Welcome, my gentle students, to the latest installment of CraveOnline's Free Film School. Our motto: “You get way more than what you pay for.” If you have been following all along, I welcome you back, and am proud to see your brain teeming with information and electric with critical activity. If this is your first time with us, feel free to sit anywhere, be sure to get comfortable (you're welcome to strip down to the nude), and snack openly. Either way, it's time to open your minds to the cinematic possibilities of the world, and see yourself entering a new plane of filmic knowledge. And, of course, for really fun homework assignments.
In previous weeks in the Free Film School, I've talked about several famous filmmakers (Jean-Luc Godard, Steven Spielberg, and even Irwin Allen). I've talked about the concepts of Auteur Theory, which posited that the director of the film is going to be the central creative force behind it. There is, I think we can all agree, a kind of throughline in film criticism that assumes great films come primarily from strong, artistically ambitious filmmakers, and that film history is dominated less by popular trends and more by heroic pioneers who are daring enough to tell intimate stories, or try new filmmaking techniques with the constantly and rapidly evolving film technologies.
But today's lecture is going to stand in stark contrast to that. This week, I'm going to be teaching you about the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, and the famous Studio System that dominated the industry back in the 1940s. This system, for better or worse, was what allowed Hollywood film studios to grow at the rate they did, to produce such massive amounts of product, and leave economic and businesslike ripples that are still swelling larger and larger today. Sometimes, you will find, it's not single creative giants that change the course of films. Indeed, over 90% of the time you'll find that it's studio politicking that dictates what makes it into theaters. Seriously. Over 90% of what you see is going to be entertainment-for-hire, produced for maximum marketability, with no regard as to directorial vision, aesthetic achievement, or even base entertainment. This week's lesson is a reminder that the business of film is still just that: a business. We will be talking about the glories and the dubious legacy of the Golden Age.
To start, we'll have to go way back to the 1920s, when films, as an industry, were first taking off in earnest. Films had passed from their experimental origins into a more widely popular place. People began attending films in theaters. Money was up. And just as the famous Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began to take hold, so too did major studios. As talkies entered the picture, the dollars began rolling in. 1927's The Jazz Singer, considered the first sound feature film, was, perhaps the first real mainstream blockbuster. Previous hits had been relegated to upper crust art affairs. Even hits like The Birth of a Nation were considered to be ambitious art projects. With The Jazz Singer, the flavor of the blockbuster changed, and film teetered into a more populist place. Film then became a business like never before, and major studios gelled into place. Many of the major studios formed during this time are the ones still in charge today.
At the time, there were five major studios, often referred to as simply The Big Five. There was Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Fox, Paramount, and RKO. There were other smaller ones as well; Universal, for instance, had already been established, but they weren't as large or as well known as the Big Five. There was also the famous United Artists, which was, in contrast, hardly an “A” player.
What set the “major studios” apart from their smaller contemporaries was their budget, of course, but also their newfound insular factory-style approach to filmmaking. Each of the Big Five built their own sound stages, bought their own filming equipment, and arranged to have exclusive rights to their movies. They found the most viable and bankable actors they could, and signed them to years-long contracts, ensuring that they would have exclusive rights to use their talent. Each studio had a “stable” of talent. The various stables would never, ever intermingle. It was not only legally verboten, but also considered gauche to poach another studio's talent. Instead, the studios would often engage in fierce legal battles to find loopholes to steal talent from one another.
What's more, and this is the most significant part: Studios owned their own movie theaters. These days, that seems unthinkable, but back in the 1930s and 1940s, studios not only had a fierce protection of their product, but had exclusivity in certain movie houses to show them. They could contract whatever films they wanted to, and theater owners didn't complain because the studios also owned the theater owners. It was a franchise mentality. A small local business owner would run a theater, but it would be owned by a major studio. Yes, to us, this seems kind of insidious. Antitrust laws and all. This will come back to bite the studios in the butt…
There were, of course, many important and talented filmmakers who worked during this time, and auteurs did make their way through. Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, and Michael Curtiz were, to name a few, some of the giants to emerge from the studio era. Auteurs, though, just like actors, were often under contract to certain studios, and were not encouraged to shop around.
It's amazing that such powerful talents could emerge from the system, given what we know about how The Studio System operated. There is a film out there, directed by Vincente Minnelli, called The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), starring a pushy Kirk Douglas, which illustrates the way studio producers would weasel their way into productions, and slowly take things away from the writers, the directors, and eventually would sort of direct pictures themselves. Watch it sometime. It's a harrowing and wicked tale of how financial success in Hollywood is so often paired with backstabbing and under-the-counter business deals. So much of film production was streamlined for efficiency, and little regard was give to the things that contemporary film students value like purity of vision, etc. In Sunset Boulevard, William Holden's character was a struggling screenwriter who was consigned to a series of studio-located, tiny, kitchenette-sized bunkers to do nothing but write. Such bunkers were common in the Golden Age, and (sometimes famous) writers would be shuttered up, and hired to churn out pages and pages of screenplay a day, all on assignment, all under strict supervision, and all with neckbreaking deadlines. The script pages would then be rushed to a set or an office, where they would be approved, altered, and filmed on the fly.
Not the best environment to write The Great American movie, right?
Well, to be fair, the studio system knew a good thing when they saw it, and, as a result, great films and great filmmakers could, with enough effort and business savvy, stand up amongst the rest. The finest example of a factory-like studio film is probably Casablanca. The 1942 classic, often considered to be one of the greatest of all American films, was, believe it or not, supposed to be yet another in a long string of easily made and quickly-forgotten studio pictures on the assembly line. They got a well-known action director, Michael Curtiz, to direct. They had their contracted stars. WWII dramas were the word of the day, and exotic locales were an easy sell. Love stories were the most popular kind of stories (and they still kind of are). The studio was just mixing all the pop elements that they thought would make them money. No one, not even the director, felt they were making anything more ambitious than a product. For that one picture, at the very least, lightning struck. All the studio elements came into play perfectly, and one of the most dynamic, entertaining and enjoyable films of all time was produced.
There is a reason this is called The Golden Age of filmmaking. While there wasn't the kind of pure aesthetic freedom that film students long for (and such aesthetic freedom is most definitely the exception rather than the rule), there was a kind of cosmopolitan respect for the businesslike and adult dealings of the major studios. The insular world of contract players formed miniature families, and studios began to emerge with different personalities. The powerhouses may have been businessmen, and they were likely not quick to give “the little guy” a chance in the business, but they were fiercely protective of their movies, of their stars, and cared deeply for the film form. If you were a film fan, you could curl up with your favorite stars and follow them as they made film after film, all in studio-owned palace-like single-screen movie theaters. The studio dictated what films were made, but they, at the very least, cared to make good pictures from time to time.
In 1948, the system came crashing to a halt. It was in 1948 that Paramount found themselves embroiled in a federal antitrust case about their movie theater practices. It was common, you see, for studios to “block book” movie theaters, that is; they would book one or two “A” features with their local theaters, and then force three or four additional (often awful) “B” pictures as well. This way, no matter what their product was, the studio could ensure it would play in theaters. Theater owners, of course, were losing money for themselves, and suffering as a result. This practice of block booking was seen as a form of monopoly. Surely all studios should have an equal playing ground when it came to exhibition. Paramount was ordered to sell off their movie theaters, and the other Big Five soon had to follow suit. This was such a damning blow to the studios, many came close to closing. RKO, once a formidable financial giant, actually did close entirely at this time, partly through the antitrust case, but largely through some shady double-dealing on the part of Howard Hughes.
From then on, theaters were owned by either independent contractors, or by new private theater companies. Although many studios have been buying theaters again. Disney, for instance, owns the El Capitan in Hollywood, CA.
How much have things changed? Well, if you look at the ground level of most major studio films, a cynic could argue that little has. Producers are still calling most of the shots, directors are still working for-hire, and screenwriters are often considered the most disposable part of a production. The comedians Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, authors of schlocky studio films likeHerbie: Fully Loaded and Taxi, recently wrote a great book called Writing Movies for
Fun and Profit, all about writing screenplays that studios like to make. Their central lesson is essentially to jettison all romance you have about the movies, artistic vision, and aesthetic purity, and to embrace that your screenplay will we wrenched from your hands, endlessly re-written, and fed into a great machine that will do whatever it wants. Do what the studio says, take the check and go home. This is the ground truth about studios. They are still a business first.
This is the dubious legacy of Hollywood's Golden Age. Since it's what formed the studio system, many major studios still operate in a factory-like mentality. Sure, there have been indie booms over the years, and, as tastes have changed, great auteurs have been able to come to the fore. But, again, about 90% of the films you see in mainstream movie theaters are going to be ultra-tinkered studio product.
Is there hope for auteurs? Well, yes. Always. As Casablanca proves, great films can be made by even the most cynical of studios. Not all studio product is going to be garbage. I'm not going to order you to reject anything out-of-hand; I'm not that kind of professor. Indeed, great studio films come along kind of frequently. It's a balance. Know that a talented auteur can indeed be the mastermind behind a great film. But also know that there is a factory involved, and that factory is in the business of making middlebrow schlock that is more interested in making money than moving people. Try to appreciate how much energy goes into making a movie, and the function of the studio factory. And consider that a great film comes out of that occasionally.
Homework for the Week:
Watch Casablanca. Yes, again. Watch any action blockbuster from the past ten years. How much of that blockbuster was, do you feel, the product of a director, and how much was the planning of a studio? Can you tell when a studio interferes with an auteur's vision? Try to think of an efficient way to make 12 feature films. Do all the planning. How much do you want to pay for a film? How much do you think a film will make? Put yourself mentally into the place of a studio head. Will you allow filmmakers freedom, or will you want to control your product? How important is money and business to the movie industry? Does the studio involved have any bearing on how you see a film?