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Film Studios

In 1893, Thomas Edison built the first movie studio in the United States when he constructed the Black Maria, a tarpaper-covered structure near his laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey, and asked circus, vaudeville, and dramatic actors to perform for the camera. He distributed these movies at vaudeville theaters, penny arcades, wax museums, and fairgrounds. Other studio operations followed in New Jersey, New York City, and Chicago.

In the early 1900s, companies started moving to Los Angeles, California, because of the good weather and longer days. Although electric lights were by then widely available, none were yet powerful enough to adequately expose film; the best source of illumination for motion picture production was natural sunlight. Some movies were shot on the roofs of buildings in downtown Los Angeles. Early movie producers also relocated to Southern California to escape Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company, which controlled almost all the patents relevant to movie production at the time. The distance from New Jersey made it more difficult for Edison to enforce his patents.

The first movie studio in the Hollywood area was Nestor Studios, opened in 1911 by Al Christie for David Horsley. In the same year, another fifteen independents settled in Hollywood. Other production companies eventually settled in the Los Angeles area in places such as Culver City, Burbank, and what would soon become known as Studio City in the San Fernando Valley.

By the mid-1920s, the evolution of a handful of American production companies into wealthy film industry conglomerates that owned their own studios, distribution divisions, and theaters, and contracted with performers and other filmmaking personnel, led to the sometimes confusing equation of "studio" with "production company" in industry slang. Five large companies, 20th Century-Fox, MGM, Paramount, RKO, and Warner Bros., came to be known as the "Big Five," the "majors," or "the Studios" in trade publications such as Variety, and their management structures and practices collectively came to be known as the "studio system." Although they owned few or no theaters to guarantee sales of their films, Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and United Artists also fell under these rubrics, making a total of eight generally recognized "major studios"; United Artists, though it like the other seven owned a production studio during the Golden Age, had an often tenuous hold on the title of "major" and operated mainly as an investor-distributor.

The Big Five's ownership of theaters was eventually opposed by eight independent producers, including Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, Walt Disney, and Walter Wanger, and in 1948 the federal government won a case against Paramount in the Supreme Court, which ruled that the vertically integrated structure of the company constituted an illegal monopoly. This decision hastened the end of the studio system and Hollywood's Golden Age.

Midway through the 1950s, with television proving to be a profitable enterprise not destined to disappear any time soon (as many in the film industry had once hoped), movie studios were increasingly being used to produce programming for the burgeoning medium. Some midsized film companies, such as Republic Pictures, eventually sold their studios to TV production concerns. With the breakup of domination by "the Studios" and the continued incursion of television into the cinematic audience, the major production companies gradually transformed into management structures that simply put together artistic teams on a project-by-project basis and made what studio spaces they retained available for rental, which remains the norm today.

In casual usage, the term has become confused with production company, due largely to the fact that the major production companies of Hollywood's "Golden Age"—stretching from the late 1920s to the late 1940s—owned their own studio subsidiaries, as a few continue to do. However, worldwide (and even in the United States) the majority of production companies have never owned their own studios but have had to rent space at independently owned facilities that, in many cases, never produce a film of their own.

The major film studios, often simply known as the majors, are film studios (mostly United States-based) that produce many multiple films per year. These major movie studios include studios that are old (Walt Disney Pictures and Universal) and newer studios (Lions Gate Films and New Line). These movie studios are contrasted with other smaller movie studios, which are known as independent (indie) studios. Typically Hollywood-based, some of these studios are part of six umbrella corporations, known as the Big Six.

20th Century Fox
Buena Vista/Walt Disney Pictures
Lions Gate Films
New Line Cinema (a subsidiary of Time Warner)
Paramount Pictures
Sony Pictures Studios
Universal Studios
Warner Bros. (another subsidiary of Time Warner)
The Weinstein Company


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