, and phonograph parlors.1 By 1895 the Edison Company had demonstrated the practicability of motion photography, begun regular production of films for use in the Kinetoscope, and established the commercial usefulness of the motion picture as a popular entertainment novelty.

It was not until five years after Edison had patented the Kinetograph in 1891 that his laboratory produced its own movie projector. Journalist Terry Ramsaye's widely quoted explanation for Edison's delay was that the Wizard reasoned, "If we put out a screen machine, there will be use for maybe about ten of them in the whole United States.... Let's not kill the goose that lays the golden egg."2 There is reason to doubt that Edison thought in terms of the Kinetoscope as his magic goose and thus discounted the profitability of opening up motion picture exhibition to group audiences.

It is much more likely that the Kinetoscope scheme was perceived as a turkey rather than a magic goose; records of the Edison Manufacturing Company show that its supply of golden eggs lasted but a few months. Edison probably doubted the commercial value of the Kinetoscope from the beginning, and when returns from the device began to dwindle after a brief success, he turned his attention to the myriad other projects he was working on. Even before the first Kinetoscope had been placed into commercial service, Edison wrote Eadweard Muybridge, "I have constructed a little instrument which I call a kinetograph with a nickel slot attachment and some twenty-five have been made out. I am very doubtful if there is any commercial feature in it and fear that they will not earn their cost."

Ohio businessmen Norman Raff and Frank C. Gammon became exclusive American marketing agents for the Kinetoscope on 1 September 1894.4 The following May Raff wrote, "The demand for Kinetoscopes (during 1895) has not been enough to even pay expenses of our company.... In fact our candid opinion is that the Kinetoscope business--at least as far as the regular company is concerned--will be a 'dead duck' after this season."5 Public interest in the peep show was waning, and the owners were selling their machines, further depressing the market for new Kinetoscopes.6 To make matters worse, by May 1895 news had reached Raff and Gammon that Frenchmen Louis and Auguste Lumière had patented and publicly exhibited a camera/projector, the Cinématographe.

With their Kinetoscope business a failure and the prospects of a successful commercial projector imminent, during the summer and fall of 1895 Raff and Gammon pleaded with the Edison Company to develop its own projector, but to no avail. Just when the partners were trying to sell their business and cut their losses, they learned of a projector, the Vitascope, invented by two men from Washington, D.C., Thomas Armat and Francis Jenkins. In January 1896 Raff and Gammon concluded negotiations by which they received the license to market the device on a territorial-rights basis. To avoid potential patent litigation and to assure a supply of films, they also contracted for the Edison Company to manufacture the projector and provide films.

The marketing plan devised by Raff and Gammon for the Vitascope was based upon that initially used for the Edison phonograph. In June 1888 the North American Phonograph Company was formed for the purpose of exploiting the Edison phonograph and a competing machine, the graphophone. This company was authorized by Edison to grant exclusive territorial licenses for the lease of the phonograph and the purchase of recording cylinders. Within two years, North American had issued franchises to thirty-three state or regional companies. This territorial-rights marketing scheme was based on the assumption that the phonograph would be used primarily as a piece of office machinery: a stenographic aid.

Within a short time, however, it was discovered that the phonograph, as then designed, was not particularly useful as a dictating machine. Rights holders resorted to attaching coin-in-the-slot devices to their phonographs in an effort to recoup their investment. By 1892 most phonographs were being used, not in offices, but in saloons and penny arcades, a development which made the territorial-rights plan outmoded.9 Rights holders discovered that as the demand for phonographs increased with their popularity as entertainment devices, their clients began purchasing cheap copies of the Edison machine rather than leasing the original from them.

There is no discussion of the merits of the territorial-rights marketing scheme among the Raff and Gammon correspondence; its dubious usefulness in marketing entertainment devices did not deter them from resorting to it. The scheme devised for marketing the Vitascope called for the selling of franchises in the United States and Canada. For an initial advance payment, an agent could purchase exculsive rights to the Vitascope for a state or group of states, including the right to lease projectors (for from $25 to $50 monthly, per machine) and buy Edison films. The manner and location of the exhibitions were left entirely to the franchise holder. The agents could exploit the Vitascope themselves, or as Raff and Gammon repeatedly pointed out in their correspondence, the territories could be further divided and subfranchised.

The exhibition context Raff and Gammon had in mind for the Vitascope is unclear from their correspondence with prospective rights purchasers. In their initial catalogue, they suggest that a twenty-five or fiftycent admission charge could be made for a brief program of Vitascope subjects.11 What they do not seem to have had in mind was the use of films in vaudeville theaters on a regular basis. The films were to be sold, not rented. Raff and Gammon told prospective customers that the films could be used "for a long time." With a stock of only fifteen to twenty films at the beginning of their marketing campaign, Raff and Gammon were not in a position to supply vaudeville managers with the regular change of program their audiences had come to expect.

The two types of exhibition outlets Raff and Gammon envisioned for the motion picture seem to have been the penny arcade, or phonograph parlor, and presentations by itinerant showmen. Several people who bought territorial rights were operators of phonograph parlors. A. E Reiser, the Vitascope agent for Pennsylvania (exclusive of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), operated a publishing company that specialized in providing books for public libraries. If the community did not have the funds, Reiser would help them raise the money by sponsoring musical concerts. He wanted to use the Vitascope in rural Pennsylvania to assist him in these fund-raising efforts.

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