Florence Lawrence, c. 1908. (Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research/Wikimedia Commons)
To make movies, Laemmle had to find actors, but most of the known actors of the day were signed with Edison’s Biograph Pictures, which the Wizard of Menlo Park ruled with an iron fist. He kept his actors under his thumb by preventing them from becoming well known—for example, completely wasting the name Florence Lawrence by crediting her as “The Biograph Girl”—and insisted that his movies, which he vigilantly kept under 20 minutes to retain his audience’s attention span, be strictly educational and historical.
Laemmle didn’t care about any of that, so he offered Lawrence the one thing Edison couldn’t: name recognition. After stealing Edison’s lead actress, Laemmle bought film stock and equipment from overseas, resolutely ignored the 289 infringement lawsuits that Edison threw his way, and prepared to make his fortune. To keep Edison’s lawyers at bay, Laemmle and his buddies, known as “the independents” (though they went on to form some of the biggest movie studios in Hollywood, such as Warner Bros. and Paramount), headed west where nobody could find them. Even if they did, cross-country travel was prohibitively expensive at the time, and Edison’s name didn’t carry nearly as much weight on the West Coast. In 1914, Laemmle bought 230 acres of land in the San Fernando Valley for $165,000 and began constructing Universal Studios.