Studio system

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Entrance to the Paramount studio

Studio system is a system of film production in which this is essentially dominated by a smaller number of large film studios. This oligopoly economy experienced its heyday in the 1920s to the 1950s, the golden age of Hollywood , when a few large companies in Hollywood controlled production, film rental and distribution as well as film screening.

Vertical integration

For most companies, the real hub remained New York , but the companies with production facilities in Hollywood grew to enormous sizes. A powerful oligopoly gradually emerged around 1920 through mergers and acquisitions. The competitive film industry in Europe was significantly weakened by the First World War , and so the American studios took the opportunity to largely cover the demand for films themselves. The weakness of the Edison Monopoly ( MPPC ) was the inadequate integration of the individual functional areas. This is exactly what the new large companies did. Their economic power stemmed from the fact that they took over the production of films, film distribution and cinema operations themselves and thus vertically integrated the functional areas .

The oligopoly

The oligopoly consisted of five large firms, the majors or Big Five , and three smaller firms, the Little Three . The majors were Paramount Pictures , 20th Century Fox , Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Warner Bros. and RKO Pictures (Radio Keith Orpheum). The Little Three, Columbia Pictures , Universal Pictures and United Artists were also integrated into the oligopoly . Since they did not have their own movie theaters, they had little influence.

The Big Five controlled the market, they owned the largest and most beautiful movie palaces. They owned about 15% of all movie theaters , but they generated about 70% of all box office revenues in the United States. Only in the largest American cities did the Big Five compete directly with one another. Otherwise the country was divided into areas in which only one company operated cinemas at a time. A film that was not given access to these cinemas could not have great audiences. Together, the majors made up 90% of American film production and 60% of global production in the 1930s and 1940s. Due to the vertical integration of the functional areas of production, distribution and cinema operations, the premieres took place in the oligopoly’s film theaters.

For example, Republic Pictures and Monogram Pictures have been in business as independent production companies . Their main task was to produce B-movies that filled the cinema program, mostly in a double pack ( double feature ) with an elaborate A-movie produced by one of the big studios .

The movie theater

The cinemas were hierarchized by arrangement according to their importance. The films usually had their premiere in Los Angeles or New York and then only ran for a certain time in the local film palaces, which was known as the first run . The second series of screenings, the Second Run , then took place in the largest, centrally located cinemas in the other major cities . Then a film was shown in the smaller cinemas in the city quarters, the Nabes and finally, in fourth place, in the rural areas and in shabby cinemas, the Grind Houses . There was a time between the individual runs , usually a month, in which the film was not shown. The status of a movie theater was dependent on the position in the sequence of the staggered viewing periods and was determined on the basis of certain zones and geographical territories.

Independent cinema operators could not show individual Hollywood films at will, but had to book an entire film package en bloc. In order to be able to offer a large program and to make a profit, the cinemas were forced to book such film packages, even if this often meant buying a pig in a poke , especially since some films had to be booked before they were shot. An umbrella organization for the major companies was the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. (MPPDA). Founded to prevent the government from intervening in the film business, the association became known primarily for its censorship, the so-called Hays Code .

The filmmakers

In the early years of the Hollywood film industry after 1910, production costs were low compared to New York. There were no unions in the film industry and salaries could be kept low. After 1914, large parts of the American film workers organized themselves. However, there were various unions that sometimes worked against one another. The union and professional organization was an important part of the high degree of division of labor in the film industry and thus also a cause of the extraordinary efficiency and high output of quality films in Hollywood. However, the established division of labor in connection with the firmly established studio system also ensured a certain standardization of Hollywood films. Highly specialized and hard-to-replace forces such as cameramen, screenwriters or actors with star status were more likely to be members of special guilds. Exports abroad were an important source of income then as now.

The end of the studio system

In the late 1940s, several court rulings were made that curtailed the power of studio systems. Probably the most important was the case of United States v. 1948 . Paramount Pictures, Inc. , which the state charged Paramount Pictures with defective competition rights. Paramount lost the lawsuit and was eventually forced to separate its film production from its theatrical distribution. In the following years, all of the major film studios had to follow suit, and the conditions described in the section “The film theaters” no longer existed. In addition, there was the new medium of television , which had its big breakthrough in the early 1950s and drove away viewers. Fewer and fewer films were made, but more expensive (for example monumental films) were made. The powerful studio bosses who had founded the film studios were now very old or dead; Successors of equal power did not follow.

As early as the late 1950s, around 50% of films were produced independently, often by famous and wealthy directors, producers and star actors who had made their own breakthrough within the studio system and are now producing their films independently, which for them with higher salaries and larger artistic influence. At the beginning of the 1960s, the studio system finally dissolved. Most of the old film studios still exist today in a different form, but no longer have the same power as they used to or only take care of the distribution of their old films.

See also


  • David Bordwell , Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson: The classical Hollywood Cinema. (1985).
  • Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction (1995).
  • Thomas Cripps, Hollywood's High Noon (1997).
  • Dominic Strinati, An introduction to studying popular culture (2000).