Fear of Change Endemic to Early Media

By Richard Menta 4/11/05

I caught some of Charlie Chaplin's earliest shorts on AMC the other morning and it struck me that when Chaplin was creating these supposedly primitive 1914 one-reelers the movie industry was already more than 20 years old. In fact, by 1895 Edison already experimented with his first sound films by combining his movie and phonograph inventions (the Kinetophone).

But growth came slow for the film industry as pre-conceived notions settled in early. For example, the same year Chaplin entered movies Birth of a Nation was filmed. DW Griffiths full-length feature film was derided by many as folly, because it was assumed by most film executives of the day that no one had the attention span to sit in their seats for more than two reels. Birth of a Nation became a huge success.

Richard Menta

When Chaplin himself decided to tackle a full-length feature film, the Kid, it was 1921, a good six years later. Like Griffith, Chaplin was told he was making a huge a mistake. It was OK (now) to have a full-length drama, but no one wanted to see a 60 minute comedy.

The point is less the fact that The Kid became the second highest grossing film that year. The point is that one can only wonder how many other artists before Chaplin were discouraged from evolving their craft. A few years later, Buster Keaton wanted to make a talking picture that would have predated 1927's the Jazz Singer. He had seen the experimental sound shorts that came out in 1925 and made a decision to incorporate the new technology in the production he was about to start. The film company he worked for - and partially owned - convinced him not to.

In all fairness to the business men who ran the studios, these deviations in what had become standard film practice of the day represented added risk. Film making is a pretty expensive undertaking after all. The problem is that in an era of experimentation and industry adolescence the front office became too complacent and conservative.

In the end, not taking a risk becomes a risk itself. This is because the most important value of risk is missed - opportunity.

The film industry was 25 years old when they mocked Chaplin over the Kid. The medium was no longer nascent and the ability to tell a story was hardly primitive. It had matured to a point that by the time the Jazz Singer appeared six years after the Kid it was visually sophisticated. On a visual basis the old silents were in many ways superior to today's film. If you doubt that, start watching the silent films of Murnau, Lang, Hitchcock, Keaton, Chaplin, Von Sternberg, LLoyd and others.

In the 21st century the American film industry again struggles with change. The Internet makes these executives quake in there shoes because it changes the rules on distribution. They ignored the Net at first and when it became obvious that was a mistake they attempted to legislate it.

What they need to do is develop new business models that take advantage of the efficiencies the Net offers. Models that serve, not litigate against, consumers clammoring for more flexible access to content.

What they need to do is what the radio industry did in the late 1920's when faced with a new invention called television - invest and build a new industry.


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