Hollywood Studio System Is Transformed

During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the American film industry was transformed, as the studio system was gradually replaced by a collection of independent producers.

Summary of Event

During the 1930’s and 1940’s, eight studios controlled Hollywood film production. The five major studios owned the theaters in which most Americans saw their favorite stars on screen, while the three minor studios produced and distributed films but did not exhibit them. During the height of the studio system, actors, directors, and writers were under contract to a particular studio. They drew weekly salaries whether they worked or not, and they were required to work on any project the studio assigned them. These contracts were exclusive: An actor under contract to one studio could not appear in any film produced by another studio. In the decade after World War II, the Hollywood studio system was transformed into a system of independent filmmakers allied with an industry of television series producers. The Hollywood studios did not go away, but their basic functions were altered, as creators and performers signed contracts for specific projects, rather than the all-encompassing, exclusive contracts that had been the norm. Hollywood studio system;end of
[kw]Hollywood Studio System Is Transformed (1946-1960)
[kw]Studio System Is Transformed, Hollywood (1946-1960)
Hollywood studio system;end of
[g]North America;1946-1960: Hollywood Studio System Is Transformed[01640]
[g]United States;1946-1960: Hollywood Studio System Is Transformed[01640]
[c]Motion pictures and video;1946-1960: Hollywood Studio System Is Transformed[01640]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;1946-1960: Hollywood Studio System Is Transformed[01640]
[c]Business and labor;1946-1960: Hollywood Studio System Is Transformed[01640]
Skouras, Spyros
Hughes, Howard
Balaban, Barney
Kalmus, Herbert

Weekly attendance in movie theaters in the United States crested in 1946, then began to fall steadily to half of what it had been. The cause of this decline is generally believed to have been television, but this blame is falsely placed, for it ignores the fact that in most parts of the United States television signals did not become available until long after the decline in moviegoing was well under way. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, only about one-third of the nation had television sets, but this was precisely when millions of Americans stopped going to the movies regularly.

More fundamental causes came into play. United States;postwar economy Millions of returning veterans looked for an ideal life, a new American Dream, taking the money they had saved during the war and spending it on new cars and other big-ticket items that had been unavailable during the war. What postwar Americans wanted most were new homes in the suburbs, free from city congestion and noises and close to good schools. Americans moved in record numbers to new suburban subdivisions. Home ownership in the first five years after World War II increased by 50 percent, then by another 50 percent during the following five years.

There were other distractions from cinema. Americans filled their new homes with children in record numbers. The birthrate increased to unprecedented levels. Women married at younger ages and had more children. Better-educated people had larger families than they had had in the past. The typical filmgoer of the past (a better-educated, richer, middle-class citizen) was a member of precisely the demographic that most embraced the surburban ideal, including a substantial mortgage and a family with four or five children.

These two factors, suburbanization and the baby boom, dampened moviegoing and would have done so even without the coming of television. The waves of suburbanization took moviegoers far away from downtown movie palaces. Poor public transportation from the suburbs made it difficult to journey downtown routinely. In any case, families had fled the city and its attractions for a new world of Little League and backyard barbecues.

Hollywood had other problems that aggravated the situation. At precisely the time that suburbanization and the baby boom were fundamentally altering the way Americans lived, the United States Supreme Court forced the Hollywood studios to sell their theaters. An antitrust suit against the eight major studios had begun in July, 1938. After numerous decisions and appeals, the Court ruled in 1948 in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.
United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948) that the major film studios would have to sell their chains of movie theaters. The Court stated that ownership of both film production facilities and theaters constituted restraint of trade. The Court’s decision, however, was by that time almost irrelevant, as declining audiences already were forcing an end to the large theater chains, as well as to the huge studios. Howard Hughes had just purchased Radio-Keith-Orpheum Radio-Keith-Orpheum[Radio Keith Orpheum] (RKO) and embraced the forced sale of theaters. He wanted the cash. Barney Balaban, the chief executive officer of Paramount Pictures Paramount Pictures , also went along; he planned to use the proceeds of the sales to invest in television. Both these powerful businessmen reasoned that selling theaters might in the long run prove beneficial.

The very basis of film technology changed as well in the 1950’s. Hollywood looked to new film technologies to tempt patrons back to the theaters. First the studios embraced color. The best-known name in that field was Technicolor Technicolor , first used for The Gulf Between (1917). Developed by Herbert Kalmus, Technicolor became known through the popularity of such spectacles as Gone with the Wind (1939). Through the 1940’s, Technicolor was limited to a select group of feature films, principally historical epics and lavish musicals. In 1950, Technicolor lost its legal monopoly. As a result, during the early 1950’s, giant Eastman Kodak surged into the market.

Suddenly, it became inexpensive to shoot color features, and gradually through the 1950’s more and more films would be made in color. “New” color systems proliferated. For example, Trucolor Trucolor was developed by Consolidated Film Laboratories for Republic Pictures, both owned and controlled by Herbert J. Yates Yates, Herbert J. . Trucolor never was able to become the dominant system, but its attempted innovation demonstrated that the universal use of color was inevitable.

Hollywood went one step further and made its films “bigger” and thus hopefully even better. In 1952, Cinerama Cinerama initiated wide-screen movies by melding images from three synchronized projectors. At first business was brisk; This Is Cinerama (1952), a travelogue-type film, grossed more than twenty million dollars. However, the significant additional costs of the process (three full-time projectionists, a new screen, and more) doomed Cinerama.

Other entrepreneurs tried three-dimensional (3-D) films. 3-D motion pictures[Three D motion pictures] The process for creating three-dimensional effects had been around since the 1920’s, so few were surprised when Bwana Devil, a crude African adventure story starring Robert Stack, came out in November of 1952. During 1953 and into 1954, 3-D was hailed as the savior of the American film industry. Warner Bros. issued what was to remain the most successful of the 3-D efforts, House of Wax, in April of 1953. By mid-1954, though, it had become clear that the added expense involved did not lead to greater box-office revenues.

The premiere of the most famous wide-screen process, CinemaScope CinemaScope , came on September 16, 1953. Twentieth Century-Fox’s president, Spyros Skouras, praised this technology, because it expanded the image merely by attaching anamorphic lenses to the camera and the projector, thus requiring only a small investment. Fox’s first film using the technology, The Robe
Robe, The (Koster) (1953), was a spectacular biblical tale costing four million dollars. Its success implied that Skouras had found the answer to bringing back the suburban audience.

The Robe so impressed audiences and other studios that by the final day of 1953, every major studio, except for Paramount with its rival Vista Vision process, had jumped on the CinemaScope bandwagon. By November, 1954, it was reported that nearly half the existing theaters in the United States had facilities to show CinemaScope. In the long run, however, equipping theaters proved expensive and limited them to showing only CinemaScope films. Something different was needed. The full impact of the transformation of the studio system would not come until that technical solution was found.

The technological solution to standardized wide-screen images in color came with the merging of two product offerings: Panavision Panavision lenses and Eastman Color film stock. Panavision was a small Hollywood company. Owner Robert Gottschalk Gottschalk, Robert had developed innovations that encompassed not only anamorphic attachments, so one could use CinemaScope, but nearly all other needed lens adjustments. By the late 1950’s, Panavision attachments became the industry standard. Panavision provided a superior but standardized product for making and showing wide-screen images.

Eastman Color Eastman Color film stock negative and color-print film stock had been introduced by the Rochester photographic equipment giant in 1950 to compete with Technicolor. Eastman Color was easier to handle and seemed to produce colors as vibrant as those of Technicolor. It was cheaper to use, so by the 1950’s Eastman Color also had become an industry standard.

With its technological concerns settled, the American film industry struggled to deal with suburbanization and the increasingly popular medium of television. During the early 1950’s, a wave of auto-oriented theaters, or drive-ins, offered a pleasant open space where parked cars filled with families watched triple features on a massive screen. In 1960, the number of drive-ins in the United States crested at five thousand. The peak moviegoing season shifted to summer from fall and winter. Moreover, the breakup of the theater market caused by the Paramount case meant that the drive-in market was open to independent exhibitors.

Film studios had to find a way to deal with television. At first, the major studios ignored the new medium. Minor studios such as Monogram and Republic jumped in and began producing for television, at first offering Westerns (such as those starring Gene Autry and Roy Rogers from Republic) and thrill-a-minute serials. Younger television viewers loved these action adventures, but crude production values served to remind longtime film fans of the extraordinary number of treasures still resting comfortably in the vaults of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Warner Bros.

Billionaire Hughes by late 1953 again was in need of cash. Few were surprised when, in 1954, Hughes agreed to sell RKO’s film library to General Tire and Rubber for twenty-five million dollars. General Tire wanted the RKO titles to present on its independent New York television station.

RKO’s profit figure on the deal impressed even the most recalcitrant movie moguls. Within the space of the following twenty-four months, all the remaining major companies released their pre-1948 titles to television. Pre-1948 titles were chosen, because they were free from paying out residuals to performer and craft unions; post-1948 titles were not. For the first time in the history of film, a national audience was able to access, at its leisure, a broad cross-section of the best and worst of Hollywood talkies. The concomitant infusion of cash came precisely at a time when Hollywood needed money to support technological innovation.

The television networks, however, wanted to show post-1948 Hollywood features in prime time. This required agreements from the Hollywood craft unions. In a precedent-setting action, the Screen Actors Guild, led by its president, Ronald Reagan, went on strike and won guaranteed residuals for televised airings of post-1948 films. Soon thereafter, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) premiered “Saturday Night at the Movies.” Ratings were high, and soon all three television networks were awash with feature films playing in prime time. A zenith was achieved in 1968, when Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds
Birds, The (Hitchcock) (1963) was watched by more than one-third of all Americans.

The studios survived, but no longer were there a “Big Five” and “Little Three.” The remaining seven studios (Hughes took RKO out of the game) were equal, distributing films and finding independent producers to make the films. All expanded into television production.

United Artists United Artists led the way, showing that a new studio form could succeed by distributing independently made films. United Artists had entered the 1950’s so awash in red ink that founders Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford agreed to sell the studio. Two New York entertainment lawyers, Arthur Krim Krim, Arthur and Robert Benjamin Benjamin, Robert , took charge in February, 1951. The new United Artists, within its first year, picked up High Noon (1952) and John Huston’s The African Queen (1951). Krim and Benjamin sought out and attracted such stars as Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, and Robert Mitchum and directors such as Billy Wilder, John Sturges, Otto Preminger, William Wyler, and Joseph Mankiewicz.

The audiences for the films of the 1950’s differed from those of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. People over the age of thirty now stayed at home; teens and young adults became the loyal core audience for films shown in theaters. For Hollywood, the good news was that this core audience of young, well-educated people seemed willing to pay more to go to the movies. It was not until 1956 that the film industry began to exploit this new market effectively. Once the success of Rock Around the Clock
Rock Around the Clock (Sears) (1956) demonstrated that there was money to be made from this new audience, Hollywood courted young viewers aggressively.

To recapture filmgoers, Hollywood loosened censorship standards. The strict code of censorship so powerfully self-enforced during the 1930’s and 1940’s broke down. On May 26, 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Burstyn v. Wilson
Burstyn v. Wilson (1952) that motion pictures should be treated as a significant medium for the communication of ideas. This decision led to the eventual end of the Hays Code Hays Code
Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 in 1966. Even before then, United Artists defied the Hays Code with The Moon Is Blue
Moon Is Blue, The (Preminger) (1955) and The Man with the Golden Arm
Man with the Golden Arm, The (Preminger) (1955). The former film featured repeated references to virginity; the latter openly depicted drug abuse. A rating system implemented in 1968 classified films by suitability for young audiences rather than prohibiting material that might be unsuitable.


In the end, the Hollywood studios never fully relinquished their core economic power. They no longer controlled creative and performing talent to the extent that they had in their heyday, but it remained impossible for decades to produce a feature film of any quality and distribute it through mainstream channels without the financial backing of one of the major studios. Thus, although they were no longer self-sufficient, they continued to act as the gatekeepers of cinematic production. Because the studios continued to be the only effective route to worldwide distribution, moreover, they captured the largest profits. Thus, Hollywood was not broken by the Paramount decision, or by television or suburbanization. Smaller independent companies, however, found niches in the new order that arose. These companies created a wider range of offerings and gave newcomers a chance to enter the film industry. They also made possible a new relationship between creators and their films, beginning the rise of the self-conscious cinematic “auteur.” Hollywood studio system;end of

Further Reading

  • Balio, Tino, ed. The American Film Industry. Rev. ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. A collection of articles about the history of the American film industry. This should be read in conjunction with Kindem’s The American Movie Industry. Useful bibliography.
  • Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Extremely comprehensive discussion of all aspects of film production and style under the studio system. Discusses the history, development, fall, and stylistic consequences of the studio system.
  • Davis, Ronald L. Just Making Movies: Company Directors on the Studio System. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Detailed studies of twelve Hollywood directors working under the studio system. Includes index and filmography of each director’s work.
  • Gomery, Douglas. The Hollywood Studio System: A History. New ed. London: BFI, 2005. Book-length history of the studio system, with profiles of each studio plus analysis of the gestation and transformation of the system. Useful bibliography. Aimed at a general audience.
  • _______. Shared Pleasures. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992. A history of how Americans watched films, from the nickelodeon to the videocassette recorder. Covers in detail the changing nature of the audiences for films in the United States during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.
  • Kindem, Gorham, ed. The American Movie Industry. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. A collection of articles about the history of the American film industry. Should be read in conjunction with Balio’s The American Film Industry. Contains an essential bibliography.
  • Lev, Peter. Transforming the Screen, 1950-1959. History of the American Cinema 7. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. Discusses the state of the motion picture industry throughout the 1950’s in painstaking detail. Explains how and why cinematic style and production changed during the decade.
  • Mast, Gerald, ed. The Movies in Our Midst. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. A collection of documents and essays about the changing social impact of the American film. Covers all phases of the impact of the changing studio system. Massive bibliography.

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