Any deep understanding of American film history pivots on an understanding of the studio sy
scholars often refer to as America's specific mode of film production, typically placed in the y
American movies, as we'll see throughout this course, are overdetermined by a number of ec
and cultural factors. "Overdetermined," a term used in film studies, simply means that any film
cumulative product of certain industrial practices, political climates, ideas about artistic merit
financial and technical resources.
To tell the whole story--the definitive history--of any film, then, becomes a complex task, and
historians typically focus on different parts of this equation. Here, I will examine the "Golden
studio system and explore how a particular kind of filmmaking developed during this period i
film history.
In addition to historical value, inspecting the growth, or rationalization, of the studio system m
regarding the kinds of struggles that accompany the growth of any new medium. It might, in f
intriguing to examine which changes occurred during the growth of the Hollywood studio, an
changes to contemporary struggles in which production companies are trying to define and co
industries, such as online film and interactive television.
So when and how does the classical Hollywood studio system congeal? Two issues are key:
sound and the business ideal of vertical integration.
The coming of sound
The shift of the entire industry to sound films began during the late 1920s. As many film scho
film was never entirely "silent." Most movies were accompanied by some kind of music and e
live narration. But there are some important historical landmarks in the transition to sound. A
invention of celluloid film and projection, the move to sound involved a great deal of technica
in addition to jostling for patents.
In 1910, for example, the richest studios formed a rather cut-throat oligopoly--The Motion Pic
Company, or the "Trust"--ostensibly to standardize the technological guts of filmmaking. In a
pooled, exclusive patents essentially locked others out of the market.
When Warner Bros. gambled that talkies would be popular with viewers, by offering the first
synchronized speech in The Jazz Singer, a period of turmoil blanketed the film industry. Stud
proof that a "talkie" would make them money. But the financial investment this kind of filmm
require, from new camera equipment to new projection facilities, made the studios initially he
In the end, the power of cinematic sound to both move audiences and to enhance the story, pe
that talkies were worth investing in. When vaudeville singing star Al Jolsen introduced a tune
minute. Wait a minute. You ain't heard nothing yet," audiences shrieked in delight. From that
there didn't seem to be any going back to the days of silent film.
During that same year, Fox worked to establish itself in the transition to sound films. Warner
Vitaphone sound-on-disc system met direct competition by Fox's Movietone sound-on-film sy
specialized in newsreels, and debuted their sound system with footage of Charles Lindbergh's
Paris in 1927. When audiences heard Lindbergh's words and the plane's take off, they reporte
cheered in the packed Roxy Theater in New York for over 10 minutes.
Overall, the use of sound in film was well-received by all audiences, but there were still many
factors to consider.
Over the next few years, problems with amplification of sound were worked out and most the
converted for sound. By 1929, Hollywood put out more than 300 sound films and the full inte
sound into film was complete by 1930. It would take a bit longer for films to regain their styli
and dexterity, however, since the camera now had to be encased in a big, clumsy, unmoveable
Suddenly all the ground that had been gained with the moving camera and complex-editing st
lost. Even actors struggled, having to direct their speech to awkwardly-hid microphones in hu
telephones or even their costumes. The film Singin' In The Rain (1952) comically yet accurate
these early-sound film difficulties.
Vertical integration of the film industry
Vertical integration is another key component of the Hollywood studio system. The major stu
they could maximize their profits by controlling each stage of a film's life: production (makin
distribution (getting the film out to people), and exhibition (owning first-run theaters in major
Five studios, "The Big Five," worked to achieve vertical integration through the late 194
vast real estate on which to construct elaborate sets. In addition, these studios set the exa
films' release dates and patterns, and operated the best movie palaces in the nation.
Warner Bros., Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Loew's (MGM) and RKO (Radio-Keith-O
formed this exclusive club.
"The Little Three" studios--Universal, Columbia and United Artists--also made pictures, but e
of the crucial elements of vertical integration. Together these eight companies operated as a m
oligopoly, essentially controlling the entire market.
They also controlled the terms under which you could see their films. Prestige or A-level film
stars and lavish production values, and then could only be seen initially in studio-owned, first
When the studios released these films to theaters they didn't own, they forced those owners to
in combination with a number of, often mediocre, B-pictures (no stars, bargain-basement gen
shorts, a practice called "block booking." Moreover, the studios often made the exhibitors buy
blind, not allowing them to see what they were getting before they got it.
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