Demonstrate understanding of a specific media industry


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Demonstrate understanding of a specific media industry

Credits: Three

Hollywood Studio System 1930- 1948

Section 1: The Studio System: An overview
Section 2: Organisation

a. Organisation

b. Studio ownership

c. Financing

Section 3: Roles and Relationships

a. Production process

b. Key personnel and Relationships
Appendix 3.1: Decline of the Hollywood System
Section 4: Controls

a. Controls

b. The production code: An Internal Control

b. Essential War Industry: An External Control

Section 5: Case Study

a. ‘Casablanca’ and the Studio system

b. Casablanca- Roles and relationships

c. Casablanca and Propaganda (See section 4b)

Appendix 5.1: Timeline of the making of Casablanca

Section 6: Examination Questions

What they will ask you

Resources Best overall information- very relevant The Global media Giants worksheet to go with Global Media Giants the studio system the end of the studios the studios themselves The economics of the studios- mostly 2005, but great back info. the effects of the studio system huac- the hunt for unamericans The Hollywood blacklist Censorship from Hays to New Zealand- great link to ‘investigate an issue’


The Cinema Book (Pam Cook)

Making Movies (James Monaco)

The History of Film

Section 1: The Studio System : An Overview

Some have compared the Hollywood studio system to a factory, and it is useful to remember that studios were out to make money first and art second. Their product output in 1937 surged to over 500 feature films. By the 1980s, this figure dropped to an average of 100 films per year. During the Golden Age, the studios were remarkably consistent and stable enterprises, due in large part to long-term management heads--the infamous "movie moguls" who ruled their kingdoms with iron fists. At MGM, Warner Bros. and Columbia, the same fabled immigrant showmen ran their studios for decades. Power, then, was definitely situated with the studio heads.

The rise of the studio system also hinges on the treatment of stars, who were constructed and exploited to suit a studio's image and schedule. Actors and actresses were contract players bound up in seven-year contracts to a single studio, and the studio generally held all the options. Stars could be loaned out to other production companies at any time. Studios could also force bad roles on actors, and control the minutiae of stars' images with their mammoth in-house publicity departments.

American Film Institute

During the classical Hollywood era, each studio was renowned for a certain genre of film or a particular roster of stars. Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were some of the well-known performers that emerged during this period. In addition, the four actresses shown on left worked on such classics as Susan and God (1940), She Done Him Wrong (1933), Grand Hotel (1932) and Coquette (1929).

Top row, from left to right: Joan Crawford (MGM) and Mae West (Paramount). Bottom row, from left to right: Greta Garbo (MGM) and Mary Pickford (United Artists).

Somewhat paradoxically, however, studios also had to cultivate flexibility and product differentiation, in addition to consistent, factory output. Studio heads realized that they couldn't make the same film over and over again with the same cast of stars and still expect to keep turning a profit. Examining how each production company tried to differentiate itself from the rest of the market has led to loose characterizations of individual studios' styles.

Niche studio styles

The biggest cache of stars (Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracey, among others) and tended to put out a lot of all-star productions, such as Grand Hotel (1932). Paramount excelled in comedy, having Mae West, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby at their disposal. Warner Bros. developed a reputation for gritty social realism, ranging from gangster pictures, which were often based on newspaper headlines, to war pictures and Westerns. 20th Century Fox forged the musical and a great deal of prestige biographies, such as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).

RKO provided a haven for Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, etc.) and dance supernovas, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. RKO also created King Kong (1933). Columbia's major claim was director Frank Capra, including his masterpieces It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936), among others.

Universal thrilled and terrified audiences with the original Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941). United Artists, formed by silent greats Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks, specialized in distributing productions.

Early censorship
Despite the early proliferation of film production that occurred during the classical Hollywood period, studios were also challenged by growing governmental censorship efforts that aimed to limit audience-pleasing films filled with unnecessary sex and violence. The movies were born as a low form of entertainment, and early on certain groups decried the movies' capacity to lower morals. Stars' scandalous cavorting--most notably, Fatty Arbuckle's conviction for a kinky sex-related murder of a model in 1921--increasingly threatened the public's good graces towards the motion-picture industry. By 1922, it looked as if the studios faced imminent government intervention.

Rather than risk government intervention, the studios put William Hays, former Postmaster General of the United States, at the helm of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America organization (MPPDA), in the hopes of adequately self-censoring before the government intervened. The MPPDA also assembled a Production Code in 1930, a document that outlined, in excruciating detail, what could not be shown or said in movies.

The MPPDA's efforts didn't really work because there was no real means of enforcing the Production Code. Cinematic sex and violence continued to sell very well. So the early 1930s constitutes an amazingly steamy period, epitomized in actress Mae West's controversial lines that were filled with double entendres and sexual imagery: "I can make it happen when the shades go down," she purred. And audiences knew exactly what she was referring to by "it."

In 1934, the MPPDA put Joseph Breen in charge of the newly-renamed censorship body, the Production Code Administration (PCA). The PCA decided that films had to gain a seal signifying that they had met the moral guidelines outlined in the Code. Otherwise, a film could not be exhibited and the studio had to pay a $25,000 fine. This finally gave the Production Code the authority it previously lacked.

The PCA followed a script from first draft through production, and often Breen would butt heads with studios over a film's crossing the line from a moral perspective. The process generated a flurry of documents outlining what had to be cut out and why. These documents, now housed in various archives in Los Angeles, California, form a compelling social history of the attempt to develop movies that reflected the moral sentiments of the society.

Though this system ultimately broke down (the current rating system was adopted in 1968), the mesmerizing power of movies to both exhilarate and corrupt audiences remains a central American preoccupation. For example, Hollywood films are still criticized for the way in which they seduce underage viewers.

Section 2a: Organisation of the Studio System

From "Economic Control of the Motion Picture Industry", Mae Huettig (1944)
Task: Use the information to answer the following questions.
Hollywood "a large inverted pyramid, top-heavy with real estate and theaters, resting on a narrow base of the intangibles which constitute films."

The focus of the Motion Picture Industry was on exhibition, not production.

Therefore the Organisational Structure depended on:

1. Hollywood run from New York by execs close to Wall St., publishing and Broadway.

2. Those in charge of exhibition knew what the public wanted.

3. Those in charge of distribution knew what those in charge of exhibition wanted.

4. Ultimate decision on making pictures laying with CEO who:

- determined A and B picture budgets

- how much to spend on prestige pics

- tentative production schedules

Only at this point did a Hollywood based production dept. enter the fray.


Key factors:

- The Majors, or the Big Five owned substantial theatre chains

- The Majors raised the cash to acquire these chains through the public sale of bonds and stocks pre-1929 taking on long term debt (reflected in presence of investment bankers, businessmen etc. on Motion Picture Company boards)

- Therefore

"The production of films, essentially fluid and experimental as a process, is harnessed to a form of organisation which can rarely afford to be either experimental or speculative because of the regularity with which heavy fixed charges (debt) must be made." (Huettig)

How important was the ownership of theatres?

Theatres were the method of exhibition- and of revenue gathering in box office receipts. The Majors owned Affiliated chains, which ranged from 200 – to 1500 theatres in size – accounting for 20% of total US cinemas.


HOWEVER – these cinemas accounted for 80% of 1st-run houses and the most profitable subsequent run houses (generally located in major metropolitan areas). So these theaters accounted for 50% - 80% of the Box Office in any given market.

Only in largest cities did majors’ theaters compete directly. Elsewhere they pooled their product for nationwide distribution. Thus one company’s hit benefited all theatres.

Thus Huettig concluded that production and distribution were only important to the extent they enabled the majors to maintain their favoured status in exhibition.

How to account for the "Little Three" – Universal, Columbia and UA with very few theaters?

A: No one studio had the capacity to produce sufficient films to fill its subsequent run theaters which needed up to 300 pics per annum. The little three filled this gap. Columbia and Universal mainly made B-pics for the low end of the market. UA was purely a distributor for "a small group of elite independent producer."

Focus Questions

How important was Wall Street to the industry?


What were the CEO’s responsibilities?

Why was exhibition more important to the Motion Picture Studios than production? (Who Financed it)


Where did the Independent Producers fit in?


Graphing the Organisational Structure

Section 2b: Studio Ownership
Read the following article and then complete the tasks.
Studio Ownership

There were three tiers of studio ownership: The Big Five, The Little Three and the ‘Poverty Row’ independent producers. The importance of the studios was based on vertical integration- ownership of the production, distribution and exhibition of the movies.

By 1929, the film-making firms that had all three elements of vertical integration, and later ruled Hollywood were known as The Big Five. They produced more than 90 percent of the fiction films in America and distributed their films both nationally and internationally. Each studio somewhat differentiated its products from other studios.

The Big Five

The Big-Five studios had vast studios with elaborate sets for film production. They owned their own film-exhibiting theatres (about 50% of the seating capacity in the US in mostly first-run houses in major cities), as well as production and distribution facilities. They distributed their films to this network of studio-owned, first-run theaters (or movie palaces), mostly in urban areas, which charged high ticket prices and drew huge audiences. They required blind or block bookings of films, whereby theatre owners were required to rent a block of films (often cheaply-made, less-desirable B-pictures) in order for the studio to agree to distribute the one prestige A-level picture that the theatre owner wanted to exhibit. This technique set the terms for a film's release and patterns of exhibition and guaranteed success for the studio's productions. [Monopolistic studio control lasted twenty years until the late 1940s, when a federal decree (in U.S. vs. Paramount) ordered the studios to divest their theatres, similar to the rulings against the MPPC - the Edison Trust.]

The Big Five Studios



Warner Bros. Pictures, incorporated in 1923 by Polish brothers (Jack, Harry, Albert, and Sam); the studio's first principal asset was Rin Tin Tin; became prominent by 1927 due to its introduction of talkies (The Jazz Singer (1927)) and early 30s gangster films; it was known as the "Depression studio"; in the 40s, it specialized in Bugs Bunny animations and other cartoons

Warner Bros.


Adolph Zukor's Famous Players (1912) and Jesse Lasky's Feature Play - merged in 1916 to form Famous Players-Lasky Corporation; it spent $1 million on United Studios' property (on Marathon Street) in 1926; the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation became Paramount studios in 1927, and was officially named Paramount Pictures in 1935; its greatest silent era stars were Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks; Golden Age stars included Mae West, W.C. Fields, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and director Cecil B. DeMille

Famous Players-Lasky


RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures, evolved from the Mutual Film Corporation (1912), was established in 1928 as a subsidiary of RCA; it was formed by RCA, Keith-Orpheum Theaters, and the FBO Company (Film Booker's Organization) - which was owned by Joseph P. Kennedy (who had already purchased what remained of Mutual); this was the smallest studio of the majors; kept financially afloat with top-grossing Astaire-Rogers musicals in the 30s, King Kong (1933), and Citizen Kane (1941); at one time, RKO was acquired by eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes



MGM, first named Metro-Goldwyn Pictures, was ultimately formed in 1924 from the merger of three US film production companies: Metro Pictures Corporation (1916), Goldwyn Pictures Corporation (1917), and the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Company (1918); Irving Thalberg (nicknamed the 'boy wonder') was head of production at MGM from 1924 until his death in 1936; the famous MGM lion roar in the studio's opening logo was first recorded and viewed in a film in 1928; its greatest early successes were, The Wizard of Oz (1939), as well as Tarzan films, Tom and Jerry cartoons, and stars such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Spencer Tracy



Fox Film Corporation, founded in 1912 by NY nickelodeon owner William Fox, was known for Fox Movietone newsreels; it later became 20th-Century Fox, formed through merger of 20th Century Pictures Company (founded in 1933 by Darryl Zanuck) and Fox in 1935; famous for Betty Grable musicals in the 40s

20th-Century Fox

The Minor Film Studios: The Little Three

Three smaller, minor studios were dubbed The Little Three, because each of them lacked one of the three elements required in vertical integration - owning their own theaters:


The Little Three Studios



Universal Pictures, (or Universal Film Manufacturing Co), founded by Carl Laemmle in 1912; formed from a merger of Laemmle's own IMP - Independent Motion Picture Company (founded in 1909) with Bison 101, the U. S. production facilities of French studio Éclair, Nestor Film Co., and several other film companies; its first successes were W.C. Fields and Abbott and Costello comedies, the Flash Gordon serial, and Woody Woodpecker cartoons



United Artists, formed in 1919 by movie industry icons Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Charlie Chaplin, and director D.W. Griffith as an independent company to produce and distribute their films; United Artists utilized an 18-acre property owned by Pickford and Fairbanks, known as the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, and later named United Artists Studio in the 1920s

United Artists


Columbia Pictures, originally the C.B.C. Films Sales Company in 1920 founded by brothers Jack and Harry Cohn, and Joseph Brandt, and officially named Columbia in 1924; their studios opened at the old location of Christie-Nestor Studios; established prominence with It Happened One Night (1934), Rita Hayworth films, Lost Horizon (1937), The Jolson Story (1946), and Batman serials.


"Poverty Row" Studios and Other Independents:

Other studios or independents also existed in a shabby area in Hollywood dubbed "Poverty Row" (Sunset Blvd. and Gower Street) where cheap, independent pictures were made with low budgets, stock footage, and second-tier actors. It was the site of Harry and Jack Cohn's new business, the C.B.C. Films Sales Company (later becoming Columbia Pictures). Many of the films of the independents were either horror films, westerns, science-fiction, or thrillers:

  • Disney Studios - specializing in animation; Walt and Roy Disney originally opened their first studio in 1923 in Los Angeles in the back of the Holly-Vermont Realty office, and called it Disney Bros. Studio; in a few years, they opened a new facility in downtown LA; in the late 30s, they relocated to a 51-acre lot in Burbank, and changed their name to Walt Disney Productions

  • the Monogram Picture Corporation - Rayart Pictures, which had taken over the old Selig Studio in Echo Park in 1924, became Monogram Pictures in 1930; it was founded by W. Ray Johnston to make mostly inexpensive Westerns and series (Charlie Chan, the Bowery Boys, etc.)

  • Selznick International Pictures / David O. Selznick - it was formed in 1935 and headed up by David O. Selznick (previously the head of production at RKO), the son of independent film producer Lewis J. Selznick, the founder of Selznick Pictures

  • Samuel Goldwyn Pictures - headed up by independent film producer Samuel L. Goldwyn

  • 20th Century Pictures - formed in 1933 by Darryl Zanuck (head of production at Warner Brothers) with Joseph Schenck, brother of Nicholas Schenck, president of Loew's, Inc., the parent company of MGM; in 1935, the Fox Film Corporation merged with 20th Century Pictures to become 20th Century-Fox, with Zanuck as president

  • Republic Pictures - founded in 1935 by the merger of smaller 'poverty row' studios:


Write a definition for each of these terms:

Term Definition

Big Five ____________________________________________________

Little Three ____________________________________________________

Poverty Row ____________________________________________________

Vertical Integration ____________________________________________________

Block Booking ____________________________________________________

Production ____________________________________________________

Distribution ____________________________________________________

Exhibition ____________________________________________________
Focus Questions:

What were two main differences between the Big Five and the Little Three?

Why was Block Booking bad for the exhibitors?

How did the Independent Studios survive?


Draw a graph that shows and explains the system of Studio Ownership.

Section 2c: Financing

The Hollywood Studio System (1930 – 1949)

Read the article and complete the following tasks
The HSS was the system that enabled the US film industry to dominate the world. It was an extremely effective system for producing large quantities of films for a mass audience. Its impact and methodology still has relevance today.

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