Vitascope/Cinématographe: Initial Patterns of American Film Industrial Practice
Robert C. Allen
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 Edi