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"The American Cinema is a classical art so why not admire what is most admirable. Not only the talent of this or that film maker but the genius of the system"

The Hollywood Studio System 1930-59

The studio system had an equilibrium of components that is rare in the film industry: it was efficient, productive, and creative.
The film industry began in 1895, with films of just a few seconds, working up to films of around a minute in length. Films made a huge impression on people from the very beggining with L'arivee d'un Train - people thought the train was going to come out of the screen and run them over! Since then film lengths increased and technical developments have been made. Films like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs reflect the technical developments of the time - mainly with the use of sound and colour. These were mostly cheerful, upbeat films; escapism was especially popular during the depression and around World War 2, however this is something that still applies to modern Hollywood.

The men who formed Hollywood were born within a 500 mile radius and at one point in L.A lived within a 15 miles radius of each other. The founders of the Hollywood studio system were Jewish immigrants who fled to America from eastern Europe for opportunity and economic stability in the 1900's. They arrived with few belongings and little money, all searching for the american dream. They started off in New York but eventually moved to Los Angeles and Hollywood. Initially they were involved in exhibition and small scale production companies. These soon-to-be Hollywood Moguls were all risk-takers. Many of them had come from sales businesses and had the skills required in the movie industry; they knew how to distribute a product. They were businessmen, not the creative force behind the films.
The fim industry was based around the Jewish immigrants involvement in production. They saw America as a land of hope and freedom; films of this period are a reflection of the American Dream.
Take The Wizard of Oz for example. Oz is a metaphor for America, the film changes from black and white to colour when Dorothy arrives in Oz, she is welcomed with singing and hapiness. This was the idealised interpretation of the american dream. The Jewish immigrants were trying to erase their Jewish roots; they wanted to forget the past and have a new life.

The 'Big Five' studios were:

  1. RKO
  2. Warner Brothers
  3. 20th Century Fox
  4. MGM
  5. Paramount Pictures
These studios were vertically integrated, meaning they had their own production space and cinemas. They produced, marketted, and exhibitted all their own films.

The 'Little Three' were:

  1. Columbia Pictures
  2. Universal Pictures
  3. United Artists
These studios were not vertically integrated. Columbia and Universal produced their own films, United Artists distributed films made by other companies. All three had to use the Big 5's cinemas.

The studio executives controlled operations in the entire plant: casting, contracts, and developing stories for editting. Each studio produced 50 films a year, but were capable of making up to 1,250 per year. They were formulaic and often not of a high quality. Because of vertical integration the studios had to keep cinemas supplied with a steady flow of 'A' and 'B' productions. An A movie would be around 90 minutes and cost $500, 000 to make. B movies were under 90 minutes and cost $200,000. Many A movies came from independent studios, who were tied to the bigger studios. They produced quality A productions so that the big studios could concentrate on B productions. The independants needed studios to make films, so they couldn't survive without being attached to the system. They used the studios for production facilities, personel, and stars.

Each studio had it's own style, which helped them to sell their films. For example, Columbia had an emphasis on the common man, while Paramount were about 'luxury and sophistication', and MGM was based around Louis B. Mayer's vision, producing some of the most famous broadway-style musicals.

Studios specialised in genre based productions because:

  • They could improve on that genre
  • They could re-use sets/stars/costumes
  • They had audience loyalty
  • They could get things done more efficiently, especially because they were able to gain a greater understanding of that genre.
  • Personal taste of the studio head.
The HWD studio system had a distinctive marketing strategy to ensure turn over of profit.

Studios operated a blind bidding system where independent exhibitors were forced to buy studio films without having seen them, sometimes before the film had been made. Studios, particularly Warner Brothers and Paramount forced independent cinemas to buy films in blocks, this was known as block booking. If an exhibitor wanted to show an A picture, which they needed to attract a big enough audience, they had to buy several B pictures of a lower quality alongside. The B movies were often so bad it was cheaper not to show them.
The other way studios made sure they profited more than independent cinemas was through zoning. This meant that only one cinema in any area was allowed to show the latest A movie. This obviously favoured studio cinemas and meant that when independent exhibitors were allowed to show the film there would be less of an audience for it. Hollywood studios owned 75% of all the first run cinemas in the UK, due to vertical integration.
These monopolistic practises were relinquished in 1948 with the Paramount decree.

Stars were a major marketing tool used to lure audience to the cinema. Control of the market required control of the stars. In the 1910’s audiences were given ‘star cards’, collectible items which lead to the star system.

Stars were a constructed phenomenon, their image and even their physical appearance were manufactured by the studio. They were often required to change their own names. Audiences didn’t see the real person, they saw an image constructed by the studios. The star’s image was well publicised and controlled, studios had their own publicity departments. Actors were heavily type-cast in order to make films easily identifiable to the audience, and the studios decided the roles the actor would perform. They were sometimes rented or sold to other studios for profit. Studios also realised that stars lives outside the studio had a big effect on how well a film did, so they began to carefully construct the stars lives. Cary Grant was forced to act as a heterosexual even though he was gay. Judy Garland was forced to have an abortion and put on drugs to control her.

Talent scouts at studios would attend theatre nightclubs to spot potential stars. They would be invited to screen tests and once signed were provided with roles in B movies. Studios placed stars on 5-7 year contracts and took legal control of their identities. The studio had the power to suspend the actor without pay and sack them with immediate effect. If a star refused to work for another studio or complained about poor scripts, they would often be suspended. The suspension period would be added to the end of the 5-7 year contract. Also, after the suspension, the star would be offered poor scripts, often in B movies. Stars had little control, it was impossible for a star to work outside of the system.

Decline of the Studio Era

In 1948 the Justice Department of the USA filed an anti trust suit against the Big 5 and the Little 3, charging them of monopolistic practises in exhibition. Paramount and RKO were the first studios to agree to the government’s claims and to sign the Paramount Decree.

The Studios were forced to divorce themselves of their exhibition outlets; hence there would be no more vertical integration. Consequently, blind bidding and block booking were abolished.

In 1945 Olivia De Havilland won the case to make star contracts illegal. Stars gained more independence and signed one picture deals, charging much more money. Ingrid Bergman charged $15,000 per week, and later on James Stewart would charge $2,000,000 per film. Studios no longer controlled the stars, who had now gained freelance status.

In the post-war years, American audiences began to lose interest in cinema. By 1950 attendance had dropped from 90 million per week in 1948 to 60 million, and by 1953 it was down to 43 million per week. There were many factors that contributed to the decline in audience figures. The most obvious reason behind this was the rise in television. This had the greatest effect between 1950 and 1956. Ownership of televisions went from 10.3 million in 1951, to 20.4 million in 53, to 34.9 million in 56. By 1959, 90% of American homes had televisions. However, television cannot be held solely responsible for the decline of the studio system, which began earlier, in the 1940’s. In fact the drop in attendance between 1949 and 1950 couldn’t be blamed on TV, because during this time there were only a handful of stations. In fact, the earlier fall in audience figures can be attributed to the change in audience lifestyles and leisure time amusements. People were becoming less interested in passive entertainment and took a greater interest in more participatory recreations such as gardening, golfing, bowling, hunting, fishing, and boating. The introduction of the five-day working week meant that people were able to go away for whole weekends.

In the 1950’s, studios were attempting to compete with television, with new strategies like widescreen, Technicolor, 3D, and stereophonic sound. Eventually the studios gave in and collaborated with television. They sold their films to TV stations, made films especially for TV, and merged with TV companies. Some studios attempted to buy TV stations but were not allowed.

1954 – Disney contracted with ABC
1956 – Columbia, Warner Brothers, Fox, and MGM all sold their pre-1948 films to Television stations.
1958 – Paramount sold old films to MCA for TV broadcast.

In the 1950’s the studios began facing competition from independent production. The studios no longer owned the cinemas, so they now had some actual competition for screening slots. Independent films were often better than studio films, which were still stuck in their formulaic ways.

Studios were forced to rent studio space to the independent producers to make money, and also distributed and marketed their films. By 1957 58% of films distributed by the Big 5 and Little 3 were independent films. United Artists were the leading distributors of independent films in the 1950’s. By the 1970’s the Hollywood majors had reclaimed their dominance over the independents.

All of these factors combine:

  • 1948 Paramount Decree
  • The rise in independent film
  • Leasing of studio space
  • Cost cutting at studios
  • Short term contracts
Leading to the package unit system in the 50’s, which is still used today.

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