The Origins of the Film Star System
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The Origins of the Film Star System

Persona, Publicity and Economics in Early Cinema

Andrew Shail

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eBook - ePub

The Origins of the Film Star System

Persona, Publicity and Economics in Early Cinema

Andrew Shail

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About This Book

Drawing on a wide range of archival sources, Andrew Shail traces the emergence of film stardom in Europe and North America in the early 20th century. Modifying and supplementing Richard deCordova's account of the birth of the US star system, Shail describes the complex set of economic circumstances that led film studios and actors to consent to the adoption of a star system. He then explores the film industry's turn, from 1908, to making character-based series films. He details how these characters both prefigured and precipitated the star system, demonstrating that series characters and the 'firmament' of film stars are functionally equivalent, and shows how openly fictional characters still provide the model for 'real' film stars.

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Year
2019
ISBN
9781350111424
Edition
1
Topic
Storia
Part 1 A New Run at the Story
In the next four Chapters I provide a new account of the immediate circumstances under which film production companies launched the first publicity campaigns purposed to establish film stardom, identifying the conditions that led to the two earliest known instances of this and the subsequent spread of the system across the film industries of the industrialised West. It will soon become apparent that if film’s star system can be said to have been initiated first in any specific country, this country was France and the decision-makers were the executives at Pathé Frères.
Incentives
Before looking at specific countries, I introduce Part 1 by outlining, in turn, four strong economic incentives to adopt a star system that applied in the European and North American film industries by early 1909: a highly competitive film production marketplace, the rise of a hiring industry, the patchiness of copyright protection for films, and the rise of fixed-site film exhibition in the form of the first cinemas.
In the period 1906–9, intense competition emerged between film production companies in both continents, competition that led to a system of setting the price of films per unit of measurement regardless of the subject of the film. In the US, a 12c-per-foot norm was already instituted by late 1906 (in part by Pathé undercutting the domestic production companies). In the UK, by April 1907, all companies selling films had converted their prices from per-subject pricing, which had averaged around 6d per foot, to a standard of 4d per foot regardless of the film’s subject. In France, 1.25fr per metre was the norm by the end of 1908. In both continents, with the prices that they could ask for their films standardised at these very low levels by competition, film production companies were prevented from increasing sales through further price-dropping. In addition, the widespread norm in both continents, by late 1907/early 1908, of selling copies of films to hiring companies (rather than directly to exhibitors) drastically reduced the number of prints of a film that film production companies could sell relative to the period when they sold the copies directly to the people who would project the films to the public, and so diminished the revenue that they could exact from each outlay on production.1
Faced with this combination of a dwindling market share and hiring companies siphoning off a large part of the profitability of each film, each production company had a slim range of options for maximising the revenue that they could extract from their outlay. The shift to longer films was one option: if production costs are steady, then a longer film, even at a standard per-metre/foot price, generates more profit. The most widely adopted method, however, was for a production company to seek to maximise the number of prints of each film that they could sell, and this stimulated a search for unique production values that they could use to stimulate demand among audiences and/or exhibitors and/or hiring companies. Sole access to a newsworthy real-world event had been the model for exclusivity in the period when the majority of films were non-fiction. After fiction became the dominant output in both continents around 1906, in part as a way of providing a steady output of new product, exclusivity was much harder to identify in film content, although production companies did of course commonly claim that their photographic clarity, sensationalism, staging etc. were unrivalled.2
The ‘art film’ phenomenon described in the Introduction was one attempt to achieve this sought-after exclusivity of content. It included theatrical adaptations but also drew on the prestige of other cultural forms too. For example, in June 1908 Pathé founded an affiliate company called Société Cinematographique des Auteurs et Gens de Lettres (Society/Company of Cinematograph Authors and Literary Gentlemen), known as SCAGL; it operated on the basis of an agreement with the Société des Gens de Lettres (an authors’ society founded in 1838 by a group of writers including Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Aurore Dupin (George Sand), Théophile Gautier and Alexandre Dumas), which permitted it to make adaptations of their published works (see Abel, Ciné, 40); they began issuing films in October 1908, and publicity for these films usually stated the author of the source text. After SCAGL’s initial films and the theatrical adaptations produced by UK Gaumont and the Film d’Art company in 1908–9 were financial successes, ‘art film’ branding soon became widespread in European film production, with Pathé, Éclair, Itala and Cines all issuing films under an ‘Art Film’ or ‘High Art’ label by the end of April 1909.3 Vitagraph was issuing an ‘Art’ brand of films in the US and Europe by June 1909,4 and this phenomenon also included the Edison Company’s u se of Miss Cecil Spooner, Pilar Morin, Carolyn Wells and Edward Townsend described in the Introduction. As Laurent LeForestier observes, the French film industry’s practice of stating names and professions on their posters for these ‘art films’ had the goal of giving films “artistic surplus value” (‘From Craft’, 191). While in some cases the makers of these films were able to advertise exclusive access to a famous stage performer or a source text, by mid-1909 the majority of these ‘art film’ products were featuring production values that were not actually exclusive, presumably because exclusive production values were prohibitively expensive. For example, after they publicised the stage star Elita Proctor Otis’s appearance in Oliver Twist in early June 1909, Vitagraph’s successive ‘High Art’ productions were just lavish accounts of episodes in the life of historical figures, including Napoleon Bonaparte and George Washington, and their marketing for these films made no mention of performers or writers. Even SCAGL’s output gradually shifted to include original scenarios. This search for exclusivity without extra expense would have also made apparent, albeit implicitly, the prospect of using the identities of long-term production employees. And the most visible production personnel, personnel who would be automatically advertised by each film, would have been first in line as candidates for use as demand-stimulating content.
Production companies also tried several methods of relaxing this squeeze on their profit margins and sales volumes, including forming associations to place conditions on hirers and exhibitors by threatening to deny them product, and the system of hiring films to hirers rather than selling them, first attempted in France in 1907 and in the UK and the US no later than 1908. The European film production companies who convened the International Congress of Film Manufacturers in Paris in early February 1909 collectively sought to establish such a system as a norm among the most powerful constituents of the European film industry, though the agreement that they formed, the European Convention of Kinematograph Film Makers and Publishers, disintegrated within just a few weeks as a result of internal dissent and widespread resistance from hiring companies.5 The ‘art film’ phenomenon was also part of this push-back, in that one of its underlying motivations was the perceived amenability of high-demand products to a system in which the production company permanently retained control of them: for example, though the first of the UK Gaumont ‘art films’ were sold outright at the usual rate of 4d per foot, in the case of Lady Letmere’s Jewellery (see page 22) Gaumont did not sell copies, distributing the film solely through their own hiring subsidiary.6
An alternative way to push back against per-metre/foot pricing would be to provide a strong justification for re-adopting per-subject pricing with certain films. Indeed, this seems to have been the primary, and little-noticed, aim of the ‘art film’ phenomenon. For example, for at least several months, Pathé Frères’s UK office, while still adhering to the 4d-per-foot standard for the majority of their films, priced SCAGL films at 6d per foot, though the advertisements stated just the length and the overall price to distract from this price hike. In March 1909, for example, one of their trade advertisements listed nine films at 4d per foot and the “Magnificent Art Film “Judas’ Kiss”, 808 feet, £20 4 0”,7 which works out to 6d per foot.8 Trade commentators, particularly those in Bioscope, worked hard to remind their readers that the UK’s 4d-per...

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