Cinematography is among the youngest forms of art. Unlike literature, theater, music, or other visual arts, it did not have centuries of development and evolution before it became an object of commerce. Although it absorbed elements of all arts mentioned above, development of cinematography was a unique process, which combined science, business and art. It was discovered as technical appliance, sold as a carnival attraction for the masses and became a unique art form with the help of artists who searched for innovative ways to express themselves. Therefore, at the early stages of its development, cinematography was heavily influenced by all three of these forces. The result was the creation and rise of the Hollywood studio system, which changed not only the face of cinematic art but the entertainment history as a whole. The period from the 1920’s to the early 1960’s is deservedly called the Golden Age of Hollywood. This research seeks to analyze the studio system in its most prosperous period to see how it functioned, how it changed the cinema, and what caused the major crisis that ended the Golden Age.
The Hollywood studio system was created not for the sake of monopolizing the market, but on the contrary, due to the desire of new independent studios to break free of the monopoly created by conglomerate of producers of film equipment producers. Researcher Douglas Gomery describes the situation that caused Hollywood to become the center of film production in his article “The rise of Hollywood: The Hollywood studio system” (1996). In the first decade of the twentieth century, American and European film producers, led by Motion Picture Patents Company, tried to establish a trust to take control over the film production and distribution. Less influent independent filmmakers were forced to create their own centralized system, which quickly pushed the Trust out of competition. The studio system was comprised of several film corporations with different approaches to film repertoire, who divided the American film market into several regions. These studios were referred to as “The Big Five” and included Paramount, MGM, RKO, Fox Film and Warner Bros. They were run by professional businessmen like Adolph Zukor, Markus Loew and others. Many of these new players had connections with or hailed from the Wall Street business community. Thus, the implementation of a new business model in the film production sphere was performed by professionals.
Gomery (1996) provides a number of reasons why these five studios managed to defeat the competition and monopolize the market so easily. Firstly, they optimized film production by implementing the vertical integration business model. According to this system, all production was centralized under one roof, where separate departments were responsible for their own individual production and controlled by studio management. Different departments were accountable for creating sets, costumes, writing and filming. A business plan and a film release schedule were created to allocate time and resources between several productions at the same time. Although this factory model may seem incompatible with such an artistic process as filmmaking, it helped to create a powerful foundation for raising and attracting skilled professionals.
Another important factor that advanced the studio system in Hollywood was the geographical position of the American film capital. Its unique climate provided conditions for film production all year long, which drew filmmakers from other regions to California. In their competition with the Trust, Hollywood studios started to implement filmmaking techniques that are now common for the film production. In contrast to the Trust films, which were mostly fifteen minute shorts, Hollywood studios strived to create motion pictures with longer running time. The reasoning for this was purely commercial as longer films could cost more. So the average running time of a motion picture became about ninety minutes; this standard is still common.
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Another innovation implemented by the studios was the film marketing which heavily relied on the star system. Using “stars” – famous actors, sex symbols who could attract much wider audience to a production remains the basis of film marketing even now. Hollywood studio producers understood the merits of the star power and put much effort not only into involving already famous radio personalities in film production but also in promotion of their own stars. It influenced not only the marketing of the films but also the way they were made. Most of the actors were cast in similar roles according to their appearance and personality, which led to spread of typecasting in film production. Another innovation brought by star system was the invention of close-ups so the actors could become more recognizable. The stars like Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich and many others were the faces of the Golden Age of Hollywood both in the movies and outside as their private life attracted much public attention. As stated by Macnab (2011), the creation of their public personas was also a task for studio-hired publicity teams. However, despite all the profit they brought film producers, Hollywood stars were shackled by draconian contract obligations, becoming studio property. This compelled many talented actors and film creators to fight for their artistic freedom.
The studio system in the period from the 1920s to the 1940s also used an effective management system in the film distribution as they took control over the production and distribution of films and also the film market. This policy paved the way to the success for the studios and at the same time caused their downfall in the late 1940s. As stated by Gomery (1996):
By this time the independents were independents no longer. They had become the system. The most successful of these former independents succeeded at what the well financed members of the Trust had failed to accomplish – control of the production, distribution, and exhibition of movies. (p. 82)
Most big studios also had their own networks of film theaters grand palaces which dazzled the audience with their splendor and made a visit to the movie theater a great event. Thus, the Big Five could dictate smaller theaters their policies, forcing them to sign very disadvantageous contracts. The practice of block booking, which forced theaters to buy a collection of smaller, cheaper films in the appendage to guaranteed blockbusters, significantly limited the freedom of film exhibition for small film theaters outside of the studio system. In defense of the block booking, there was a practical reason for it to exist. For the film-making process to continue all year long, large staff had to be sustained. As a result, for each major motion picture a number of cheaper films were made, which were shown in double features with more expensive productions. As stated in the article “B” Movies – A Brief History (2004), these cheap films were called B movies due to having the second billing during the double features. While the quality of these films was sometimes questionable, they easily found proper audience, and at times, the profit from those films even exceeded that from big studio releases. B movies were mostly related to the development of popular film genres, including film-noir, westerns, gangster and horror films.
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While the dominance of the five major studios prompted rapid advancement of the industry, it made it almost impossible for smaller companies to develop. As a result, these studios were forced to play by the rules of the Big Five, and most of them ceased to exist. Only several independent studios survived these unequal conditions and, ironically, they were the main initiators of the legal processes which ended the reign of the Big Five.
In their book Movie History: A Survey (2011), Douglas Gomery and Clara Pafort-Overduin point out that with their control over film theaters, the five major studios could gain a significant part of the financial income. The studios control over the technical innovations (e.g. equipment for the projection of the sound films) and their theaters having the right for the first run of the films made the competition almost impossible. It led to the infamous antitrust lawsuits from smaller companies. This legal conflict will be one of the major but not the only reason of the studio system decline and the end of the Golden Age.
The five major studios, according to Gomery and Pafort-Overduin (2011), had their preferred genres and target audiences. Paramount specialized in the failure-proof genre of star-led romantic comedies. MGM produced glamorous melodramas that cast film queens, such as Greta Garbo, and later popular musicals. Fox was an innovator in using Technicolor technology in filmmaking, producing colorful musicals. Warner Bros. took the niche of social satire as well as innovative crime and gangster films. RKO was famous mostly for producing cheaper B movies and for their cooperation with a future animation mogul Walt Disney. The five majors faced competition from three minor studios: Universal, Columbia and United Artists. Even though the three minor studios were inferior financially, they had impressive creative achievements. The United Artists studio, created by author filmmakers Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and pioneer film-director D.W. Griffith, was a precursor of modern studios which distribute independent films by smaller producers. The United Artists studio was a pioneer among the independent filmmakers; unlike the major studios, it focused on distribution of films made by even smaller independent companies rather than original production. Soon it became a haven for independent producers (some good, some bad) fleeing from the strict confines of the major Hollywood studios (Gomery, 1996, 83-84).
Universal was most famous for their gothic horror films, such as Dracula (1930) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which had a significant influence on this film genre. Columbia Pictures produced cheaper B-movie westerns and comic short films. Surprisingly, these three studios, while struggling to win the competition at their time, had a deep and prolonged impact on cinema history. Most of films they produced are still famous now while more successful films of their powerful counterparts are left in oblivion.
The studio system in the 1920’s – 30’s formed the film industry we know now. The studios contributed to the invention of sound cinema; they implemented film genres and star system and perfected the filmmaking process itself. However, the system was not without faults. The most notable failure was the implementation of the infamous Hays Code, which was very strict moral censorship, which sometimes took absurd forms.
The studio system went through the period of the Great Depression without significant financial losses and was one of the most profitable industries during the Second World War. However, it came to an inevitable decline, which began in the late 1940s from major legal battles. The most famous of them was the Paramount Antitrust Case, which lasted for more than two decades. This legal conflict is analyzed in the article “An Empirical Investigation of the Paramount Antitrust Case” (2006) by Ricard Gil. Three minor studios sued five majors, trying to fight their reign in the industry. As a result of a long and painful litigation, the Supreme Court prohibited the film companies from owning theaters, thus creating healthier competition in the market. According to Gil (2006):
These studios were forced to change their contractual practices as well as their internal organization through the banning of block booking and the ordering of theater divesture. The Supreme Court hoped with these measures to open the market for smaller independent producers and increase the quality of the average movie marketed in those years in the US. (p. 182)
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This legal defeat negatively impacted the studios income; they were forced to make more costly films and compete with independent productions. However, the end of the studio monopoly over the film industry was not the only force which ended the Golden Age. In the article “Post War Hollywood” (2011), researcher Ian Hayden Smith suggests that there were a number of factors. The theater attendance during the Second World War decreased when the war ended. The return to normal peaceful life required more home building and less entertainment. Post-war economic backlash also made film going a costly experience. Attending cinemas was quickly substituted by the new popular media – television. Even major film corporations such as Paramount felt the inevitability of the cinema decline and switched to a new, more promising sphere of entertainment. Another major insult to the film industry was political persecution. Numerous investigations against major Hollywood players began, in search of the communist sympathizers among the Hollywood stardom. The Golden Age of Hollywood ended in the early sixties; however, the impact it have had on the world cinema cannot be underestimated.
The Hollywood studio system rose from the desire of independent film artists to break out of the embrace of the dominating Trust. Surprisingly, in the course of time it turned into the same thing it once fought against. While the studio system benefited the technical development of the film industry, it held cinema as an art back. The Golden Age was the period of total dominance of five studios over the industry. It was marked by the rise of glamorous Hollywood establishment, emergence of the film star phenomenon, and establishment of cinema as a multi-million industry. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, what is now known as the film industry was created. Prior to it, cinema cheap entertainment for the masses made without any particular effort from one point of view and a new, unexplored art form from another. Hollywood merged art with entertainment and managed to sell this mixture using a convenient business model. The film genre distinction emerged during the Golden Age. In this time, the process of filmmaking was unified to the point of perfection; even now, with all the new technologies, there are little changes to this canon. The same can be said about distribution and marketing of films. However, when filmmaking as business was created, cinema as an art developed in a direction that was questionable. The art of cinema was young at the time; it had not yet developed its unique language. Thus, making it mostly commercial slowed down the self-identification of cinema as an art form. New technologies like sound and color discovered and promoted by the studios forced the development of cinema in the direction of pleasing the audience. No wonder some of the most prominent directors of the time, including Charlie Chaplin, opposed these processes. The art of cinema owes a lot to these directors as they determined the artistic development of cinema no less than the studio giants.