Dr. Richard Koszarski – History of the New York Motion Picture Industry

(music playing) Dr. Richard Koszarski: The story of this book
begins in 1920. In 1920 Paramount Pictures decided to open a new studio in New York City,
I mean they had moved most of their operations to the west coast, they still wanted to maintain
a certain amount of activity in the east for a lot of reasons. This studio became what
Paramount called a miniature Hollywood in the east. They put many of their most important
stars to work here. Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, The Marx Brothers, D.W. Griffith,
later on independent films in the 1930’s. People like Paul Robeson and Ben Hecht were
made there. I spent most of my time trying to recollect the history of this place. I
didn’t know that New York film had its own history. I thought there were a few films
made in the east, it is what I had been taught in graduate school. Right? Films started in
the east, there was Thomas Edison and the Nickelodeon studios, and then by 1915 it all
went to the west coast. The 20’s, the 30’s, and 40’s, this back hole. It’s what everyone
is told didn’t happen. There was no film industry in New York. If I can write that part, then
I’ll be able to demonstrate that you can link the cinema of Woody Allen and Spike Lee and
Sidney Lumet, and Martin Scorsese with D.W Griffith and Thomas Edison and the Biograph
Company. It wasn’t just like a coincidence that oh, they happened to be here so they
made films, there has to be this linkage that you can show. What had moved to Hollywood
by WWI was most, not all, of the production of feature length films. Feature length films
are the glamorous part of the industry and what critics think of this are the real movies,
what stayed in the east was the executive offices, all of the decisions were made in
the east. Non-fiction, documentary, and newsreel always stayed in the east. Animation, largely
stayed in the east, Popeye and Betty Boop. In the 1930’s, most short film production
in America was made in and around New York. The problem in the 30’s was that you could
make an independent film in New York, but you couldn’t get it distributed, you couldn’t
get it into the good theaters because the good theaters were linked to the Hollywood
studios. So, yeah, they might show your film, but not in terms that were economically favorable
to you. So, in a sense the the history of independent features, these few features being
made in New York in the 30’s is almost kind of a sad story of people knocking their head
against the wall. But they did create something, they created a model for making feature films
that was a little more like the European style. I’m going to get a story together, I’m going
to raise money, I will rent the studio, I will rent the cameras and lights, hire you
available actors, directors, this was not he way things worked in Hollywood. In Hollywood
they spent decades sort of refining the efficiencies of mass production, a film factory. Maybe
that worked for a while in the 30’s, that wasn’t going to work anymore after the war.
Products had to be individualized both in terms of what market they were directed at
and how they would be put together. That’s a technique that had to be developed and learned,
and it was developed and learned in New York so that when things get bad in Hollywood,
and oh production is going to run away, well why did it run away to New York, where things
were still going to be more expensive? It came to New York because New York had maintained
the infrastructure, it had maintained trained union cadres, right, it had cultural roots
and a tradition of filmmaking unbroken, went back to the end of the 19th century. Paramount
Pictures went into receivership during the bottom of the depression and they had to move
out of the studio in Astoria. Astoria studio was taken over by one of their big creditors,
Western Electric. They owed Western Electric a lot of money because they had put sound
equipment and stuff in, so Western Electric basically owned and operated that studio,
and they said we’re going to rent this out for independent productions. What they were
looking for was a way of getting small budget producers, whether they were making shorts
or features, to use their sound equipment instead of RCA’s sound equipment, which was
the competition. So they said, we have a studio, and if you use our equipment, we’ll loan you
money. We have a revolving capital fund, right, this is a new way of making movies. You don’t
have to finance the year’s output for MGM or Fox. We will loan independent producers
money, one picture at a time at reasonable rates, all you have to do is use our studio
and our sound equipment. Okay, that’s a very good deal, and people start to go take advantage
of it. This is really key not only to the understanding of the history of why there’s
a movie industry in New York now, but why the American film industry changed from the
classic hollywood studio system of the 1930’s and 40’s to whatever it is we have today,
which in fact is more efficient economically. They make more movie than they ever did in
you know, back in Louis B. Mayer’s day. (music playing)

Comments 1

  • Hi Richard,

    It's great to see you again. To refresh your memory-My name is Craig Weisman. I was a graduate from the School of Visual Arts back in '82. Reilly Steele and I worked for a few years with you setting up the Astoria Motion Picture foundation.
    I was fortunate enough to be Lillian Gish's
    chaparone / date on opening night (FYI: I

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