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Feeding the Maw of Exhibition - The Shift to the Producer-Unit System, Conclusion

production studio pictures producers

So far this book has implied that the vertically integrated structure of the Smajor film companies profoundly influenced the quantity and quality of the motion pictures produced by Hollywood. Because real estate assets (theaters) rested on a base of intangibles (motion pictures), the production process of these companies had to be well organized to accomplish three goals: first, motion pictures had to appeal to a large cross section of the public; second, they had to attract audiences consistently over long periods of time; and third, they had to be produced in sufficient quantity and on a regular basis to permit quick audience turnover.

To meet these demands, Hollywood had honed an efficient means of producing large numbers of feature films containing stars called the studio system. In place since the mid teens, the system organized production around a central producer who oversaw a large, fully staffed studio containing talent, technical workers, and craftsmen. Using the continuity script as a blueprint, production was divided into discrete parts, such as script development, art and costume design, cinematography, directing, and editing, which corresponded to departments that supplied talent and material as needed. Harnessing this work force, Hollywood churned out from four hundred to five hundred films a year during the thirties in an attempt to satisfy every taste in every city and town. The following discussion will demonstrate four things about the studio system: (1) the growing domination of producers over the production process; (2) the diminished status of the director and the screenwriter in the system; (3) the “authorship” of distinctive studio house styles; and (4) the methods used by the majors and elite independent producers to rationalize production.

The Shift to the Producer-Unit System

To elucidate the nature of the studio system in Hollywood during the thirties, it is appropriate to begin by quoting Leo Rosten:

Each studio has a personality; each studio’s product shows special emphases and values. And, in the final analysis, the sum total of a studio’s personality, the aggregate pattern of its choices and its tastes, may be traced to its producers. For it is the producers who establish the preferences, the prejudices, and the predispositions of the organization and, therefore, of the movies which it turns out. (Hollywood, pp. 242-243)

Studios were organized hierarchically. 1 At the top sat an executive who typically held the corporate title of vice-president in charge of production. Moguls such as Louis B. Mayer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Jack L. Warner at Warner Bros., Y. Frank Freeman at Paramount, and Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox headed the most important studios and were perpetually in the limelight. However, within the larger corporate structures of their companies, the moguls were beholden to the chief executives who typically held the title of president or chairman. For example, at Warners,

Jack L. Warner… the stereotype of the crude, rough, all-powerful movie mogul… ruled feature film-making with an iron hand. Yet his management style only mirrored his older brother Harry’s wishes. The brothers Warner sought a cut-rate movie factory, which would produce the required number of features and shorts for Warners’ theaters each year. Warner Bros. operated on a volume basis, trying to make a small profit on every film. Jack Warner supplied the films; Abe Warner routed them to appropriate theaters, but there was no question who mapped overall corporate strategy and had the last word in all decisions—Harry M. Warner. (Douglas Gomery, The Hollywood Studio System [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986], p. 112)

Harry Cohn, the production chief at Columbia, was the only mogul to serve in the dual capacity as chief executive officer of the corporation and the studio.

To motivate its production chief, a company might give him a cut of the profits in addition to a handsome salary. Louis B. Mayer, for example, became the highest-paid American executive during the thirties as a result of his unique profit-sharing agreement with Loew’s. When Loew’s acquired the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corp. in 1924, Mayer wanted neither cash nor stock for himself and his two partners, Irving Thalberg and Robert Rubin, but a percentage of the profits—to be exact, 20 percent of the profits (after a dividend set aside of $2 per common share) up to $2.5 million and 15 percent of the profits over that. In addition to receiving weekly salaries ranging from $1,000 for Rubin to $4,000 for Thalberg, the three executives divided up more than $1 million in profits in 1935 alone.

Studio chiefs did not rule their empires single-handedly, but administered staffs of high-salaried managers who took care of the myriad business affairs of operating a studio plant, including payroll, security, industrial relations, maintenance, and food services. Production was delegated to a central producer. MGM’s Irving Thalberg, the prototypical central producer, had no set daily routines; Fortune said, “His brain is the camera which photographs dozens of scripts in a week and decides which of them, if any, shall be turned over to MGM’s twenty-seven departments to be made into a moving picture. It is also the recording apparatus which converts the squealing friction of 2,200 erratic underlings into the more than normally coherent chatter of an MGM talkie.”

To assist him in producing the forty or fifty pictures the studio turned out each year, Thalberg employed a group of ten associate producers. Each associate producer specialized in a certain type of picture—prestige pictures, sophisticated comedies, melodramas, action pictures, and so forth. Functioning as surrogates for Thalberg, these men worked on two or three pictures simultaneously. To begin a project, the associate producer conferred with writers on the story idea and worked with them to develop the shooting script. After submitting the script for Thalberg’s approval, he coordinated the efforts of the designers, director, and cast. Describing the associate producer’s job, Fortune said, “Without being able in most cases to act, write, or direct, they are supposed to know more about writing than either the director or the star, more about directing than the star or the writer.” 4 Associate producers stayed with a picture until it was completed, while resolving whatever problems arose. Thalberg treated the finished film as raw material. Thalberg was noted for testing audience reaction to his films before they were released. If audiences did not like something or failed to respond in the appropriate way, he did not hesitate to have parts of the picture reshot.

Darryl Zanuck, the producing “genius” at Warners, ran the studio practically as a one-man show early in the decade. In addition to his regular responsibilities as head of a production, Zanuck acted as the chief talent scout, story editor, and head writer. Allen Rivkin, a Warner screenwriter recalled,I remember when I came to Warner Brothers [in 1930], Zanuck would read a story on Friday, think about it over the weekend, get it set in his head and call the writers into his office on Monday morning. He’d say, “Okay boys, here’s the story, it’ll have Jimmy Cagney in it. We’ll start shooting four weeks from this morning and we’ll open at Warner’s downtown eight weeks from today.” (Quoted in James R. Silke, Here’s Looking at You Kid: Fifty Years of Fighting, Working, and Dreaming at Warner Brothers [Boston: Little, Brown, 1976], p. 64)

To keep tabs on actual production, Warner employed “supervisors” to visit the set each day to anticipate and stop any costly overruns. They worked anonymously until 1932, when the studio gave them a supervisor credit on the screen.

Weaknesses in the central producer system became apparent straight off. Placing a studio’s entire annual output in the hands of one person minimized originality and the exchange of ideas. As Paramount’s Jesse L. Lasky put it, “The output of a studio must of necessity cover the entire field of motion-picture entertainment, and the mind and creative instincts of no one man is able to encompass every type of motion picture.” Another weakness of the system surfaced during the Depression when it became apparent that a single person could not monitor production costs on a day-to-day basis. Some studios therefore modified the central producer system to create what became known as the producer-unit system. As the term implies, production was apportioned among a group of producers, each of whom headed a core group of talent responsible for three to six pictures a year. Because a unit producer specialized in a certain type of picture, the new system was supposed to improve quality while greatly lowering overhead costs.

MGM instituted the producer-unit system in 1933 after Thalberg suffered a heart attack. Restructuring the studio, Mayer assumed all the administrative chores, formed a production unit for his son-in-law David O. Selznick to produce prestige pictures, and then upgraded Thalberg’s associate producers by giving them responsibility for their own films and by giving them screen credit as producers. Until his premature death in 1936, Thalberg thereafter functioned as a special-projects producer to sustain MGM’s reputation for “polished elegant craftsmanship.” Among these special projects were THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1934), MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), and ROMEO AND JULIET (1936).

Warners shifted to the producer-unit system in 1933 following Darryl Zanuck’s walkout in protest over Harry Warner’s decision to retain salary cuts after the national bank holiday. To replace Zanuck, the studio made Hal B. Wallis associate executive in charge of production under Jack Warner. Over the next several years, Wallis upgraded the authority of the supervisors, changed their title to associate producer, and gave them appropriate screen credit. Unlike the shift at MGM that dispersed control, the reorganization at Warners left Wallis with a good deal of centralized authority. Fortune reported that “Wallis initiates many scripts and passes on all of them, dickers with stars, assigns budgets, and in fact takes bows for the whole Warner picture program.” Like their counterparts at MGM, Warners’ six associate producers specialized in certain types of pictures. Henry Blanke, for example, was assigned “the most artistically ambitious” projects, such as the prestigious biopics JUAREZ , THE LIFE OF EMILE Z OLA, and THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR . LOU EDELMAN had the job of producing two types of low-cost movies, “service” pictures “glorifying some branch of uniformed forces of the nation” and “headliner” stories plucked from the newspapers. And Bryan Foy was given all of Warners’ Â pictures.

Paramount followed suit when it followed Joseph P. Kennedy’s advice on restructuring the studio. Barney Balaban, Paramount’s new president, appointed Y. Frank Freeman head of the studio. Since Freeman was basically an administrator, he placed William LeBaron in charge of production. LeBaron assigned all the  pictures, which amounted to half the studio’s output, to a single producer who functioned autonomously. To handle the A pictures, LeBaron organized two types of production units, one around the talents of producer-directors Cecil B. DeMille, Leo McCarey, and Henry Hathaway and the other around the talents of unit producers Arthur Hornblow, Al Lewin, Barney Glazer, and others. As Fortune said, “With the available Paramount star material more or less in mind, they sooner or later find a story that blossoms in their minds into a successful film. They clear it with LeBaron, get a budget from [George] Bagnall, and are off.” 8

The shift from central producer to the unit-producer system grew out of the Depression and answered a need to maintain fiscal restraints. This slight restructuring of production at the executive level did not loosen the studios’ grip on talent; rather, the shift further concentrated production into the hands of executives. A Screen Directors Guild survey published in 1938 revealed that in 1927, Hollywood used 34 producers to make 743 pictures; ten years later, Hollywood was using 220 producers to make 484 pictures. “In other words,” said Leo Rosten, “800 percent more producers were used in 1937 to make 40 percent fewer pictures than in 1936!” 9


As modern business enterprises, the major film companies perfected a system of motion-picture production during the thirties that enabled them to meet market demand in a rational and relatively efficient manner. The principal changes in the mode of production were at the executive level. Greater executive control over production came mainly at the expense of directors who were relegated basically to staging the action. Although motion-picture production remained a collaborative art, the description needs refining. Actually, the studio system allowed little time for collaboration, not even for big-budget productions. Artistic personnel were expected to be versatile professionals capable of performing highly skilled and specialized tasks quickly and efficiently. This system of artistic production was at odds with norms in publishing and in the professional theater, but the necessity of supplying theaters with new product on a regular basis mandated tight production schedules and breakneck speed. That Hollywood produced such a wealth of entertainment in the decade is a testament to the system and especially to the vast pool of talented workers employed by the studios.

Subsequent chapters on production trends will highlight the importance of the prestige picture to the business. This chapter has also revealed that top-ranking independent producers distributing through United Artists specialized in this trend and tailored the production process to allow for greater collaboration, in order to carve a niche for themselves in the market. In so doing, they anticipated the era of the blockbuster, which has characterized the motion-picture business to this day.


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