THE STUDIO SYSTEM
From the simple moving image of a train pulling into a station to the creation of whole new worlds, cinema has seen some dramatic developments over the years. This essay aims to both discuss the various films, political and corporate influences, directors that have shaped Hollywood, as well as provide valid evidence as to how the Hollywood Studio System became the conglomerate Empire it is today. Films such as The Sea Hawk (Curtiz, M, 1940), The Godfather (Coppola, F 1972) and Batman (Burton, T 1989) illustrate the varied degrees of studio production, distribution and the reinvention of varied studio eras and give evidence as to how films changed the industry and vice versa.
Genre has been prominent device throughout film history, though during Hollywood’s studio era (the 1920’s to the 60’s), the formulaic nature of genre greatly reflected the era’s industrial practices and as Stephen Neale comments, ‘the status of Hollywood as an industry and the status of its films as commodities stress the importance of genre variety as well and the importance of repetition’ (Neale, S, 2000). It was during the studio era that Hollywood approached a process of filmmaking similar to Henry Ford’s method of car production. Car manufactures created lines and ranges of automobiles to meet the demands of the public. These products were ‘one-of-a-kind’ items, built to maximize profits for a market economy. Unlike molded steel and mechanical form, film genres constituted Hollywood’s line and range and similar to Ford’s practice created a product for the masses, yet individualized each film to ensure an audience’s return business, offering a unique cinema experience every time. One film that demonstrates Hollywood’s use of genre as a marketing tool during the studio era is Warner’s The Sea Hawk. This film utilized the talents of Errol Flynn, one of Warner’s contracted actors and not only renewed the star’s qualities, but also reprised the adventure genre noted in the studios preceding hit, Captain Blood (Curtiz, M, 1935). The Sea Hawk employed the talents of Warner’s production designers, costumiers, composers and photographers to give the film a distinctive look and feel reflective of the studio’s ‘house style’. The Sea Hawk can be considered a film representative of Hollywood’s ‘Fordesque’ approach to filmmaking because the recycling of genre represented line and form and the studio utilized contracted staff. Studio house style and production practices represented Hollywood’s emphasis on issues concerning the evolution of urban culture and a transition in America from a ‘Victorian Age’ to a ‘Modern Age’ (Brivati, B, Seldon, A, 1996). The structure of genre, box-office trends, star personality appeal, staging, lighting and action styles were studio components adhering to political, social and cultural context. Therefore films like The Sea Hawk could be considered a flavour to suit an audience’s particular taste during a time of war (World War 2), when stories of bravely, gallantry and overcoming adversity were what the American public was craving.
The Hollywood renaissance period was also a time when films remained focused on satisfying the public’s appetite for particular genre. This period of cinema saw a departure from previous ‘production line’ methods of filmmaking and a new and more liberated approach was taken. This was a time in Hollywood where films enjoyed the freedom of experimentation due to production codes and censorship bans no longer limiting a films creative process. At this time, Directors were considered leading figures in the film industry. This reversal of power came into fruition due the corporate uncertainty of the times. The rise of new young directors bred from exploitation movies and independent companies like AIP or Roger Corman’s New World ‘Indicated the depth and extent of the break from the cultural and cinematic traditions of Classic Hollywood film’ (Girgus, S B, 1998). Directors such as Francis Ford Coppola enjoyed creative power and freedom in a system that had previously retained a narrow focus on culturally muted themes, political censorships and classic narratives, while maintaining a control over film production by only employing studio contracted or pre-selected creative talents. The few ‘anti- establishment’ films that were successful during the late 60’s such as Bonnie and Clyde (Penn 1967) and The Graduate (Nichols 1967) may have been made by older and more established directors, but it was the movies of the Hollywood Renaissance that epitomized a general shift in Hollywood management. The box office success of Coppola’s film The Godfather (Coppola 1972) gave the young Hollywood auteur directors more opportunities to create more ‘stylistically innovative and thematically challenging movies’ (Maltby, R, 2003). Though Coppola’s film made a sizable profit, creativity in such a scale came with a huge production costs and three quarters of studio movie releases during the early 70’s lost money at the box-office.
It wasn’t until Steven Spielberg directed Jaws (Spielberg, S 1975) that studio could distribute films in a package form and format that would break box office records and earlier profit margins and launch a new era in Hollywood. The key to the financial success of Jaws was the films ‘presold property and media-blitz saturation release pattern which contributed to the film becoming a multi-purpose entertainment machine’ (Horwath, A, Elsaesser, T, King, N 2004). To further solidify the notion of a multi-purpose entertainment machine, the Warner Bros 1989 release of Batman provides a sound example of conglomerate formations within the studio, as it is a construction of in-house blockbuster property. The studio through acquisition of DC Comics, already owned the character of Batman in 1971 and the comic’s notoriety encouraged in house publications, which were not only profitable, but also acted as an audience stimulator for the films release. The Warner music label then released two records accompanying the film, which also served as profit earners and further promotion. Batman brought in revenues of $179 million in domestic video sales the same year as the theatrical release and the film later appeared on Cinemax, a Warner owned cable station. Finally, Batman products were produced and could be bought from Warner retail stores worldwide, not to mention a theme park ride, which was exclusive to Warner Bros Movie World.
Whether they are on the big screen or in the comfort of a living room, films offer audiences sensory and emotional experience, which shown in themes of fantasy, science fiction, adventure and the supernatural allow the audience to identify with cloaked heroes and painted villains, mumbling mob leaders and handsome pirates. Behind the scenes however, studio films indirectly reflect a changing human culture and identity, fluctuating economies and ever-changing designs of communication. In a contemporary age of computer-generated images, high speed Internet and smart phones where the audience can view a film in their hand; films can be seen to have ventured a long way from the classic Hollywood studio era.
Balio, T 1985, The American Film History, pp. 75, 76, 77, 78, 79.
University of Wisconsin Press.
McDonald, P, Wasko, J 2008, The contemporary Hollywood film industry, p 5, Blackwell, Melbourne.
King, G 2002, New Hollywood cinema: an introduction, pp. 74, 75
I.B Tauris, London.
Cutiz, M 1935, Captain Blood, Warner Bros
Curtiz, M 1940, The Sea Hawk, Warner Bros
Penn, A 1967, Bonnie and Clyde, Warner Bros
Nichols, M 1967, The Graduate, MGM
Coppola, F, F 1972 The Godfather, Paramount Pictures
Spielberg, S 1975, Jaws, Universal Studios
Burton, T 1989, Batman, Warner Bros
Girgus, S B 1998, Hollywood Renaissance: The Cinema of Democracy in the Era of Ford, Capra, and Kazan, p.7 Cambridge University Press.
Neale, S, 2000, Genre and Hollywood, p. 218,
Psychology Press, New York.
Brivita, B, Seldon, A 1996, The Contemporary history handbook, p. 401, Manchester University Press
Maltby, R 2003, Hollywood cinema, p.176, Wiley-Blackwell, New Jersey.
Horwath, A, Elsaesser, T, King, N 2004, The last great American picture show: new Hollywood cinema in the 1970’s, p. 23, Amsterdam University Press.