One of the most interesting, and lesser-known, aspects of Jacksonville history is its role in the early history of film.
It’s a rarely mentioned aspect of both the city and the industry’s history, but Jacksonville was indeed at one point one of several precursors to Hollywood.
In the early 1900s, the motion picture industry was forming, and expanding, rapidly. The popularity of cinema, at the time offered only in black-and-white and without sound, was budding among Americans. Rather than Southern California, most film studios were based in or around New York. However, this posed two issues for filming.
One such issue was the poor winter weather; the harsh, snowy conditions up north made filming in winter months all but impossible, costing film studios the potential revenue they could have been earning by making movies year-round.
As such, these studios began searching for locations that could accommodate their winter operations.
Jacksonville was one of the first, and most popular, choices for the studios. The weather was warm and sunny almost year-round, and its railroad system made it convenient for travel and transportation of filming equipment.
The first studio to establish a winter location in Jacksonville was Kalem Studios, a NYC-based company that would go on to film in such exotic locations as Ireland and Palestine before being sold off a couple of decades later. Their Jacksonville studios were located near where Everbank Field stands today.
Soon after, other major studios flocked to the First Coast to establish winter offices. Even as the transition to Southern California had begun, Jacksonville remained an important figure in film throughout the 1910s. The city briefly earned the title of “Winter Film Capital of the World”, and big-name stars were commonly seen around the First Coast. Oliver Hardy, one half of the famous “Laurel and Hardy” duo, got his cinematic start after moving to Jacksonville.
Most notably, the city housed the production and filming of The Gulf Between, the first feature-length color movie (and first Technicolor movie) to be produced in the United States. The film was released in 1917, and required a special projector to allow for its portrayal of color. This severely limited its commercial performance. It starred Grace Darmond and Niles Welch. Only parts of the film still exist today, being stored in various museums.
Also notable is the contribution to the beginnings of African-American cinema. In the silent film era, movies rarely depicted African-Americans at all, and when they did it was almost unanimously a negative depiction. Richard Norman, a white man from Middleburg, decided to use his experience making films for white audiences to give African-Americans a chance to star in films, while also hiring African-Americans to assist in the production of these films.
Having established itself in Jacksonville toward the end of its film era, Norman Studios still managed to survive into the late 1920s, meeting its demise around the time of the popularization of the “talkie.”
The studio lives on in Arlington as a silent film museum.
Ultimately, several factors led to the demise of Jacksonville’s silent film industry. Studios began to move to California, establishing themselves in a Los Angeles neighborhood known as “Hollywood.” It offered them the same weather advantages as Jacksonville, with the allure and novelty of the West Coast and additional distance from aggressive film-patent hounds on the East Coast.
Additionally, the largely conservative residents of Jacksonville were becoming annoyed by the presence of film studios and movie stars. A change of mayor from the film-friendly J.E.T. Bowden, who had been elected on a platform consisting largely of protecting Jacksonville’s brothels, to the more conservative John W. Martin in 1917 would be the final nail in the coffin for the Jacksonville studios.
Norman Studios and a few others would remain for a few years, but the big-name studios largely continued to flock to Hollywood. Ultimately, the small-town sensibilities of Jacksonville residents simply didn’t match up with the flashy decadence of film and its stars.
Today, Jacksonville enjoys a modest profile in the film industry. Smaller production studios still call the city home, and in recent years notable movies such as G.I. Jane and The Manchurian Candidate have filmed scenes here. According to statistics from the City of Jacksonville’s website, Jacksonville’s film industry has generated over $35,000,000 of direct economic impact over the past ten years.
Still, the city will likely never return to the cinematic prominence it once enjoyed in the early 20th century.