Emerging from the great depression of the 1930s, the Hollywood studio system was comprised of eight large film companies. “The Big Five” were RKO, Paramount, MGM, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.. “The Little Three” were Universal, Columbia and United Artists. The larger studios owned and controlled both production and distribution of their films. Actors were contracted to a studio and their public profiles carefully managed, and any scandals were quickly covered up.
The Studio system produced many stars such as Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Greta Garbo, Betty Grable, Humphrey Bogart and many more that remain household names, even today. These stars were usually tied to a specific studio, contractually, and not allowed to appear in a film by a rival studio. However, if a good script should come their way they could be “loaned” to that studio for the film. This is known as the Star System.
The Golden Age of Cinema began its decline in the 1940s. The United States government was determined to break up the studios’ monopolies and they introduced the Hays Code, which eventually led to foreign films gaining a foothold. In 1948, the Supreme Court outlawed the practice of block booking, a system of selling multiple films to a theatres as a unit, thus allowing larger studios to include “second rate” productions along with their higher profile productions. It also forced the studios to sell their theatre chains, meaning that theatres were not committed to accepting a whole year’s worth of movies from a studio and studios had to become more competitive and selective in the quality and quantity of movies they produced. The decrease in the number of Hollywood motion pictures meant an increase in production value. “The Little Three” saw most benefit from the move as they, unlike the Big Five, did not own their own theatre chains.
During this time, the studios adhered to the Hays Code, a set of rules and guidelines set up in the 1930s that governed the production of American motion pictures, with specific controls over allowable content. The Hays Code placed restrictions on immorality, including nudity, blasphemy, profanity, and glorified violence. It also required films to portray the sanctity of marriage, fitting punishment for crimes and respectful treatment of the United States national flag. (Although exceptions were made for historical purposes.)
Outside of the ‘movie star’ system, animated films became very popular during the late 1930s which also saw the rise of a certain Walt Disney. By default, as animated films were aimed at a mainly family audience, they easily fell in line with the Hays code. During the 1940s, four of the five top grossing films for the decade were Disney films: Bambi (1942, Dir. Dave Hand, US), Pinocchio (1940, Dir. Norman Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Ben Sharpsteen, US), Song of the South (1946, Dir Harve Foster, Wilfred Jackson, US) and Fantasia (1940 Dir. Norm Ferguson, US). Interestingly, Song of the South, though produced by Walt Disney Productions, was released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Animated films continued to do well during the 1950s with Lady and the Tramp (1955, Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, US) leading the decade’s highest grossing films, closely followed by Peter Pan (1953, Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, US.), Sleeping Beauty (1959, Dir. Clyde Geronimi, US) and Cinderella (1950, Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, US.). By the 1960s, the popularity of animated films was also in decline, with notable exceptions of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961, Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton S Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman, US.) and The Jungle Book (1967, Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman, US.). This fall in popularity was in line with the decline of the Studio system and for some of the same reasons, most notably the smaller screen – TV.
During the 1950s, televisions were becoming commonplace and people did not have to leave their homes for entertainment. Many studios put clauses in actors’ contracts forbidding them to appear on TV, even to promote their own films, as the film studios saw television as a threat to their business, bringing screen-based entertainment into people’s homes.
However, the studios soon accepted that television was here to stay and that it represented an important new market for their films, one that would be essential to the industry’s survival. Once they realised this, they made some major adjustments. For example, until the advent of colour television, studios sold their old black and white films to TV networks for them to broadcast to the stay-at-home family audience. This practice later continued through to colour films.
The restrictions imposed by the Hays Code did not apply to films from outside the United States, notably ‘spaghetti westerns’ such as The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966, Dir. Sergio Leone, Italy.) which were hugely popular in the mid-1960s and British films of universal appeal, including the James Bond movies plus various new genres that often had a grittier feel to them, like Alfie (1966, Dir. Lewis Gilbert, UK).
The studios were losing money. They trimmed their lavish spending; they abandoned their expensive ‘movie star’ system, their huge promotional budgets and most of the mediocre films aimed at general audiences.
Instead, they started producing films that were aimed at distinct audiences: more highly educated and affluent people, and especially those below the age of 30. The under-30s soon became the largest audience, accounting for 75% of ticket sales. Though the new audiences were smaller, developing tastes became more sophisticated, demanding films that addressed topics such as social justice, sexual freedom and new levels of violence.
In order to compete with modern foreign films and survive the collapsing system, studios began breaking away from the Hays Code to produce slightly darker and more romanticised films, for example: Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Dir. Arthur Penn, USA) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, Dir. George Roy Hill, USA) both feature a pair of outlaws who, at the end of the film, die in a shootout. Both films heavily romanticise the plot and characters to make us root for the outlaws, contrary to the Hays Code, causing us to feel sad during their deaths.
Another example of new Hollywood production is The Graduate (1967, Dir. Mike Nichols, USA), a film in which the main character, Benjamin, is seduced by and has sexual relations with Mrs. Robinson, an older woman who is the wife of his father’s business partner (again, contrary to the Hays Code) and then finds himself falling in love with Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter. The film’s ending is bittersweet with Elaine and Benjamin running off together but implying that they face uncertainty as the reality of the situation kicks in. Also, Midnight Cowboy (1969, Dir. John Schlesinger, USA), a film about a con-man, “Ratso” Rizzo, in poor health, who teams up ‘bro-mance’ style with a male prostitute, Joe, to make enough money to head south to Florida for Rizzo’s health. The film ends with them travelling to Miami but Rizzo passes away before they arrive.
These films are major step from the usual films seen up until this point. Grittier and darker than the upbeat and colourful musicals of the fifties such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Dir. Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, US) and High Society (1956, Dir. Charles Walters, US). However, when we compare the majority of Hollywood’s 1960s films with popular films from outside of the United States at around the same time, we can see that the Hays Code was still having some lingering effect. The Good the Bad and the Ugly (an Italian made film) is noticeably more violent than most of the American films produced at the time, even compared with some Hollywood westerns from the same era, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Film companies took advantage of new technology in the 1970s, the distribution of films on video (and subsequently DVD) brought in new revenue streams. Additionally, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982, Dir. Steven Spielberg, US.) inadvertently created product placement when the character Elliot uses some Reece’s Pieces to lead E.T. to his room. After the release of the film the sales of Reece’s Pieces rocketed. Studios also took advantage of the popularity of films such as Star Wars (1977, Dir. George Lucas, US.) by releasing toys and merchandise related to the films.
There are still big name stars in Hollywood, but they tend not to be contracted to a single studio although Directors sometimes are, such as Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. or Steven Spielberg and Universal.
Many factors led to the fall of the studio system: the Hays Code limited the filmmakers creative freedom to make the films that they wanted to make and the films that people wanted to see, foreign films unrestricted by the code offered strong competition, the introduction of television also posed a threat as people now had screen related entertainment in the convenience of their own home. The rise in popularity of animated films and Walt Disney also saw other films from other studios lose out to his films, meaning the other studios were making less money. The ‘new Hollywood’ turned around their fortunes by co-operating with other media and finding new revenue streams.
Disney’s films were also aimed at younger audiences, so were more suited to the Hays Code and could deliver their story with fewer compromises.