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Movie Musings… The Golden Age of the Studio System

Often when looking at Hollywood, the term The Big Five (or Big Six) will crop up. Disney, during the Golden Age (1920s-60s), was an independent production company and an important player but not yet the powerhouse that would make it one of the modern Big Six studios. It was Warner Bros., Fox, Paramount, MGM, and the now redundant RKO which held a stranglehold over the entire process of film-making.

From production to distribution through studio-owned cinemas every step of the process happened in-house. By the middle of the Golden Age, the top studios controlled roughly 95% of the market. As remarked in The Aviator, “Nobody but nobody makes a film outside of a studio!”

“From production to distribution through studio-owned cinemas every step of the process happened in-house”

It’s from this system that the concept of the “B-movie” emerged, with studio-owned cinemas having about five films showing at a time via a system of block booking. One popular “A”-movie would be the main draw, with the rest being the lower quality B-movies. Specific cinemas were either owned outright by a studio or worked in such close partnership with one that they would only show movies made by said studio. These films were usually premiered in a roadshow fashion, opening in one city at a time and staying in cinemas for several months at a time, as opposed to the few weeks modern films are available for.

Cinemas weren’t the only thing controlled entirely by the studios. Stars who were under contract to studios often had their entire social lives scheduled, and many aspects of their personal lives under the management of their studio. Most of these performance contracts lasted seven years, and gave no choice as to which roles an actor would play.

“Cinemas weren’t the only thing controlled entirely by the studios”

It was The Aviator himself who ultimately ushered in the end of the studio system as it was known. Howard Hughes bought the controlling interest in RKO in 1938 and entered into an agreement with the US government to break up the two halves of the studio, production and distribution, in hopes that a domino effect would follow and put his weaker studio on more equal footing with the other Big Five. At roughly the same time, the first anti-trust case involving Paramount was being heard. Hughes’ actions seriously undermined Paramount’s arguments and, in the end, they lost the case and the studios entered into consent decrees, willing agreements to change their ways within a certain amount of time. Block booking was given limits, and the idea of pre-selling a film by collecting money up front for a film not yet in production or not yet seen by the exhibitor was completely eliminated.

In 1948 the case was re-tried, this time with the US Supreme Court after the consent decrees were not fulfilled. The court held that the way distribution was handled was in violation of anti-trust legislation. As part of the Paramount Decree, as the decision is often known, major studios were required to divest themselves of their cinema chains breaking the decades-long stranglehold. This Decree alongside the rise of television in the 1950s and 1960s truly led to the end of the Golden Age for the Big Five. However, due to the expense of producing a high quality feature, most movies today are still made by Columbia, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal or Disney – the modern Big 6.

A. F. Dean

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