Friday, August 22, 2014

The Golden Age to the New Hollywood Era: Hollywood post-World War II

Hollywood’s Golden Age—an era bookended by the christening of sound motion pictures and the Supreme Court’s anti-trust verdict in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. —was a time of vast proliferation in terms of studio output and tremendous profit for a handful of vertically-integrated production companies who dominated the market. Even if per capita attendance never again reached the heights of the silent era (Pautz 83), the coincidence of monopolistic business practices and the prominence of cinema as the dominant form of media ensured that the Golden Age was the industry’s most profitable era (Dirks).

The fallout from the Paramount Decision necessitated change in theatrical exhibition and, as television began to replace the cinema as the dominant form of media, the Hollywood film industry was strong-armed into diversification. The Big Five and Little Three (who dominated as much as 99% of the annual movie market share in 1964) caved to media conglomeration for capital but saw their market shares consistently drop throughout the New Hollywood Era (Finler 40). This era saw Hollywood engage new practices in business and aesthetics partly in response to legislation (both theatrical exhibition and decency regulations changed due to the Supreme Court’s Paramount Decision and its overturning of its 1915 Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio ruling in 1952, respectively), but mostly to jockey for competitive edge. If cinema was to no longer be the dominant media platform, deviation from the Classical Hollywood Style in terms of content, form and business practice would vie to get audiences back in seats and to obtain fragmented pieces of the leisure dollar as modes of exhibition evolved.

The ramifications of the Paramount Decision are what ultimately changed the course of the Hollywood industry forever. The Golden Age of Hollywood was so prolific and profitable because of the stranglehold a handful of studios had on the production, distribution and exhibition arms of the industry. In 1948, the Supreme Court found the eight Hollywood production studios “conspired to and did restrain and monopolize interstate trade in the exhibition of motion pictures…and that their combination of producing, distributing and exhibiting motion pictures violated §§ 1 and 2 of the [Sherman] Act” (United States v. Paramount Pictures 131). This conspiracy demanded exhibition houses charge minimal admission prices, elevating quantity over quality. 

A significant portion of income for Production houses during the Studio Era came from block-booked lineups and major studios created B-movie units to round out pre-sold double bills with low-budget productions. As Hollywood studios retained the rights to production and distribution but no longer had control of exhibition, B-movies decreased in value. Exhibition houses demanded films of higher quality and B-units from the major studios were phased out. Production values (and costs) increased as a result of more discriminatory booking and the prolific number of Hollywood films (many of which, B-movies) produced during the Golden Age quickly dropped.

To capitalize on their smaller number of films, production companies began to distribute their big budget films through roadshow exhibition, protecting their assets by moving away from long-term contracts with movie houses. Studios travelled their elite programming and charged higher rental fees to independent theaters who, in turn, charged more per ticket for big-budget productions. Pouring huge budgets into roadshow features proved to be a gamble for production studios; while 20th Century Fox’s extravagant The Sound of Music surpassed Gone with the Wind as the all-time rental leader in 1965, the production costs of Cleopatra almost bankrupted the studio two years earlier despite being the highest grossing film of the year (Hefferman 424). This would not be an isolated event. Roadshow features were culturally safe (often historic, biblical or literary) to appeal to large audiences, epic in scope to present an awesome spectacle television couldn’t provide, but extravagantly—sometimes irreparably—expensive.

Higher rental prices may have, for studios, offset the loss from producing fewer films, but exhibitors had to innovate new strategies to fill seats as attendance declined into the 1950s. The advent of drive-in theaters captured new youth and family-oriented baby-boom markets, particularly in rural and suburban areas. Though something of a novelty, the drive-in created a new experience which juxtaposed the intimacy of a car’s private space with the camaraderie and spectacle of public entertainment. Films even became secondary as some drive-ins featured shuffleboard, miniature golf and dine-in areas. 

Pre-show drive-in shuffleboard
Inner-city theaters—once the hub of cinema in the Golden Era—struggled as “confiscatory rentals and extended first runs in large suburban theaters meant that last season’s hits began their subsequent runs in the inner city virtually played out” (Hefferman 419). These exhibitors stayed afloat by targeting specific audiences with their programming: they reran kiddie fare, played niche sci-fi and horror films to a growing cult of genre, and even targeted its ethnic crowd with social problem pictures (Hefferman 419). Niche programming became key for several small and second-run theaters and, although the Paramount Decision freed exhibitors from studio pricing, it wasn’t until another Supreme Court decision came in 1952 that exhibitors could take advantage of a new trend in foreign and independent cinema as the loosening of the Production Code made such a cinema of attractions possible.

The second Supreme Court decision that forever tousled the Hollywood industry as it moved toward the New Hollywood Era was the 1952 overturning of its initial ruling on 1915’s Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio. In order to consolidate concerns of state-mandated censorship boards following the 1915 ruling that denied the extension of First Amendment rights to motion pictures, and to repair a poor public image of Hollywood lasciviousness due to off-screen scandal, Hollywood executives forged a trade association to protect its economic interests. In 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America began work on a Production Code which went into effect in 1930 and ran through Hollywood’s Golden Age. This self-policing found Hollywood studios willing to abide by zealous mandates against portrayals of miscegenation or sexual inference to prevent a bad apple from spoiling the bunch.

The Production Code prevented any major studio from exploiting indecency in an effort to elevate the cinema as legitimate in the public eye and, with vertical integration still intact, the Code was “enforceable because of the lock the five majors had on first-run exhibition. Film lacking a Code seal could not play in affiliated theaters. Barred from the lucrative first-run market, it was economic suicide for the majors to make films that would not be granted Code approval” (Schaefer 381-2). The Production Code was, therefore, more a matter of economic security than morality; studios abided by the rules to jibe with exhibition as well as to guard the public perception of trade credibility.

However, the judicial stance on decency changed, coinciding with the Paramount Decision. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas stated in 1948, “‘we have no doubt that moving pictures, like newspapers and radio, are included in the press whose freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment,’ opening the door for a challenge to motion-picture censorship” (Schaefer 382). This challenge would come four years later in the case of Burstyn v. Wilson which overruled 1915’s Mutual Decision, defanged the Legion of Decency and allowed theaters—now unbound by monopolistic tendencies—the freedom to exhibit edgier foreign and independent films without a Production seal.

Jack Valenti, MPAA President 1966-2004
With the Production Code increasingly difficult to enforce, censorship growing passé with evolving cultural mores, and new art-house and genre audiences to exploit, the major studios reframed regulation in the form of the MPAA rating system to again protect their economic advantage. A statement by MPAA president Jack Valenti in 1968 (the same year the new rating system went into effect) does rhetorical work in distancing the stance of the production studios from the now culturally unpopular connotation of “censorship” while preemptively self-policing to avoid government intervention. Valenti asks, “Can censorship cure the portrayal of violence in the media? …I would have a larger question. I would ask: Can censorship curb violence in the society? I think it’s a truism that movies are not beacons but rather mirrors of society” (Valenti 71). That is to say, censorship under the Production Code did not cure societal ills, but the new market could be legitimized. The resulting MPAA ratings system was the best of both worlds for the production studios: the R rating allowed grittier content forbidden on television and “became a gateway to the legitimate film marketplace: a code of production, distribution, and exhibition serving the major players in the industry” (Sandler 258). Just as it would have been “economic suicide” to release a film without the Production seal during the Studio Era, the MPAA phased out their X rating—bowing instead to censorship—to avoid legal injunctions preventing exhibition. The MPAA’s X rating would become New Hollywood’s economic suicide, while the legitimized R rating would become immensely profitable as it allowed for thematic and formal variations on the Classical Hollywood Style.

As exhibition increased its independent and foreign fare, and the MPAA legitimized boundary-pushing content with its R rating, the Hollywood industry saw audiences return as they altered thematic and formal content. The Godfather was one such success story which was “a critical and commercial smash with widespread appeal, drawing art cinema connoisseurs and disaffected youth as well as mainstream moviegoers,” pulling audiences away from their televisions and correcting a 7-year skid in box-office attendance (Schatz 292). What this statement presupposes is that, though the narrative tendencies for films which would come to be known as “blockbusters” were always at the forefront of studio concerns, art-house crowds and “disaffected youth” were significant audiences to consider. The success of The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider in the late 1960s indicated to studios that genre revisionism with auteurist sensibilities could be profitable despite their shift from the Classical Style (Grainge 409). Though films of the Studio Era often had a distinct house style, directors—considered employees rather than artists—perpetuated an invisible style in both sound and visuals. As studios began to terminate long-term staff contracts following the Paramount Decision, it also grew increasingly difficult for a director to retain familial crews to develop a singular look. Films of the Classical Hollywood Style were, therefore, enterprisingly corporate and stylistically invisible.

John Cassavetes directing Faces with hand-held camera
The curio that was art-house cinema along with disaffected youth receipts led studio executives to take a gamble on the auteuristic tendencies of New Hollywood directors. Many of these directors employed distinct visual style and reflexive genre play which ran contrarian to Classic Hollywood invisibility. Robert Altman innovated overlapping dialogue through use of multi-track mixers, John Cassavetes experimented with handheld cameras, long takes and deliberate pacing and Woody Allen authored films of non-linear narrative, all on the studio dime. Where deviations from the Classic Style toward the end of the Studio Era came in the form of novelty to rival television viewership (the inherent reflexivity of CinemaScope and 3D), reflexive tendencies in the New Hollywood Era were framed as singular, artistic visions.

The profitability of the auteur style, however, was unsustainable despite the promise of a “new cinema” that came with corporate conglomeration at the end of the Studio Era. Horizontal integration would encourage the prominence of the blockbuster as synergistic output could incorporate returns throughout a wider media spectrum. Certainly studio executive always preferred homogenized entertainment in times of economic depression. Declining attendance in the 1950s encouraged safe, pre-sold releases and epics and musicals from pre-existing material dominated the box-office throughout the decade. Strangely enough, when the majors began being absorbed into corporate conglomeration—beginning with MCA’s takeover of Universal Pictures in 1962 during another studio depression—low-risk homogeny wasn’t their primary concern.

Michael Cimino amid shooting one-million feet of film for Heaven's Gate
In an attempt to reach a youthful audience with youthful leadership, the media conglomerates largely replaced studio dinosaurs with “brats” who also saw promise in the art-house and disaffected youth crowds. Noel King describes this New Hollywood as “a brief window of opportunity…when an adventurous new cinema emerged, linking traditions of classical Hollywood genre filmmaking with the stylistic innovations of European art cinema” (268). Such adventure from a wider pool of resources would also bankroll such big-budget auteur flops as William Friedkin’s Sorcerer in 1977 and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980—the latter bankrupting United Artists—to increased studio anxiety. Even “brats” like Francis Ford Coppola whose prior work had been highly successful at the box-office saw their directorial power fade. Much like the industry’s treatment of Orson Welles at the height of the Studio Era, the New Hollywood Era saw the climate grow tenuous between single-minded directors and big business.

Screenwriter William Goldman summed up the corporatization of the film industry by saying, “Most of the studio guys I’ve met are really smart, but they don’t care much about the movies. As slots, yes. As merchandising tie-ins,—oh my—yes. As theme-park rides, you betcha! And that’s the problem. They are mostly ex-agents or business school types. They care about slots and profits and product and Burger King cross-promotions” (King 271). On the surface, this is undeniably true: the entrenching of the high-concept blockbuster demands larger budgets to films of broad appeal with the promise of large returns across multiple outlets through horizontal integration and cross-promotion. The fallacy of Goldman’s quip is the presupposition that “film as film” has ever been a primary motivating concern among studio executives.

The Studio Era’s vertically-integrated control of exhibition and its shift to roadshow distribution weren’t about “film” any more than the Production Code (or subsequent MPAA rating system) was about morality. Blockbuster films of the New Hollywood Era may be high-concept and pre-sold (like the adapted epics of the 1950s), but they aren’t diametrically opposed to auteur cinema of the late-’60s and early-’70s: both were considered low-risk in their time and exploited a welcoming demographic. The diversification of media left the film industry with no choice but to invite corporate conglomeration. Legislation pulled the rug from their monopolistic strength in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the competition for post-World War II leisure dollars made it impossible for the industry to sustain itself as it had at the beginning of the Studio Era when, in 1929, it earned 83 cents of every entertainment dollar spent in America (Mintz). As public consumption of media evolved, Hollywood diversified its market into the New Hollywood Era. Any industry concern for “film as film” cannot be divorced from the shrewd economic practices which define its history.


Works Cited

Dirks, Tim. “The History of Film: The 1940s.” Filmsite. AMC Networks, LLC., n.d. Web. 9 Aug. 2014.

Finler, Joel Waldo. The Hollywood Story. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Hefferman, Kevin. “Inner-City Exhibition and the Genre Film: Distributing Night of the Living Dead (1968).” Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 418-434.

Grainge, Paul, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

King, Noel. “‘The Last Good Time We Ever Had’: Remembering the New Hollywood Cinema.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 267-278.

Mintz, Steven and Sara G. McNeill. “The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture.” Digital History. Digital History, 2013. Web. 11 Aug. 2014.

Pautz, Michelle. “The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930-2000.” Issues in Political Economy, Vol. 11 (2002): 70-87. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Sandler, Kevin S. “CARA and the Emergence of Responsible Entertainment.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 267-278.. 249-264.

Schaefer, Eric. “The End of Classical Exploitation” Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 380-391.

Schatz, Thomas. “The New Hollywood.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 287-306.

United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. 334 U.S. 131. 131-180. No. 79. US Supreme Court. 1948. Web. (9 Aug. 2014).

Valenti, Jack. “The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.” Screening Violence. Ed. Stephen Prince. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000. 62-75.

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