Useful Notes: Fall of the Studio System

Welcome to... "Hullywo d".note 

The Golden Age of Hollywood could not last forever. A number of outside forces were conspiring to make it impossible for the studio system to continue for more than a few decades in the post-war era. This is the Fall Of The Studio System, a period of time stretching from roughly the late 1940s to the late 1960s.

How the Cookie Crumbled (or, Trust-Busting, TV, and Tabloids, oh my!)

The moment that is often considered to be the beginning of the end for the studio system, and the end of Hollywood's Golden Age, is the 1948 landmark Supreme Court decision United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. While this decision saw precedent in a 1938 anti-trust case by Attorney General Thurman Arnold that restricted the practice of block bookingnote  by the "Big Five" studios (Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Bros. , 20th Century Fox, and RKO Radio Pictures) that owned their own theater chains, that decision largely went unenforced as World War II diverted the nation's attention soon after — and in any event, Hollywood's "Little Three" studios (Universal, Columbia Pictures, and United Artists), which didn't own any theaters, felt that it didn't go nearly far enough. United States v. Paramount, however, not only outlawed block booking altogether, it also forced the Big Five to outright sell their theater chains. The result of this was that studios, no longer able to dump a whole year's worth of movies on theaters, now had to be far more selective in what they did produce. This led to an increase in the production values and budgets of Hollywood's motion pictures, and a decrease in their number. This also gave more freedom to independent filmmakers and smaller studios (most notably the Little Three, which boomed in the wake of the decision), as they could distribute their product with much less interference by the majors.

The need for The Hays Code was the next to go. The Paramount decision had already weakened it by causing the rise of independent "art-house" theaters that could show foreign and independent films that weren't covered by the Code. The real crippling blow to film censorship, however, was another landmark Supreme Court decision, the 1952 case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, also known as the Miracle Decision after the name of the film, The Miracle by Roberto Rossellini. That film had controversial Catholic imagery and themes, with an ironic reworking of the Virgin Birth. The Miracle Decision declared that film was an artistic medium protected under the First Amendment, thereby eliminating the threat of government censorship that had led to the implementation of the Code in the first place. Since there was still no film ratings system other than the unofficial one of the National Legion of Decency (whose influence was on the wane by the time The Sixties rolled around), films would be billed as "Recommended for Adults Only," and more and more theater chains were willing to show them. The tide in Hollywood was turning against censorship.note 

Except, however, for one particular type of censorship. The post-war period was the age of America's Second Red Scarenote , and people started fearing that the entertainment industry was being infiltrated and turned into a Communist Propaganda Machine by leftists and Soviet sympathizers. A widely-varying (depending on the source) number of screenwriters, actors, and directors with suspect political views suddenly found their careers in the American film industry yanked out from under them in The Hollywood Blacklist of The Fifties. Another 151 people were named by the right-wing pamphlet Red Channels, published by the anti-Communist group AWARE, as Communist subversives; these people likewise found themselves effectively barred from working in film, radio, or television. A fair number of the people who were blacklisted would continue to find work in Britain — a point that will become relevant later. As The Fifties wore on, the entertainment industry struck back against the Red Scare; the 1956 Bette Davis film Storm Center was one of the first to directly target anti-Communist hysteria, and in 1957, radio host John Henry Faulk sued AWARE for ruining his career (winning his case in 1962).

Far more important, the new medium of television was also placing growing pressure on the industry. The days of film serials and newsreels that ran before and between movies quickly came to an end as short subjects, news programs, and cartoons migrated to TV. Late-night television became popular for reruns of old movies, which helped revive interest in the Silent Age of Hollywood but did nothing to pull audiences into movie theaters. The studios reacted to this competition by filming a greater share of their movies in color (color television in the 1950s was seen as rather laughable), and introduced numerous innovations (including widescreen projection and stereo sound) and gimmicks (3-D movies, "roadshow" booking and countless others) to pull customers back and provide them with an experience that television could not. The culmination of this effort was the rise of the Epic Movie, the multi-million-dollar, three-hour-long (including intermission), cast-of-thousands epic that had to be seen in theaters to be properly enjoyed. Even then, however, television was proving to be a nearly unstoppable juggernaut, and moviegoers were bleeding away to television at a rapid pace. Weekly attendance would fall from a peak of 90 million in 1948, the first year of true national television, to roughly half that in 1953, where it would stabilize for the next decade.

Finally, the star system crumbled during this period. Established stars like Jane Greer, Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe were battling studio heads at every turn, often refusing certain parts that they didn't want and even suing to get out of their contracts.note  The publicity this generated meant that new arrivals in Hollywood were becoming increasingly Genre Savvy, knowing about the restrictions that they would face by signing contracts with the studios. As a result, they were becoming more selective and demanding with their contracts, with some opting to go for free agency instead. In addition, the rise of the modern, scandal-obsessed tabloid media, led by magazines like Confidential and the infamous book Hollywood Babylon, was making it next to impossible for studios to hush up the indiscretions of their stars, and the myth of Golden Age Hollywood as being clean and wholesome was swept away like so much garbage.

The damage

Hollywood did not take the fall of the studio system well. While the smaller studios Columbia and United Artists thrived in the new climate, quickly gaining market share and becoming the most profitable studios in Hollywood, most of the Big Five struggled to survive. The hardest-hit studio was RKO Radio Pictures, historically the weakest of the Big Five, which fell apart under the mismanagement of Howard Hughes. By 1958, RKO's only hope of survival lay in a proposed merger with B-studios Republic Pictures and Allied Artists; the merger fell through, and both RKO and Republic left the movie business entirely. The other studios also faced a slow decline, and many of them found themselves getting bought out. The major studios all but abandoned the production of B movies to independent filmmakers and minor studios, focusing instead on smaller numbers of bigger-budgeted pictures. When these Epic Movies succeeded, it was all well and good, but when they flopped (as was known to happen on occasion), it vindicated the old saying about putting all of your eggs into one basket. Meanwhile, the House that Mickey Built entered the live-action film business, cut its old ties to RKO and added the Buena Vista Film Distribution Company to its fast-growing empire in 1953. While not considered a major studio at the time due to its focus on family films, Disney was still able to snatch up significant market share with films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mary Poppins.

The final nail in the coffin of the studio system was the rise of foreign cinema in The Sixties. Despite the Miracle Decision, Hollywood was still bound by the outdated, self-imposed terms of The Hays Code, which meant that there was a long list of topics and themes that it couldn't touch. This left a massive opening for foreign filmmakers and studios to eat up lots of market share. Italy had already made the Code look ridiculous with the 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves (which the Code tried to censor because it had a completely sexless scene in a brothel), and it followed that up by unleashing "Spaghetti Westerns" that deconstructed one of Hollywood's most cherished genres. The French New Wave, with such masters as François Truffaut, was breaking all of the conventions of filmmaking and cinematic form, to immense critical acclaim. Japanese cinema, led by the popular Godzilla (albeit thanks to a Americanized edit of the original film) and the lavishly lauded and much- imitated works of Akira Kurosawa, was also making a splash stateside.

The biggest threat to Hollywood dominance, however, came from Britain. As it had done in music, The British Invasion was sweeping over the film world as well. Such works as the James Bond movies, the output of Hammer Film Productions, the Beatles films A Hard Days Night and Help!, and others spoke to a generation of young Americans in the swinging, countercultural 1960s. Meanwhile, British period dramas like Lawrence of Arabia and Zulu showed that Hollywood no longer had a monopoly on epic filmmaking. Out of ten Best Picture winners in The Sixties, fournote  were British films. And there was little Hollywood could do in response.

The silver lining

Despite this, the plethora of talent meant that even in the '50s and '60s, Hollywood still produced a volume of great films. Some people, like critic James Harvey (author of Movie Love in the Fifties), have even argued that the '50s were perhaps Hollywood's greatest decade.

Some have argued that the conditions that did so much damage to Hollywood in the short term, such as the loss of control over theatre distribution, actually contributed to the growth of American cinema in the long run. For one thing, it allowed the growth of independent theatre chains which allowed owners to present a wider option of films to show to the American public. This usually meant foreign films, but it also helped independent producers and distributors, who no longer had to deal with studios to screen their films to the average audience. This helped spark the growth of independent cinema and underground cinema, which developed in New York at this time, later leading to the rise of John Cassavetes, often hailed as the "Father of American Independent Film". His 1959 film Shadows was a striking glimpse of American life that dealt with subjects such as the lives of normal African-Americans, an interracial romance, and sexual relationships, with a realism far away from Hollywood's idealized touch. The ability of actors and directors to negotiate independent contracts likewise provided them better incentives, such as a percentage of actual gross. This resulted in greater roles played by agents such as Lew Wassermann of MCA, but it also allowed stars to break free of Type Casting and play darker roles, such as James Stewart's films with Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock when he was no longer constrained or typed by his old roles. Burt Lancaster was another star who took advantage of this freedom to produce films such as Sweet Smell of Success.

The decentralization in the studio system often gave directors, screenwriters, and producers more leg room to make films their way, even if they still had to contend with The Hays Code on its last legs. The Auteur Theory was first developed during this time by the French New Wave, and had a major impact on many of the star filmmakers whose careers exploded in the '70s. The New Wave pointed out that in the post-war era, there were several filmmakers who brought a fresh Genre-Busting approach to American cinema. This period saw old masters like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock making mature works like The Searchers, Rio Bravo, and Vertigo, films which often challenged or contrasted against their more well-known style, which were often much darker and bleaker than their films made in the 1930s and 1940s. In addition, there was a new generation of adventurous filmmakers such as Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Budd Boetticher, Frank Tashlin, Richard Fleischer, Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh, Vincente Minnelli, Douglas Sirk, and Otto Preminger, who pushed the envelope further and further in terms of visual style, acting style, realism, and stylized lighting. Kazan, Preminger, and Billy Wilder in particular were especially bold in challenging the censorship of the time, and broke barriers in terms of restriction of sexual content.

Hollywood's darkest hour

Even so, however, many of these positive developments were happening in the background, and would take time to bear fruit. Meanwhile, the fruits of Hollywood's over-reliance on formula and "sure bets", its struggles to keep up with the times, and its gimmicky attempts to compete with television were already ripening and rotting in front of them. By the mid-late '60s, the American film industry had collapsed under its own weight, toppled by bloated budgets, diminishing returns, stale product, and huge losses in market share to TV, independents, and the British. Theatrical attendance, after years of stagnation, finally collapsed in the second half of the '60s, plunging from 45 million people a week in 1965 to just 19 million four years later. Someone had to do something to stop the decline...

On a somewhat related note, American animation was also facing a steep decline during this period; for more information, see The Dark Age of Animation.

Alternative Title(s):

Fall Of The Studio System