The process of getting from the early “magic lantern” inventions to the modern motion picture industry has involved a multitude of incremental steps taken to advance both the technology of film and the economic structure that supports the creation, distribution, and exhibition of films. Specific important inventions include the lightbulb, photography, flexible film, the motion picture camera, and the film projector.
Joseph Niépce, Louis Daguerre, and William Henry Fox Talbot are the three major inventors who worked to develop the techniques of photography during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Niépce and Daguerre eventually became partners in France and worked to refine the techniques of photography that are the predecessors of modern instant photography.
Talbot, an Englishman who was not aware of the work of Niépce and Daguerre, discovered a method of photography that enabled the making of multiple prints through the use of a negative. It is Talbot’s technique that is most akin to the photography process that is used in the modern film industry.
In the 1870s, Eadweard Muybridge, a British-born photographer, created the first “motion picture” by using a series of twenty-four cameras set at one-foot intervals to photograph a horse as it galloped along a racetrack. As the horse passed each camera, its hooves tripped threads that were attached to each of the cameras, thereby creating a series of twenty-four images that showed a horse in motion.
While French and Italian filmmakers had created feature-length films several years earlier, they were basically film versions of stage plays with the camera playing the role of observer rather than interpreter. These films influenced the American film scene, but the Europeans lost their lead when World War I began to limit the distribution of European films and made the chemicals necessary for their production scarce. This allowed the American film industry to surpass the European industry in influence and economic development.
During the 1910s, the star system began to emerge in America with actors, such as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, becoming bigger draws than directors. This occurred simultaneously with an increase in promotion and advertising that increased audience expectations for the films that they were going to see.
In the early years, prints of films were sold to distributors. Later, renting the films allowed each exhibitor to show a greater variety of films. Renting also allowed the production companies to retain ultimate control over the distribution and use of their films. As a result, block booking became a common practice, whereby exhibitors were forced to show several mediocre films produced by a company if they wanted to show the one blockbuster attraction created by the company.