Saturday, February 16, 2019

Hollywood's Studio System: The End Of An Era

by KLiedle (writer), Los Angeles, October 13, 2007


The Hollywood studio system's grand demise occurred during the time between the Great Depression and U.S. entry into World War II. In 1948, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the major studios for anti-competitive practices.

In what is now called the Paramount Decision, the court ruled against the studios, and according to The Oxford History Of World Cinema, the court called for the immediate "divorce of production and exhibition and the elimination of unfair booking practices."

In another hallmark decision, actress Olivia de Havilland, most known for her role in the feature film, Gone With The Wind, won a lawsuit against Warner Brothers, citing a contract dispute. Her case, highlighted with historical reverence in Mark Litwak's Reel Power: The Struggle for Influence and Success in the New Hollywood, became the first major lawsuit brought forth by an actor against a studio. Put simply, the landmark decision established court-recognized independence of actors.

For the studios, it was the beginning of the end. No longer could the film industry control (or monopolize) all aspects of film production, distribution, and exhibition. Actors were also beginning to come into their own to realize that the once-scary and all-powerful Hollywood studios now stood on increasingly shaky ground.

More and more, actors began to have the courage to stand up against the studios. They were tired of having their careers relentlessly controlled. Many of them became unhappy due to strict studio contracts which offered them no cut of a film's profits, no choice for roles, and the prospect of being frequently loaned out to other production companies against their will. In 1953, after more than fifty films with his studio, the reigning King of Hollywood, Clark Gable, broke free from his studio contract to strike out on his own. Subsequently, as Edgar Small noted in Agent To Actor, other stars began to go independent and form their own production companies.

Not only did movie-making change with the loss of the studio system, but movie audiences changed as well. Audiences became much more mature than ever before. According to a study by psychologist Abraham Tesser, Ph.D. and student Terry Pettijohn II, some of the changes in audience preferences may be attributed to social and economic health. Their study, as noted in a 1998 issue of Psychology Today, stated the theory that "when hard times hit," such as the Great Depression, moviegoers look for reassuring films and stars who can "steer them safely through the trouble they're in."

Additionally, in the years after World War II, there was a demographic shift of the American populations from cities to the suburbs. In contrast to the habitual moviegoing public of the 1930s, for the first time, audiences started to level off. Entertainment became much more sophisticated, offering audiences different entertainment options, other than the movies.

The first real competition for the film industry was the television. At first, major studios completely stonewalled television by refusing to sell older motion pictures for re-broadcast on the new medium. However, smaller film companies, especially in need of profit, did begin selling off parts of their film archives. According to Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, editor of The Oxford History Of World Cinema, it was not until 1954, when Howard Hughes sold his entire RKO film library to television that other major movie studios began to do the same.

At the same time, the wide variety of entertainment options now available, coupled with the faster-paced lifestyles of Americans, made audiences much more selective. In the 1920s and 1930s, the public universally went to the movies, now studios became thankful if they could get the public to see a movie. Movies were also increasingly geared toward a specific audience instead of the universal movie going masses of the past. With these audience and societal changes in effect, studios substantially decreased the quantity of films produced. Film producing got riskier, and the studios learned that it was no longer profitable to employ a large roster of talent, as they always had before.

The 1950s saw Hollywood scrambling to respond to these factors with Cinerama, stereo-sound, 3-D, and widescreen forms of entertainment-basically any new technology that could potentially entice audiences back to the theaters.

"External pressure, shifting social forces, new entertainment preferences, and changed economic patterns" is what killed the studio system, says Ronald L. Davis, author of The Glamour Factory.

As a result of the decentralization of power within the film industry, stars now had freedom from the studio, but that freedom had a price. For the first time, stars were faced with job details that the studio had always done for them. Suddenly, stars were left to judge the quality of scripts and roles for themselves as well as being in charge of their own training. The safety net of the studios had all but dissolved.

Although the studio system had been strict and controlling, it had offered an unprecedented benefit for actors (and crew) in the form of paid training and apprenticeships. In From Agent To Actor, Cesar Romaro summed up this dilemma, when he stated that after he was dropped from the studio roster system, he felt like an orphan.

"After all those years of being under contract to a studio...," Romaro continued, "the future seemed dark, having always had the protection of a studio.

By the late 1950s, the free agent system for actors and other industry professionals was well under way.

*Photo credit: Kendra Liedle*

About the Writer

KLiedle is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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