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In 1916, Ford cameramen stand ready to capture “information of potential educational and historical value” needed to create the 110,000 feet of film shown every week in 3500 theaters.


July 2006

Henry Ford, Movie Mogul

When you think about the movies, you think about the great Hollywood studios and men like Louis B. Mayer and the Warner brothers who oversaw their operation.  But in the early years of the 20th century, there was another movie mogul far from the west coast in the industrial city of Detroit.  His name was Henry Ford and his studio was the Ford Motor Company.  In the years between 1914 and 1920 Henry Ford’s films were shown in over 4,000 theaters to five million people—roughly one-seventh of the nation’s weekly movie-going audience.  His films were even translated into eleven different languages and shown around the world.  By 1918, Henry Ford was spending $600,000 annually on production and Ford Motor Company was the largest motion picture distributor on earth.



MORE:  Henry Ford, Movie Mogul

In the drying room, film was wrapped around large drums to dry quickly.  It was then inspected, titles added, and hundreds of prints made on high speed automated machines for circulation around the world.

A view of the film assembly room of Ford’s Motion Picture Department. Like most Ford facilities, it is spotlessly clean.

During the 1910s, Ford Animated Weekly film titles appeared against the familiar backdrop of the Model T radiator, a subtle reminder of the sponsor.

By the 1930s, the Ford Motion Picture Department focused on documenting company activities rather than producing newsreels and educational films.  Here, a Ford cameraman films the test run of a reconnaissance car on the test track in January 1941.


A Motion Picture Studio is Born

Henry Ford became interested in making movies in 1913 after seeing a film made by an outside production company about his Highland Park automobile factory.  He was intrigued by the possibilities of using film to train workers and to communicate to the public the news of the day and show them scenes of the world in which they lived—including the wonders of manufacturing at the Ford Motor Company.   In April 1914, Henry told Ambrose B. Jewett in Ford’s Advertising Department to acquire a camera and someone to operate it. Within months, Ford Motor Company had a fully functioning motion picture department, the first of any American industrial firm.  Its two-man staff quickly grew to 24, as the department acquired state-of-the-art 35mm cameras and established a film processing operation at the Highland Park Plant that would rival that of any Hollywood studio. The first film produced by the company, “How Henry Ford Makes One Thousand Cars a Day,” was—not surprisingly—about itself.

Educating the Public

But self promotion was not Henry’s true goal, his real goal was education.  “The Ford Animated Weekly,” a series of 10 to 15-minute newsreels, featured recent events like fires, celebrations, state fairs, sporting events, presidential appearances, and short animated cartoons.  These films were distributed free on a weekly basis to any theater that requested them.  At the same time, Ford was creating educational features on topics like agriculture, industrial innovation and plant safety for use in Ford Motor Company manufacturing facilities.  He also provided the films at no cost to schools, YMCAs, military camps, and prisons.   

The newsreels proved very popular, but by 1916 Ford realized that, because of their topicality, the films were soon obsolete.  In 1917, the “Animated Weekly” was replaced by “The Ford Educational Weekly.” Also one reel in length, this new series focused on broader, more general topics, like national parks, the fishing industry, and regional geography.  Offered to theaters at no cost, these films continued to prove popular with movie audiences.  In September 1917, The Ford Man reported that Ford films were being shown in over 3,500 theaters in the United States alone, with an estimated four to five million people entertained each week by the Ford “Weeklys.”  Ford continued to supply copies to military, educational and non-profit organizations at no charge.  Throughout these years, Ford continued to make and distribute films showing the operations of the Ford factory.

By 1919, the “Weekly” was appearing on 7,000 movie screens—but the cost of production had become prohibitive and Ford Motor Company began to charge theaters a dollar a film.  Though it was a very low price, theater owners howled in protest and many ceased showing the films.   In May 1920, some theaters began to stop showing the “Weeklys” after Henry’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, began its anti-Semitic attacks.  Film circulation dwindled to 1,300 theaters by August 1920.

By the end of 1921 a decision was made to stop production on the “Educational Weekly” and to replace it with the “Ford Educational Library,” films designed “especially for use in universities, schools, churches, and other educational institutions.”  A committee of college professors identified appropriate subject matter and helped to edit the films, which were then sold to non-profit organizations for five cents per foot or rented for fifty cents a day per reel. While the series was heavily promoted, it was not widely embraced.  Only 100 films, valued at $3,750, were sold in the first three years.  By 1925, the program continued in operation but no new films were added.

Selling Ford Automobiles

While one group of cameramen was busy creating educational films, Henry had another group working to actively promote his company and its products. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Ford Motor cameramen documented the activities of the company and captured Ford products in action.  This footage was crafted into promotional films provided to Ford branch operations and automotive dealers throughout the country.  The earliest of these films, produced in 1920, promoted the advantages of tractor power, shown in the Fordson tractor, over animal power. Other films included “The Ford Way of Coal Mining,” “Where and How Fords Are Made,” and “Golden Opportunities,” a film that advertised the company savings plan for car ownership. While most films ran twenty to thirty minutes, some, like “The Ford Age,” a 1923 film showing a full range of Ford activities, were more lavish and ran an hour or more in length.  These sales-promotion films were shown at Ford dealerships, in rented halls, and even on the sides of buildings.  People were always invited to see the new models of cars, trucks, and tractors before and after each showing.  They were very popular in both large cities and in rural areas.  In the mid-1920s, Ford estimated 2,500,000 people a month came to view Ford promotional films.  When sound motion pictures debuted in 1927, Ford was the first company to use the new technology for their sales promotion films.  In 1930, the Ford movie show went on the road with demonstration vehicles and a special 45-minute film showing how Ford Model As were designed, assembled, and tested.  This show was designed to reach rural communities where motion picture theaters and Ford dealerships were not located.

In 1932 and 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Ford Motor Company was suffering its worst sales on record and decided to reduce costs by closing its motion picture laboratory.  While the company continued to make films documenting company products, they were created by the Ford Photographic Department and were not available to the public.  Promotional films were also produced, but in limited number by outside contracting agencies. Though the Motion Picture Department was reestablished in 1952, it never achieved the impact that it did when Henry Ford ran the studio.

Terry Hoover, Archivist

In 1963, the Ford Motor Company transferred their massive motion picture collection
to the National Archives.

The Henry Ford received the company’s extensive business archives,
including millions of documents and still photographs.





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