How Thomas Edison Bankrupted The First Master Filmmaker

“Everyone steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot, myself. But I know how to steal!” —Thomas Edison

In A Nutshell

In 1902, the Frenchman George Melies made A Trip to the Moon, a classic regarded as the first science fiction film. Unfortunately for him, Thomas Edison got his hands on a print of it and pirated it until Melies could barely make any money from it in America. Later in life, a bitter and broke Melies decided to burn his hundreds of films.

The Whole Bushel

By 1902, George Melies must have felt like he was on top of the film world. Since his start in 1896, he’d gone from a stage magician to one of the most popular filmmakers of his time. He’d made some of the world’s first movies in many genres, with some estimates putting the number of productions prior to 1902 in the hundreds. Inspired by all this success, he mounted what was then the world’s most ambitious film production: an adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon.

A Trip to the Moon is a 14-minute science fiction film about an expedition to the Moon being done by way of having a space shuttle fired from a cannon. While it’s mostly known these days for the above image of the spacecraft being stuck in the Moon’s eye, it contains a number of other memorable and quite amusing moments.

For example, there’s a scene where the explorers fight Moon men and one of the scientists resorts to hitting an alien with an umbrella, which causes his enemy to burst into dust. There’s also the rather whimsical image of the expedition returning to Earth by falling off the Moon. But whatever its merits to a modern audience, the film was an enormously expensive endeavor for Melies, who’d previously stuck to movies all done on one set with a single shot where the most expensive special effect was turning the camera off, changing something in the shot, and then turning it back on.

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The problem was that when Melies made his classic film, he had an infamously industrious rival of questionable morality across the Atlantic: Thomas Edison. While A Trip to the Moon was doing splendidly in Europe, Melies was extremely unfortunate concerning one particular copy of the movie in London. That copy was smuggled into Edison’s hands, who pirated enough copies of it that he effectively shut Melies out of the vital American market. Not that Edison was alone in that: Even in Europe, piracy was so bad that one pirate tried to sell Melies a copy of his own film. Still, it was a huge blow to his box office take when he needed it more than ever.

Deprived of a ridiculous amount of money, Melies’s career was dealt a significant blow. In 1914, he stopped making films due to lack of funds, but that was hardly the low point of his film career. Melies’s films were threatened with seizure by some companies he’d heavily indebted himself to, so Melies did the least rational thing he could with the hundreds of prints in his possession: He burned them. And he would have burned far more, but his brother discreetly sold the rest of them to the American company Vitagraph.

So the country that had cost him his film empire ended up preserving his films for posterity. That’s showbiz for you.

Show Me The Proof

Photo via Wikipedia
Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema: Marie-Georges-Jean Melies
American Movie Classics Filmsite: Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902)
Turner Classic Movies: The Films Of George Melies

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