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Film Industry - A New Industry, The Studio Years, The Television Years

motion production picture studios

The film industry defines the United States and the American people as does no other medium. The movies demonstrate to global audiences all the strengths, weaknesses, and contradictions of the nation—art versus commerce, economic opulence versus squalor, and heroes versus villains. Even the variety of words that are used to describe the product of the industry—"movies," “motion pictures,” “film,” and "cinema"—illustrates the contradictions and strengths. Indeed, the entire history of motion pictures is a series of seeming contradictions, from the development of a mass entertainment industry by a small group of mainly Eastern European, Jewish immigrants, to the early failure to come to terms with television (a natural ally), to the fluid transition this old-line industry appears to be making in a new era of on-demand home-based media and entertainment.

The simple fact is that for most people, the motion picture business is a television business. Television—through VCRs, pay-per-view, pay cable, DVDs, basic cable, and broadcast—is the place where most movies are seen and where most revenue is generated by a business that is still defined by many as “going to the movies” (an outof-home social group experience).

In another contradiction, this highly American industry derives an increasing percentage of its revenue and much of its profits from international distribution. One can travel to almost any inhabited part of the world and see U.S.-made or distributed films typically dominating theater marquees and video sales and rentals. In terms of both revenue and cultural influence, motion pictures are one of the most important exports of the United States.

A New Industry

An important distinction between the motion picture industry and other media industries is that motion pictures have rarely, if ever, been a medium for the elite. The print media have, of course, always been limited to the literate, and until the 1830s, they were limited to people who had relatively substantial disposable incomes and positions of influence in policy, commerce, or the arts. While the elite period of radio and television was relatively brief and related more to technical limitations and geography, the motion picture industry was designed almost from the beginning as a popular mass medium.

The motion picture industry was primarily developed by inventor-entrepreneurs (e.g., Thomas Edison and his associates) and “show business” entrepreneurs who brought the culture and distribution patterns of vaudeville to the emerging industry. The result was an industry that, because it was disdained by many cultural elitists and “legitimate” business interests, was left alone to develop in the “netherworld” of patent infringement, the empty and difficult-to-locate lands of southern California, and the world of “lowbrow” and sometimes salacious entertainment. Not until the development of opulent theaters in the 1910s and the rise of studio system (with its strong control of production, distribution, and exhibition) in the 1920s were the eccentricities of the industry reigned in and made to conform to a more structured pattern of business operation.

The “development years” that lasted from roughly the mid-1890s to the early 1920s are important today because many of the tensions, contradictions, and operational parameters of the industry were established during that period. For example, the Edison-designed Kinetoscope, a device that allowed individuals to view films on a one-at-a-time basis, was quickly superseded by the image projection system that was pioneered by the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and made moviegoing a group communication and social experience. This period also saw the development of production techniques that were vital to and, in many cases, unique to film narrative—such as parallel-action editing, camera movement, and lighting techniques. Motion pictures, beginning with the first Nickelodeon theater in Pittsburgh in 1904, developed as a separate form of mass entertainment rather than as “filler” for the live acts of vaudeville. Of course, the mass popularity of the movies were a proximate cause of the eventual demise of vaudeville.

The development years also saw the establishment of the Los Angeles basin as the center of the creative side of American mass entertainment. Because it provided an environment where filming could take place all during the year and because it offered an escape from the stifling business, legal, and cultural environment of New York, “Holly-wood” quickly became globally synonymous with the motion picture industry. The immigrants who became known as the motion picture “moguls” (e.g., Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Adolph Zukor) on the West Coast would have had great difficulty gaining such power if they had remained on the East Coast.

The Studio Years

The motion picture industry reached its apex as the mass entertainment medium in the years between 1920 and 1950. At the structural level, major studios, among them such still-famous names as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Columbia, built virtual empires in which they controlled the careers and, in some cases, the lives of actors, directors, writers, cinematographers, and other talent. The major studios had near-total control of what type of movies and how many movies would be made (production), how many prints would be made and to whom they would be delivered (distribution), and what theaters would be allowed to show them (exhibition). Even independently owned theaters and smaller chains or groups were forced to take products from the major studios through such practices as “blind bidding” (i.e., bidding on products or product packages before they were completed) and “block booking” (i.e., licensing a package of products to a chain for all of its theaters, which forced the chain to take inferior products connected to quality products).

The success of this vertically integrated business pattern can be demonstrated by comparing the average annual attendance of 4.68 billion people for the 1945-1948 period to the annual attendance of 1.47 billion people in 1999. The studio structure was also responsible for the “elevation” of the social stature of moviegoing. Opulent theaters were built in many urban areas with the amenities that were previously reserved for the fine arts of the symphony, opera, or dance. Indeed, theaters of this style that survive have in several cities been refurbished for the “fine arts.” With the money almost literally rolling in, the major studios spared little expense in producing films that had a more “sophisticated” air and “fine arts” aspirations or pretensions (e.g., the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) to go along with the more popular forms, such as gangster movies and westerns. An important element of the genius of the developing film industry was its ability to cater to audiences at virtually every socioeconomic level. The introduction of sound and, later, color technology was, of course, essential to these efforts.

The rapidly developing studio system of the 1920s clearly demonstrated the ability of the industry to fashion itself as a mass and mainstream entity with the establishment of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in 1922. More popularly known as the “Hays Office” (after the organization’s first president, former U.S. Postmaster General Will Hays), the MPPDA was a response to the various state boards of censorship and threats of U.S. government regulation. The MPPDA, which was eventually renamed the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), not only lobbied for the industry on a national level but adopted a stringent Production Code that banned virtually all “morally objectionable” content from U.S. motion pictures for more than thirty years.

The Television Years

What many have called the “golden age” of Hollywood came crashing down in a remarkably short period of time. In the four-year period 1948-1951, for example, there was a 50 percent decline in weekly attendance, a trend that continued until 1971, when weekly attendance bottomed out at 15.8 million—less than one-fifth the number of the 1945-1948 peak (Robertson, 1994). This occurred even as the U.S. population grew at a rapid rate in the “baby boom” years that lasted from the late 1940s to the early 1960s.

Although television is without question the major reason for the decline in the relative importance of the motion picture industry as a mass medium, other factors should not be overlooked. The move of people to the suburbs left fewer people to patronize the downtown theaters. The high birthrate also made it more difficult for people to go to theaters due to the need and cost of babysitting.

In addition to demography, the entire structure and accompanying patterns of conduct of the motion picture industry were radically altered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1948 decision in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. The Court ruled that the vertical structure of production-distribution-exhibition (PDE) was illegal under federal antitrust law. This led to the separation of exhibition from the studios and the eventual dissolution of the studio system, as studios began to concentrate more on the distribution side of the business.

No media technology has diffused as rapidly as television. Offering “free” home entertainment and information at a time of rapid suburbanization and high birthrates, television combined the appeal and ubiquitousness of motion pictures and radio. How to adapt to the new mass medium was the major challenge that faced the motion picture industry from the 1950s to the 1980s

The response of the industry to the rise of television was seriously complicated by the Paramount decision. Without the threat of the impending decision, the motion picture industry might have developed its own stations and networks. After Paramount , there was no powerful, near-monolithic industry to speak and act in unison, although old ties were difficult to break. For example, the exhibitors strongly opposed, and allied with the broadcasters to stop, the early development of pay television, which has since become a very lucrative market for production and distribution. Rather than quickly embracing this new medium with a voracious appetite for product, Hollywood stood aloof or in opposition until United Paramount Studios purchased ABC in the mid-1950s and began to use its film connections to acquire made-for-television product from Disney, Warner Brothers, and other studios. However, in deference to the theater owners, the studios did not release major theatrical films to television until the 1960s.

While new distribution outlets were finally starting to be exploited by the late 1950s, the production and exhibition industry segments had different reactions to the rise of television. The production side found itself somewhat in the middle as it naturally “fed” its distribution side with more of the television product that replaced the B-movie, while devoting much attention to producing the type of product for theaters that television could not replicate. Examples include the production of films in such new widescreen processes as Cinema Scope, the increasing shift to color, huge budget costume epics, and special effects (including 3D). In addition, the content of motion pictures became more specialized and, in the minds of many, more controversial and adult to draw customers away from television. By 1968, the now basically ignored Production Code was replaced by the MPAA ratings system.

Beginning in the 1950s and accelerating in the 1960s, the production component of the industry dismantled much of the old studio system. Talent contracts became rare as the studios preferred to deal with most talent as independent contractors. Real estate and sets were sold or auctioned, although the major studios continued to make considerable income from leasing studio facilities and selling technical expertise. Although film production continued at the studios, the production side became increasingly involved with the financing and packaging and distribution of products that were made by quasi-independent filmmakers, boutique “studios,” and investor groups. Perhaps more illustrative of the changes in Hollywood was the sale or absorption of the major studios to other business conglomerates, a trend that continues.

Once it realized that television was not a “fad,” the exhibition segment of the industry reacted by equipping theaters with larger screens, better sound, and special effects. In addition, the drive-in theater became common in rural and suburban areas. Of course, in order to enhance revenues, ticket and concession prices were raised. By the 1960s and early 1970s, the multiscreen theater started to become the industry standard. By offering films for different audience segments, the “multiplex” could ensure itself of a relatively steady flow of customers while maximizing the sale of concessions.

Film Industry, Careers in [next] [back] Film Genres - Blaxploitation:, Comedy:, Gangster Films:, Drama:, Horror:, Romance:, Westerns:

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