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Who needs immigrants?

  • Published at 11:45 am September 22nd, 2019
Film Guide
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How immigration enriched America

Today, US President Donald Trump seems unwilling to welcome immigrants in his country. But if we look back in history, no one can deny the contribution of the immigrants to the United States. Hollywood, the biggest movie industry and the movie capital of the world, also has the same story.   

Years before the Lumiere Brothers invented the system to project films onto the big screens, the company of Thomas Edison had already discovered a system to record and play short movies. This was called the kinetoscope. Years later, this system improved so that these short films could be projected onto a big screen as well. Edison made huge profits from it. His business consisted of selling these machines, taking a royalty for their use, and supplying movie theatres with lots of films. 

In just two decades, Edison made more than 1,200 movies. Soon, cities became flooded with movie theatres. These were the so-called Nickelodeons. Since movies were silent, viewers didn’t need to speak English to understand them. This means movies became the perfect entertainment for all immigrants arriving in the land of opportunity.  

However, Edison was unable to see all the opportunities behind his invention. At the end of the day, he despised immigrants. Of course, he was happy to make money from them. But he wasn’t interested to invest more in increasing the quality of his films. His company had a monopoly over the production and the distribution of films. 

Carl Laemmle was one of those German immigrants who worked at a nickelodeon in Chicago. He was doing well in this business but then he wanted to make his own movie. Laemmle also knew other nickelodeon owners. All of them were immigrants too, and they knew the tastes and aspirations of their audiences. 

These cinema pioneers were the first ones to include the actors’ names on the posters and in the credits. Their films became famous among immigrants who came from all over the world. This is why they named their company Universal Pictures. 

The success of this new company inspired others to follow suit. 

Another Hungarian immigrant, named Adolph Zukor, made another partnership with other nickelodeon owners and started another studio called Paramount Pictures.

But Thomas Edison was not willing to lose this battle. He had the fame, the money, patents, and influence. So in less than five years, Laemmle and his partners faced over 200 lawsuits. The same happened with the rest of the small studios and many of them went bankrupt. 

Edison was a powerful man indeed, but his influence didn’t reach everywhere. There was a place far out of his reach. And that place was California. Laemmle planned to start his movie business there. 

In the year 1915, California was a place of thousands of young immigrants would arrive every year. Houses and properties were cheaper than anywhere else in America. In California, there’s plenty of sunshine all year round, so it’s easy to shoot outside. This is why all those big studios from New York and Chicago moved into the outskirts of Los Angeles, a small suburb with little more than 500 inhabitants. 

And, that tiny place was today’s Hollywood. 

In 1915, Hollywood was the location for the first “super-production” in history. This movie was called The Birth of a Nation, and it cost around $100,000. The truth is, in less than 10 years, the population of Hollywood grew to more than 30,000 inhabitants. Most of them were immigrants like Francisco Elias, a Spaniard who came to Hollywood to work as a production assistant. Soon he realized he could translate the titles of the movies into Spanish. This way, he could export them to Spain and Latin America. 

Other immigrants with other mother tongues did the same, and, all of a sudden, Hollywood movies could be understood everywhere as they didn’t have any sound. 

During the times of Nazi Germany, the government invested a fortune in subsidizing German studios. Of course, those companies tried to export their films to other countries like Spain. Nonetheless, almost no Spanish movie theatres projected a German movie. 

German studios sent their movies in the German language, and they didn’t have good systems to dub them. Hollywood studios, on the other hand, had state of the art methods for dubbing. Additionally, since they had such a high immigrant population, it was easier for them to find translators and voice actors. 

Some companies even had their own offices in Spain so they sent the celluloid ready to be replaced with the Spanish audio track. Most importantly, American movies were cheaper to project than those from any other country. 

Hollywood was born -- thanks to those who came from outside of America. 

Arafat-Al-Yeasin is a freelance contributor.