What the First Two Minutes of a Movie Tell Us About the History of Cinema

Here’s a common screen experience for contemporary movie watchers. You are either sitting in a darkened theater, the various ads and previews of coming attractions (which of course are really just more ads) have finished, or you are sitting at home, having clicked “play” on Netflix for the movie you want to stream. But before what most of us think of as “the movie” starts, we first see a series of short films like these:

Depending on the movie, we might just see one or two of these (if it’s a big budget franchise movie), or we might see four, five, or more (especially for a lower budget “indie” movie). Then, as the “real” movie seems to start, we usually see these same companies named again, this time credit-style, just to make sure we caught them.

These examples of the first two minutes of most movies provide a shorthand lesson in how the movie production business works today. All of these logos represent movie “production companies,” but not production companies in the sense that, say, MGM, 20th Century Fox, or Republic Pictures were in the studios era of American movie history. Back then, the studios modeled themselves as movie factories, combining all the aspects of production in one physical location. Almost none of the production companies we see before movies today, however, own any production facilities. They are instead financing, investment, and project management operations, putting together the funds and talent to make a motion picture. That’s why a small budget indie movie may have so many of them: every “company” (some of whom are created solely to make an individual movie) contributes some financing to the making and distribution of the movie.

In fact, you could construct a quick history of American cinema just by looking at the opening credits of movies from different screen ages of the movies. These various corporate logos tell us how the movies as a commercial enterprise have evolved from the early days of peep show parlors and nickelodeons; more than that, they also raise questions about how we as viewers think of movies as corporate art, and in a larger sense about our mixed feelings and cultural ideas about the relationship between art and commerce.

From the beginning, these credits have served two main purposes: copyright and brand development. Here, for example, is the title card for The Great Train Robbery from 1903:

GTR Credits

There you have, right in the upper left hand corner, where we have all been trained to look first when reading, the trade mark of the Thomas Edison company, along with the copyright notice. For Edison, the three most important pieces of information about this movie are the title, the company that produced it, and verification of its copyright protection. These facts are more important than the name of the director, writer, cinematographer (the legendary pioneer Edwin S. Porter was involved in all of these jobs and more), or any of the actors. In fact, this title card represents the entirety of all the credits in the original movie.

In the cutthroat world of early cinema, manufacturers were both anxious to prevent pirating of their movies and eager to promote their films on the basis of their brand identity. This advertising page from Motion Picture World magazine in 1911 shows how much the movie distribution relied on these brand identities:

MovingPictureWorld1911

More important than stars, directors, and even titles were the brand names of the studios, a practice that made sense in the era of the nickelodeon, where audiences expected a rapidly changing program of short films for their five cents.

Protecting brand identity and copyright were so important that movie studios would put their logos right into the very films themselves. Here’s a screen grab from D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short The New York Hat starring a twenty-year-old Mary Pickford. Notice that the wall behind her features the American Biograph company logo emblazoned right on the movie set. There’s no mistaking what company made this movie!

PickfordMyHatABLogo

As movies lengthened into what we think of as feature length and movie stars as well as certain directors became major selling points of movies, the marketing of movies became more complicated, but the importance of corporate branding if anything increased. The studios era saw the creation of some of the most familiar corporate logos of all time, such as this classic:

As I discuss in Screen Ages, the studios carefully developed their own brand identities in the 20s through the 40s, with MGM promoting their glitz and glamour, Paramount their sophistication, and smaller companies like Universal their genre specialty of horror movies.

Even today, although the move from studio production to the package model of movie production has meant the erosion of these studio brand identities, some still remain, most especially with Disney and animation companies such as Pixar. The Weinstein brothers developed an association between their Miramax Company and prestige indie filmmaking in the 80s and 90s, and of course nowadays the Marvel comics brand seems to have achieved global hegemony (with some critical dissent from Dan Harmon’s Community):

So here’s a critical question to end with: we can tell a lot about how movies are made from the first two minutes of a movie, but do we think of those two minutes as part of the movie? Or do we seem them as a kind of “wrapping” for the movie, a prelude before the movie proper starts? Of course, as I noted above these credits often continue right into the “real” action of the movies (as they always have), or sometimes don’t appear until the story has already begun, as with the just opened Trainwreck (Judd Apatow) written and starring Amy Schumer. And we haven’t even mentioned the closing credit, which for a CGI-laden blockbuster might last five minutes or more, with an Easter egg inserted along the way to keep us watching.

In some ways, the answer is easy. “Of course they’re part of the movie. They’re right there on the screen, aren’t they?” But some movie fans and a lot of the critical discussion of movies seem uncomfortable with this answer, or at the very least seem to ignore these logos in their analysis of movies. Maybe more than any other art form, movies disturb our sense of the boundaries between the artistic “text” and the larger cultural commercial apparatus that is involved in producing it. Novels, for example, isolate this copyright and other information in the front matter at the beginning of the book, the part you don’t necessarily need to read (and because it’s a book, there’s no way to force you to read it). Yet as a young book nerd, I was always fascinated (and always perused) all of this information before I read. As the recent controversy over the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchmen demonstrates, the line between commerce and art, capitalism and literature, is just as much an issue in publishing as in movie production.

Our anxiety over the mix of business and creativity involved in cultural production manifests itself in categories such as “indie” films and music, or small press/independent book publishing. And these anxieties are well-founded, not because we can draw a bright line between the artistic text and the material, social, and economic forces that went into its production, but precisely because that bright line doesn’t exist. The history of movies, corporate right from the start, makes us confronts this reality within the first two minutes of almost every movie we see. We might even argue that in this way, the movies may represent the most transparent and “honest” of all the contemporary art forms.