How 1910s Los Angeles Surpassed Jacksonville as the Movie Industry’s Warm Weather Capital

Downtown Los Angeles in 2020

The center of entertainment in the early 20th century, New York was the early capital of movie making. But it had three major issues to overcome it didn’t face with live entertainment: it had limited land for filming, the weather wasn’t very good, and Thomas Edison.

New York’s lack of space for shooting video was initially overcome by going across the river to New Jersey. Fort Lee, the city on the other side of the George Washington Bridge, became a hub for studios, including some of the predecessors to MGM and Universal. New Jersey also had Thomas Edison, who owned patents on most film products and technology, and he sent his spies out to enforce those patents, particularly as the silent film industry began to grow in the 1910s.

Cold weather was harder to overcome. Film making in the early 20th century required a lot of fixed investment in film and production equipment, as opposed to just high variable costs in actors’ salaries. Therefore, the industry needed to shoot for more than the six months a year to cover those fixed costs. As the early studios sought a location for year round shooting, they shifted much of their production out of New York and New Jersey, and away from Edison’s watchful eye, and headed down to Jacksonville, Florida.

Offering the ability to shoot year round, Jacksonville soon became the new hub of the movie industry. The first “M” in MGM, or Metro Pictures, was founded there in 1915 along the St. John’s River, near the same point where the British established the city nearly 200 years earlier as “cow ford”. The location of the settlement was where that river reached its narrowest point, which facilitated travel between St. Augustine and Georgia. Jacksonville was also developing into a winter tourist destination as much of Florida to its south was still lightly developed, having only just received rail links to the North. Had Melbourne, Daytona, Palm Beach or Miami been anywhere near Jacksonville’s size at the time, they could have also been the movie industry’s warm weather capital. Essentially filmmakers were just looking for the warmest place with enough infrastructure to handle their winter filming needs.

Silent pictures blossomed during the World War 1 era. Edison’s many patents had many benefits, and the early 20th century was a boom time for anything electrical, with entertainment growing dramatically. With the industry no longer confined to live studio productions, nickelodeons became popular around 1905, and offered short length films that could be watched for a nickel. But the public increasingly wanted to watch films in the more refined setting more commonly associated with live plays.

Movie making in the 1910s faced very different economics than it does today. Actors had nowhere near the celebrity of modern stars, so much of the costs of making films was tied up in the actual infrastructure and film reels themselves. This put even more pressure on shooting in the right location and in the right format. Ultimately, longer films allowed fixed production costs to be spread over greater lengths of film reel, and could be sold for more than 5 cent nickelodeon admission. Combined with the desire for theatre-like settings, feature length movie studios blossomed around the country at the time of World War 1, growing to more than 20,000 locations by the late 1910s.

The demand for movies was encouraging more investment in supply, and the revenue was increasingly able to cover the physical production costs, but this in turn put more pressure to reduce land costs and shoot year round. This meant Jacksonville was on the verge of being a film capital in 1917. But it didn’t really want the movie industry.

A conservative Southern town, Jacksonville was the last place where Hollywood glamour and lifestyles could have ever developed. And the city ensured this in 1917 by electing a mayor who promised to push the movie industry out. Miami, settled by northerners, not southerners, might have been more accepting of the car chases and risqué scenes than Jacksonville was, but it was still a small town then, less than half the size of Jacksonville. And even before any movie studios arrived, Los Angeles was bigger than both of them.

On the backs of oranges, oil, rail, and promotion to Midwesterners, Los Angeles was a top 20 city by 1910. Its climate was even better than the Florida cities because it was far less humid, and it had not just oceans, but mountains and a much greater diversity of physical backdrops. Moreover, it was spread out over a large area with far fewer people to bother with car chases, not to mention a less conservative population that was less likely to complain about content.

The early LA movie industry didn’t settle in Hollywood, but in Edendale, around today’s Echo Park neighborhood along Glendale Avenue, and not far from where Dodger Stadium now sits. Universal and Fox setup there, and Los Angeles began to rival Jacksonville as the industry’s warm weather capital. Though not as congested as New York, Edendale still lacked the supply of land needed for studio lots, especially flat land, and the industry quickly started to run out of room.

Hollywood had plenty of land, and was its own city until 1910, when it was annexed by Los Angeles. LA was not full of infill sprawl then like now, and between Hollywood and LA sat miles of orange groves. However, as more streetcar links were put in, and as automobile use took over Southern California in the 1910s, the two locations became far more accessible to one another.

By the 1920s, most of the major studios had moved from Edendale and Jacksonville to Hollywood, as well as to the portion of the San Fernando Valley just over the hills from Hollywood, where Burbank and Universal City now sit. 100 years ago, this was the only place in the country with year round warm weather, plenty of available land, and access to a large city. And it helped transform Los Angeles into the cultural capital it is today. While the movie industry might have ended up there eventually, it wouldn’t have happened as quickly if Jacksonville hadn’t told it to go away.

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