The Dominance of the Big Five Hollywood Studios

The Dominance of the Big Five Hollywood Studios

The period between the coming of sound and World War II was dominated by the studios. They controlled the production–including story, the role of the directors, and the selection of actors–distribution, and exhibition (they owned their own theaters). In the 1930s America went to the movies; by the end of the decade some eighty million people saw a movie every week. The studios provided them with the means to live out their fantasies, find heroes, and escape from the Depression.

One factor directly affecting the films of the 1930s was censorship. Hollywood movies in the late 1920s and early 1930s had become rather open in their use of sex, and the scandals in the private lives of the stars shocked the public even as it hungered for vicarious living. Fear of government intervention and of the Depression forced the studios to censor themselves. They established the Hays Office under the directorship of Will Hays, former postmaster-general, and this office published a strict moral code for on-screen activities and language. The results stifled creativity, but the new moral tastes of the public were satisfied.

The stars captured the public’s imagination as in no other time in American popular culture: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh, Edward G. Robinson, and Marlene Dietrich. The comics maintained the traditions of the silent comedians: Charlie Chaplin continued to make movies and was joined by the Marx brothers, Mae West, and W. C. Fields.

At the same time, the directors had to find a path through the maze created by the studios, the Hays Office, and the stars. They had to bring all these divergent elements together and make movies. Men such as John Ford and Howard Hawks created their own visions of America and discovered methods of capturing the American myth on film. Many of the directors of the period were immigrants: Josef von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, and Frank Capra. Each discovered for himself the essence of this country and its people. Perhaps that essence was most fittingly expressed in a film that came at the end of the prewar period, Citizen Kane ( 1941), the first film Orson Welles directed.

These maneuverings of high finance left all the major companies under the control of the largest institutions of American finance capital, but they had relatively little direct effect on the movie-going public. Even during its bankruptcy Paramount promised theater-owners an uninterrupted flow of productions, and underIying the spectacular bids and paper collapses was a gradual process of consolidation. Five companies dominated the industry, maintaining their power by controlling its most profitable sector, first-run exhibition in the cities.

As access to this market was vital to the profitability of any but the smallest feature film, this also gave them control of production. Apart from a handful of prestigious independent producers such as Samuel Goldwyn, releasing films through United Artists, the production of big-budget A-features was almost entirely controlled by the “Big Five” Fox, Paramount, Loew’s, RKO and Warner Bros. Smaller firms, including Columbia and Universal, put most of their effort into the production of lower-budget movies, which would play the later-run “neighborhood” theaters as the second or B-feature of a double-bill.

As distributors, the major companies controlled the remainder of the exhibition market by regulating theaters’ access to films. By delaying a film’s release to cheaper venues and encouraging as many people as possible to see it at a higher-run theater the system maximized distributors’ profits. For sirnilar reasons they insisted on selling films in blocks of between five and 50 films; an exhibitor wanting the new Will Rogers or Shirley Temple movie would find himself having to rent half a dozen other less appealing Fox productions in order to get it.

Although the distributors clairned that these arrangements were necessary for them to supply the smaller theaters economically, independent exhibitors continually fought against the majors’ control of the movie marketplace.

Hollywood publicity concentrated public attention on the glamor of its stars and their purported lifestyles, and on the apparent competition between the studios, but the industry’s crucial economic struggles took place between the major companies and the independent exhibitors seeking to break their consolidated power.

The Paramount antitrust decrees in the late 1940s resulted in a shift from a mature oligopoly/ monopoly, or semicompulsory cartel, involving the Big Five studios ( Warner Bros, Loew’s/ MGM, Paramount, RKO, and Twentieth Century-Fox) and the Little Three ( Universal, Columbia, and United Artists), to a bilateral oligopoly with six major distributor/ producers and a dozen nationwide theater circuits today. This shift created a slightly more competitive market that benefited the most popular movie stars. Unfortunately, the decline in movie attendance and the rise in production costs, which also occurred during this period, left many less popular contract players unemployed, as stock companies disbanded.

The Crash, which so publicly discredited big business, gave the independents their best opportunity. The “business of the movies” was conducted very much in the public arena, and their very popularity made the industry particularly vulnerable to criticism of its financial methods as well as its products. For both the film industry’s trade association, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and its crities in the early years of the Depression, movie morals and the movie business seemed inseparable.

The war changed the industry. Many residents of Hollywood took time off to participate in the war effort. Some like John Ford and Frank Capra made films for the government. Others like Fritz Lang continued to make commercial films, but they were propaganda-oriented and helped build morale. The stars went to the battle areas to entertain the troops. Even studio space was commandeered to produce war documentaries, and war films became a dominant fictional genre.

Next Page: Morals at the American Movies

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