SPONSORED FILM production was a significant industry in Cleveland and an essential part of its FILM HISTORY. Sponsored films provide a unique window into the world of 20th-century American culture. Unlike theatrical films, which were made for showing in theaters to an audience that paid to see the movie, sponsored films were produced for a client company for a specific purpose. Usually, there was no charge for watching them. 

The history of sponsored films goes back to the very beginning of the motion picture industry. The dividing line between a "sponsored" film and a "theatrical" film is often fuzzy. Sponsored films have won Academy Awards, and major Hollywood actors and actresses have frequently appeared in sponsored films. Sponsors often underwrote or paid to place their products in theatrical films. 

A Clevelander might see a sponsored film in a theater as a short subject preceding the featured attraction. Sponsored films were also shown at on-the-job training sessions, lodges, women's organizations, 4-H clubs, scouting groups, Grange branches, and similar groups. More significant than any of these was the biggest captive audience of all: schoolchildren. 

Home to many of the giants of the twentieth-century sponsored film industry, Cleveland companies had over a dozen sponsored film studios catering to their needs. The list of studios included CINECRAFT PRODUCTIONS (est. 1939), Cinema One Productions, Inc. (1962), Continental Productions, EDCOM Productions (1960),  Edward Feil Productions (1953), ESCAR MOTION PICTURE SERVICES (1942), Fox & Associates, (1946), Fox Video Productions (1961), GENERAL PICTURES CORP. (1957), Industrial Motion Pictures (1945), Motion Picture Productions, Inc. (1941), Productions on Film (1952), TRI-STATE MOTION PICTURES (1934), Visual Methods (1963), and Visual Techniques (1963).

Sponsored film studios with their main offices in other cities also had sales offices in Cleveland. These included Wilding Studios out of Chicago, the Jam Handy Organization out of Detroit, and Roland Reed Productions, Inc., Jerry Fairbanks, Inc., and Riviera Productions out of Los Angeles. 

The clients for most sponsored films came to the studios through advertising agencies. Cleveland was home to several nationally important advertising agencies, including Fuller & Smith & Ross, Gerst, Sylvester & Walsh Advertising, GRISWOLD-ESHELMAN CO., LANG, FISHER & STASHOWER, MELDRUM AND FEWSMITH, and WYSE ADVERTISING. These firms commissioned films on behalf of clients, crafting sales and advocacy messages coordinated with print and radio campaigns. 

Many sponsored films produced in Cleveland were national in scope and reached large audiences. When the CLEVELAND ELECTRIC ILLUMINATING CO. silent film, The Heart of Cleveland (1924), played in the CLEVELAND PUBLIC AUDITORIUM, it packed the building – 19,000 people – the biggest crowd in the building's history at that time. The film was also shown to 5th graders and older in every school with an auditorium in the Cleveland school system. 

In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Clevelanders learned about the OHIO BELL “Princess” Telephone, the GENERAL ELECTRIC FM radio, the criss-cross phone directory, and even television through sponsored films made by Cleveland studios. Clevelanders flocked to FISHER-FAZIO to pick up “fine art reproductions,” glasses, or silverware because they saw them advertised on sponsored films. Home Miracles for the 1950s, the first filmed TV infomercials, were made in Cleveland. The over 1,300 radio shows and 180 filmed TV shows of The Ohio Story made in Cleveland and sponsored by Ohio Bell was one of the longest-running radio and television series in the country. 

Cleveland sponsored film studios also helped launch several new beer brands and beer packaging innovations – the shorty bottles, long bottles, CARLING BREWING COMPANY’s “Mabel on the Label,” eight great packs, and tab open cans.

Sherlock Holmes actor Basil Rathbone on the set of a Cinecraft sponsored film for the Carling Brewing Company
Sponsored film studios based in Cleveland helped launch a number of beer brands and beer packaging innovations – like these from the Carling Brewing Company. Here, Sherlock Holmes actor, Basil Rathbone, is on a Cinecraft Productions set promoting the Leisy Premier Theatre, a 1951 weekly TV show.

In its day, the sponsored film industry employed thousands and supported two long-running trade journals, Educational Screen (1922-1971) and Business Screen (1938-1982). As the need for sponsored films grew, specialized studios sprang up near the film sponsors' ad agency and industry headquarters. 

During WORLD WAR II, sponsored film producers put peacetime production on hold and went to work for the war effort. After the war, the sponsored film industry exploded thanks in part to the availability of war-surplus 16mm equipment.

By the late 1950s, TELEVISION had eclipsed all other means of sponsored film distribution and Cleveland-based sponsored film studios led the way, with the four largest studios being Cinecraft Productions, ESCAR Motion Picture Services, Edward Feil Productions, and Tri-State Motion Pictures. However, in the 1970s the advent of inexpensive, portable video equipment made it more economical for organizations to switch from film to video and move production in-house. As cable and home video became more common and viewers’ options expanded, the traditional sponsored film audience waned.

Unlike theatrical features that are safeguarded by a handful of corporate owners and public archives, sponsored films are found in a variety of repositories, ranging from private collections and corporations to regional nonprofits and commercial stock footage libraries. The Cinecraft collection at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware is the exception. Hagley has committed to catalog and digitize the thousands of sponsored films, TV commercials, sound slide films, scripts and related records in the Cleveland-based Cinecraft archives.


Examples of sponsored films promoting Cleveland and northeast Ohio:

Title Year Summary
The Heart of Cleveland 1924 This black and white silent film sponsored by the Cleveland Illuminating Company touts the magic of CEI's massive lakeshore coal-fired plant, which was then the largest in the world. Production studio: Rothacker Film Manufacturing Co., Chicago.
Let's Explore Ohio: Ohio at Play 1939 This black and white Standard Oil film tours Euclid Beach Park, Cedar Point, and other popular vacation spots in Ohio in the 1930s. Production studio: ESCAR Motion Picture Services, Cleveland. 
Milestones of Motoring 1954 This Standard Oil film traces the evolution of automotive technology - four-wheel brakes, side curtains, adjustable windshields, thermometers in the radiator cap - and cars emphasizing transportation innovations from Ohio. Ohio is home to the first drive-in gas station, Charles Kettering's automobile, the first self-starter, the Fisher Brothers "Body by Fisher," and J. W. Packard and his famous Packard slogan “Ask a Man Who Owns One.” Production studio: Cinecraft Productions Inc., Cleveland.
The Land of Promise 1955 The Cleveland Illuminating Company film explains the importance of Northeast Ohio on the St. Lawrence Seaway and the opportunities it can provide. Highlights the four ports in this area: Cleveland, Fairport, Ashtabula, and Conneaut. Production studio: Cinecraft Productions Inc., Cleveland.
The Cleveland Corridor: The Best Location in the Nation 1959 This Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company film promotes the "Cleveland Corridor," an 85-mile corner of northeast Ohio between the port cities of Conneaut and Cleveland, as "the best location in the nation" for industrial business. Production studio: Cinecraft Productions Inc., Cleveland.
Cleveland World Port 1959 This Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company-sponsored film examined the significant industries of Cleveland at the time and how the city's location and labor force make it an excellent place for new plants and businesses. Production studio: Cinecraft Productions Inc., Cleveland.
Cleveland: City on Schedule 1962 Narrated by Chet Huntley, co-anchor of The Huntley–Brinkley Report on NBC TV's evening news program, this Cleveland Development Foundation film focused on the downtown business district, the expansion of educational and medical facilities in University Circle, and the Longwood Housing Project. Production studio: General Pictures Corporation, Cleveland.
Invitation to Ohio 1964 In cooperation with the Ohio Development Department, Ohio Bell made this film to attract new industries to Ohio. About 400 scenes from all over the state appear in the movie. The musical score, written by Zoltan Rozsnyai, was conducted by GEORGE SZELL and the CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA. Production studio: Cinecraft Productions Inc., Cleveland.
TV Ad Promoting the City of Cleveland 1966 Cleveland Illuminating Company paid for this television first – the first time an entire city was advertised on television. Production studio: Cinecraft Productions Inc., Cleveland.
Projection '70 TV Series 1970 To help the company celebrate its 100th anniversary, in 1970, Standard Oil of Ohio (SOHIO) sponsored six made-for-television 30-minute films projecting changes in technology in the next ten years. The topics covered included transportation, housing, food production, education, communications, and medicine. Production studio: Cinecraft Productions Inc., Cleveland. Click to watch "Education" and "Communications"
Cleveland: A New Generation 1978 Sponsored by the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, the film spotlights Cleveland's strengths and opportunities in an attempt to revitalize the city's image among national and international communities. Production studio: unknown.  
Cleveland: A Special Place 1980 Sponsored by The New Cleveland Campaign, the film highlights the city's business-friendly culture, safe residential neighborhoods, superior educational system, excellent medical facilities, numerous leisure opportunities, and more. Production studio: North Coast Productions Inc., Cleveland.

Jim Culley

Last updated: 1/29/2023

Rick Prelinger, The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, National Film Preservation Board, 2006.


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