The History of American Independent Cinema

by Lara McTeigue

Since the early 1900’s, the presence of Independent Cinema in America has hugely affected the media culturally and creatively. So how did this great movement begin?

In December 1908, the Motion Picture Patents Company was created by Thomas A. Edison. Also known as Edison Trust, it was formed as a cartel. (According to Wikipedia, a cartel is a formal agreement / organization among competing companies. There is usually a small number of sellers that may agree on matters such as price fixing, total industry output, market shares, allocation of customers and territories and/or the division of profits.) The aim, like most cartel’s, was to increase individual members’ profits by reducing any competition.

Members of the trust included the major american film companies: EdisonBiographVitagraphEssanaySeligLubinKalemStar Film CompanyAmerican Pathé. In addition, the leading film distributor, George Kleine and the biggest supplier of raw film stock, Eastman Kodak were also members.

This essentially meant that MPPC exclusively owned production and distribution.

Fundamentally, they attempted to create a monopoly over the entire film industry at the time; creating the first Oligopoly in the business.


Before their creation, foreign films dominated theatre screens in America. Their success ended the power and upper-hand foreign films had. “MPPC standardized the manner in which films were distributed and exhibited in America, and improved the quality of American motion pictures by internal competition” states Wikipedia.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

 The film ‘After Many Years’  was made in 1908 by Biograph. Biograph had joined MPPC at the time. The film was a silent drama, directed by D. W. Griffith. It starred the first film star, Florence Lawrence.

Read more on the films of 1908:

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Many film-makers were refused into the trust and others declined to join. The Film-makers who did not accept the offer to link with the cartel did so because they believed it was wrong to control cinema as an art form. Most importantly, they wanted to preserve their “artistic integrity” as film-makers. These film-makers began to be described and recognized as “independent”.

Most of the major motion picture rights were owned by Edison when MPPC was formed. He had many patents for film equipment; including those for the film cameras, projectors and raw film stock. In the early 1900’s, at their start, Edison very much disliked the ‘indie’ film-makers. The Edison Trust clearly enforced their patents relentlessly by continuously filing lawsuits and injunctions. Many of these suits were made against film-makers who worked with extremely low budgets. Their budgets were so little that they often even made their own equipment themselves.

Film-makers began responding to the threat of the constant lawsuits by moving their work to California. Hollywood, West to Southern California, is where they continued making movies.  Not only was it far away from Edison’s lawyers in the New York/New Jersey area, but it was a great location for filming. It offered practically perfect weather all year round, along with the beautiful ocean, mountains, deserts and open land. claims that “California had the Ninth District Court of Appeals who were known to side with independent filmmakers on cases involving Patent claims with the MPPC.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Little Fugitive‘ became the first independent film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay at the American Academy Awards. Made in 1953, it was written and directed by Ray Ashley, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin. It also received a Silver Lion at The Venice Film Festival.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Inadvertently, while indie film-makers continued making their smaller budget films and avoiding the Trust, they became the new, huge film force in Hollywood.

In 1917, The Edison Trust finally closed. After 2 decisions made by the Supreme Court of the United States, MPPC was shut down. The raw film patent was cancelled in 1912. Later in 1915, all of the trust’s patents were cancelled.

This ultimately resulted in legalizing independent film-making. 

Not long afterwards, on February 5, 1919 the first independent studio in America was created. It was formed by 4 leading figures in American silent cinema: Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith. It was called the ‘United Artists’.


(If you are interested in reading more about the United Artists, here is were you can: or wikipedia.)