The History of Filmmaking

By John Yargo ; Updated September 15, 2017

Since Thomas Edison produced one of the earliest motion pictures through a device called a kinetoscope, the history of filmmaking has grown into the world’s most popular and financially successful art forms. Combining state-of-the-art technology and traditional narrative techniques, the filmmaking industry has produced voices as unique as Martin Scorsese, D. W. Griffith and James Cameron.

Early Years

The early years of cinema were dominated by theoretical discussions of how film technology should be used. On the one hand, the French filmmaking brothers Auguste (1862 to 1954) and Louis Lumiere (1862 to 1954) proposed that film could document gritty, social realities. Their work is encapsulated in an early film documentary, titled “Workers Leaving a Factory.” On the other hand, the French filmmaker Georges Melies (1861 to 1938) saw the technology as capable of entertainment and favored special effects. One of his early movies is “A Trip to the Moon” (1902), and features surreal imagery and inventive techniques. Other early innovators were D. W. Griffith, who created the ambitious film epic, and Sergei Eisenstein, who made the montage a major part of the vocabulary of film.

Studio System

From the early 1920s to the 1950s, the Hollywood studio system became the center of the world’s filmmaking. The studios of this period were involved in every aspect of the film industry, owning studio lots, developing films from the script phase, and distributing films in their own movie theaters. Five studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the Fox Film Corporation, Warner Brothers, RKO Radio Pictures, and Paramount Pictures, dominated the industry. Studios promoted stars, like Humphrey Bogart and Mae West, who were under contract and had little say in which movies they would star in. From the late 1920s, sound became a key component of the film industry.

Artist-Driven Films

The power of studios declined with a number of them being taken over by multi-national companies. From the 1950s, artist-owned film production groups like United Artists began to dominate film production. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola and David Lean were allowed to make ambitious, big-budget and dark films. This period culminated in the 1960s and 1970s, when directors had unprecedented authority over how films were conceived, shot and edited. This period ended in the late 1970s. Some film historians acknowledge that Michael Cimino’s financial and critical disaster “Heaven’s Gate,” as one reason that filmmaking artists have gotten less authority from studios over their own work.

Independent Film Movement

Between the 1970s to the early 1990s, independent film became a major aspect of the industry. Since film technology has become much less expensive in the last thirty years, it has become easier to write, direct and star in your own movies. Also, film schools have given a greater number of artists access and training in filmmaking. Though some of these films are produced by small film companies, “indie films” usually feature character-driven, small movies. Indie filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh and Kevin Smith have parlayed success in independent film world into mainstream success. Film star Robert Redford started the Sundance Film Festival in 1978, hosted in Salt Lake City, Utah. The festival has become a major venue of independent films in the United States and a cable network has been developed around the Sundance festival.

Blockbusters and Contemporary Film

In the 1990s and 2000s, blockbusters and franchise films have become a significant part of the film industry. Cross-promotions with fast food chains and toy manufacturers, as well as international distribution, have made movies like “Titanic” and “Jurassic Park” the ambition of most major studios, signaling a move away from small, character-driven movies. The technological advances in special effects and 3-D cameras have also allowed for more opportunities for this kind of work.

About the Author

John Yargo is a sports writer, living in Orlando, Fla. His work regularly appears in the "Jackson Free Press," and he has published articles on theater, fiction and art history. He has also received a master's degree in English.