Viewing the Old Hollywood System Through a New Lens
By Brenda Pontiff
The Old Way
Focused, assembly-line approach created a kind of Lean Six Sigma methodology for the purpose of reducing waste, lowering costs, and boosting profits
Guaranteed, robust distribution
An artist could hone skills while earning a steady income
Studios perfected genres like film noir, screwball comedies, and musicals, and were able to develop and strengthen their own brand
Most films followed a particular formula that kowtowed to mainstream culture and views
Artists struggled to assert control over their careers and were forced to conform to authoritative demands
Theatre chains dictated a film's popularity rather than audience support
Quantity sometimes won out over quality
I was recently confronted with questions from my 8-year-old nephew about the facts of film: Where do movies come from? What was your first time like? Was it different back when you were a kid?
The movie experience has morphed for each generation. My great-grandparents witnessed the introduction of sound, my grandparents enjoyed the infusion of Technicolor, my parents fell in love with spaghetti westerns, and I was raised on major blockbuster franchises. Still, one of the most dramatic changes in film is that of business operations and the demise of the old studio system. As the industry braces for the total conversion of movie theaters from 35mm to digital projection and executives scratch their heads as to the on-going lackluster attendance of remakes, sequels, and four-quadrant superhero flicks, it's a perfect time to re-examine the old film factories and consider the way things were, borrowing what worked and possibly reinvigorating show business with new-found respect for business and less guesswork over show.
By the early 1930s, the studio system that gave rise to the Golden Age of Hollywood was thriving. With the exception of camera equipment and film stock, studios controlled every aspect of the industry's supply chain, from developing stories, casting from their own talent pool, producing on their own lots, and finally, through strong-arming practices known as blind-selling and block-booking, distributing to large theater chains obliged to exhibit what they were given. Too much control? The Supreme Court thought so and in May 1948 upheld a District Court ruling against Paramount Pictures for violation of antitrust regulation. Thus, the end of the studio system.
Nobody likes a monopoly (unless it is your monopoly), but those shrewd studios weren't doing anything different than what manufacturers and distributors strive for today: consistent control over product and some influence over the retailer that sells it.
Despite new technologies that lower production costs, the current freelance market copes with illogical inefficiencies associated with gathering funds, finding material, and compiling a new workforce each time a film is made. Even if today's independent producer is able get a film "in the can," he must still struggle to find distribution.
"It's about psychology," explains Gary Pearl, former William Morris agent and president of Extremal Film Partners. He and his associates have created a new film financing product that pays homage to one of the core strengths of the old studio system: confidence that the movie being made will be exhibited. "It's the subjective dynamic on the part of today's studios and distributors we seek to take out of the marketing and distribution process." Extremal's model induces the release of a film by transferring a portion of the risk associated with a box office flop to investors. With confidence that a film will be released, filmmakers and their investors can create a better film with a brighter, longer future in the global and ancillary distribution process. "This model lowers risk for investors and forces studios to re-think valuations based solely on opening box office numbers," states Pearl. Extremal looks to bring additional security to films with budgets of up to $75 million, which could boost the growth of independents, propelling them into the next group of mini-majors.
We may be far removed from those days when they made "moving pictures," but new ways of developing and financing films, as well as improving business operations, may be a prescription for the return of another Golden Age.