Today Hollywood is synonymous with the U.S. movie industry. But what you may not realise is its origins are 4,500km away in New York City.
When people think of old movies, they might think of the classics like The Godfather (1972) or Mary Poppins (1964). Those with a deeper knowledge might call out The Wizard of Oz (1939) or the silent-movie icon Charlie Chaplin. But movie history is a lot older than that, and its birthplace in America wasn’t even Hollywood. It was New York City.
Naturally the history of motion pictures started with photography. Americans became fascinated with the medium during the U.S. Civil War. Photos allowed the country to see the raw cost of modern war up close and personal. After the war ended, that fascination with pictures quickly expanded into moving pictures.
The first ‘film’ was a science experiment from 1878. Eadweard Muybridge took multiple photos of a horse named Sally at a gallop to win a bet that a horse has all of its hooves leave the ground. This was created using 24 cameras rather than a ‘motion picture camera’.
It wasn’t until 1884 that audiences around the world would see how a ‘film camera’ operated. Charles Jenkins called his device a Phantoscope and later sold it to American inventor Thomas Edison. After a series of modifications, Edison rebranded it the Vitascope and quickly sold them to ‘projection halls’ across America. Still, movies as we know them today were a long way off, as these projection halls only showed things like water rushing over Niagara Falls and trains coming into the station. And yes, they were very popular at the time.
It was in the early 1900s that motion pictures changed from showing simple motion to telling a story. But Hollywood as we know it did not yet exist. Instead it was concentrated on Broadway in New York City, which is where the acting stars of the day resided. But by 1910 this started to change, as films became more complicated and costs rose, filmmakers were forced to look for a more cost-effective place to shoot.
Enter California, then a mostly unsettled region that featured a fantastic combination of cheap and available labour, and lots of land. Add a climate that was suited to filmmaking for most of the year, and filmmakers were quickly hooked.
Despite over 100 years of success, Hollywood is starting to go the way of New York City, in that it’s getting too expensive. According to the Hollywood Reporter, between 2015 and 2020, ‘runaway films’ cost California US$7.7b in economic activity and $350m in state and local taxes. With prices still high in the state for land and wages, it seems unlikely that this runaway trend will stop. So will another entertainment hub pop up to cater for U.S. studio movies? Will there even be one, or will the industry become more geographically fragmented? To be continued…