For a few short years, from 1910-1916, Siegmund Lubin sat atop the film world as the original movie mogul. He had spent decades struggling to overcome obscurity and poverty, the twin banners of the immigrant to the United States, to wield a powerful voice in the fledgling industry. His empire encompassed all aspects of the industry including production, distribution and exhibition. He was, at one time or another, owner of the largest chain of movie theaters in the nation, owner of the largest and most advanced movie studio in the industry, and owner of numerous patents. The fame, money, and power were, however, fleeting.
Yet today, nearly one hundred years after his pinnacle of power, he is not much more than a footnote. He is mostly remembered as a minor player of the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), an attempt by Thomas Edison and other movie pioneers to create a film monopoly which ended in a disastrous federal lawsuit. An overview of film history books finds that Lubin’s name is listed rarely and generally only in connection with the MPPC.
Lubin’s career did not follow the typical trajectory of the industry’s earliest successes in that he was forced to declare bankruptcy only four years after opening his Betzwood studio. His insurmountable setbacks included a devastating fire at his Philadelphia studio, the loss of overseas markets during the First World War, and the court-ordered dissolution of the Patents Company. Most consequential, however, was his inability to adapt to the changing tastes of the viewing public. As people demanded better films with more narrative, Lubin’s films, despite a few successes, were unable to deliver the quality story that may have saved his studio. His unique life experiences prepared him to take advantage of the new technology, and his personality and timing permitted him to ride that technology to the top, but he found it difficult to adapt to the rapidly-changing industry. This section will provide a brief description of Lubin’s ride to the top of the industry.
In the late 19th century, there were a number of scientific and technical advances in the field of photography that fed speculation that it might be possible to create the illusion of an actual moving picture. Inventors and technicians throughout the world were working on the possibility and patenting inventions that propelled this novel idea ever further. Lubin, always a technophile, was well aware of these inventions and understood their intricacies and implications. He was also a tireless entrepreneur, flamboyant self-promoter, and an astute observer of his community. On the whole, he was well positioned to exploit the potential of this emerging technology.
Lubin was quick to establish himself as an entrepreneur upon his arrival in the United States. Unlike many of his fellow immigrants, he was not completely unprepared. His degree in ophthalmology provided a valuable tool he was able to leverage into a successful business and he quickly moved beyond traveling the country as a spectacle salesmen to opening an optical shop inPhiladelphia. He also developed sidelines which included a chemistry lab, penny arcades in the Tenderloin District, and the production of magic lantern slides for vaudeville shows. By the mid-1890s Lubin had established himself as a very successful Philadelphia businessman. Ever the tinkerer and energetic dynamo, he was simultaneously experimenting with film and lenses attempting to create his own moving pictures. His first success, an image of his horse eating hay, came with a camera he purchased from inventor C. Francis Jenkins in 1896 and modified with his own ideas.
Lubin had always been a risk-taker and his technical expertise and financial security allowed him to confidently expand into the movie business. Movies were a young and novel industry, but Lubin recognized its potential to become big business. In 1896, during a trip to New Orleans, he witnessed what was then a very new phenomenon. Showman William T. Rock had built a temporary theater and was presenting Life Motion Pictures on a new Edison Vitascope machine to astonished and enthusiastic audiences. Lubin instantly understood the implications and potential and brought this valuable lesson home the Philadelphia. By 1897, Lubin had begun designing and selling projectors to other showmen looking for something new or young presenters looking to break into the business. His strategy was to build a network of showmen dependent upon him not only for their machines, but for their supplies and films as well. In January 1897 Lubin placed advertisements for his machines and movies in The New York Clipper, the leading entertainment trade magazine of the day thus becoming became the first entrepreneur to mass market both motion picture projectors and films. A few years later he became the first American film producer to expand his operations overseas, to Germany.
Very quickly demand for films outstripped supply. There were other suppliers, most notably Thomas Edison studios, but separately they were unable to satiate the public appetite for movies. Lubin saw that the demand could only be met by pooling the resources of all the film producers of the day and he proceeded to do just that—without bothering to ask or tell any of the other film producers. To supply the demand for new films Lubin became the first movie pirate. He invested heavily to buy a copy of every film made by every known manufacturer, foreign and domestic. He then copied the films and sold the “dupes” at bargain prices. This strategy earned him a reputation as an unethical and dishonest business man, a reputation that would follow him for the rest of his career and overshadow many of his actual accomplishments.
While his own films were often mediocre, especially at first, Lubine had an instinctive grasp of what the earliest movie going public wanted to see. He catered to the lower classes, the group with whom he felt most comfortable. But he also had a vision for film that was not in complete synchrony with the rest of the industry. He believed that film would fulfill its role more as a source of information and education and not strictly as entertainment. He predicted to a German magazine in 1900 that the day would come when every family would have a motion picture machine in their parlor and the day’s events would be delivered as a reel of film, not as an evening newspaper. Lubin’s first films were created mostly in his own backyard. By 1899, having outgrown the yard and exceeded his neighbors’ patience, he built a studio on the roof of a building at 912 Arch Street in Philadelphia. He moved his entire operations there in 1901 and, in 1904, he released his first original narrative, The Bold Bank Robbery.
By 1903, he was renting films through his “Philadelphia Film Exchange,” and within two years, he was operating one of the principal film exchange services in the United States. Lubin, mindful that people would need a place to watch these films, and, hedging his bets that Edison, in a continuation of the ongoing legal war between the two, would try to close his manufacturing business, began to operate his own theaters starting with a temporary theater in Philadelphia in 1899. He then built permanent theaters in Philadelphia and Baltimore in 1902, the beginnings of what would become the first chain of movie theaters spanning at least five states. By 1908, he was the owner of one of the largest chains of movie theaters in the country and employing over sixty actors and photographers in his studio. With his entrance into the field of exhibition, Lubin became the first person to vertically integrate the film industry; he was simultaneously a producer, distributor and exhibitor of motion pictures.
The first decade of the twentieth century was a period of remarkable expansion for Lubin’s enterprises. At the close of the decade, Siegmund Lubin was one of a very few people in the business involved in all aspects of the industry and one of the wealthiest. He was powerful enough to build the largest, most advanced studio of the era. He was, as he had long sought to be, a respected man.