The Hollywood Studio System [Definition, History & Movies]

Hollywood studio system
Hollywood studio system

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We all know that Hollywood is the center of the film industry. However, during the golden age, it had even more power. The Hollywood studio system meant that five big studios had full control of making movies, including how people watched them in the theatres.

By doing this, filmmaking became efficient, and everything ran like clockwork. That was until the studios gained too much control and the system collapsed.

Keep reading to learn everything you need about the Hollywood studio system, including its meaning, breakdown, and famous movie examples.

What is the Hollywood Studio System?

The Hollywood studio system was a filmmaking practice where the Big Five studios controlled the making and screening of films. The phrase studio system describes films of the Hollywood Golden Age from 1927 (the start of sound) to 1948 (the system’s fall). 

In addition to this, there were three small film studios, Universal Pictures and Columbia Pictures, which only owned small theatres. Not to mention Charlie Chaplin’s United Artists, an indie company that gave directors creative control over their movies. Still, the Big Five made almost all movies in Hollywood during this time.

The Big Five Studios:

  • Paramount Pictures
  • Metro Goldwyn Mayer
  • Warner Bros. Pictures
  • 20th Century Fox Pictures
  • RKO Radio Pictures

The History of Hollywood

In 1909, early filmmakers used a town called Hollywood in California to shoot films because of its good weather and access to sunlight. When they built the first Hollywood studio, other filmmakers quickly followed, and soon, many studios were running in the area. 

The Hollywood studio system emerged with the start of sound ‘talkies’ and technicolor movies. The Big Five studios had complete control over the films they made. These studios would make genre films, such as musicals, westerns, and crime movies.  

However, the big studios also had a full monopoly over theatres. By the 1930s, the Big Five studios would own almost all of the cinemas in the United States. Through the studio system, they kept thousands of people on contract with a salary. This system made the whole movie making business very efficient and it ran like an assembly line.  

At the height of Hollywood, they would produce over 400 movies a year. It was also a golden age because many of the best directors, including Alfred Hitchcock and Orsen Welles, worked during this time. The golden age would run for 20 years until the start of television. 

Hollywood Studio Movie Examples

As mentioned, the Big Five had complete control over all aspects of filmmaking and even owned movie theatres. As a result, a typical American town would have a cinema for Warner Bros and another for Paramount, but they would only screen movies made by themselves. Let’s take a look at some of the famous films made during this era.

1. The Jazz Singer (1927)

Critics regard the release of the first sound feature film as the start of the golden age. The Jazz Singer, directed by Alan Crosland, was the first talkie made by Warner Bros. Pictures. The film is a musical drama and follows a man’s struggles to make it in show business.

It was a major hit and showed that talkies could attract a large audience. The film also affected live theatre shows, the studio’s main competition. A quote in a newspaper from a theatre owner read, “A week or two after The Jazz Singer swept the country, I swept out of business. I couldn’t compete with the picture theatre across the street.”

2. Bright Eyes (1934)

Bright Eyes, directed by David Butler, was a vehicle film for superstar Shirley Temple. The Hollywood studio system signed actors to contracts where they could only work for their studios. Shirley Temple had a long-term contract with 20th Century Fox Pictures.

Hollywood’s success grew during the Great Depression due to cinema’s effect of escapism with audiences. In an interview, President Roosevelt said, “When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”

3. Gone with the Wind (1939)

The most profitable film of the Golden Age was Gone with the Wind, directed by Victor Fleming. The movie was an epic romance that became the highest earning film of the time and is still, when adjusted to inflation, the highest grossing film ever made.

It was a movie by the biggest studio of the time, Metro Goldwyn Mayer. 1939 was a huge year for studios, with the release of The Wizard of Oz and Stagecoach. The movies of the studio system had a clear style of happy stories that followed genre tropes.

4. Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane, by Orsen Welles, was also the work of the Hollywood studio system by RKO Radio Pictures. Because studios block booked films to theatres, this made it possible for not every movie to be a big hit. As such, they took a risk on the medium-budget feature film.

Welle’s masterpiece is one of the most outstanding films ever made. It’s unique because of it’s creative storytelling methods and camera work. Citizen Kane shows how, despite the rigid studio rules, the studio system was not all bad news for filmmakers.

The End of the Studio System

Two factors helped to end the Hollywood studio system. First was the start of television, which reduced cinema numbers. Next was the banning of a system called ‘block booking’, which was the practice of selling multiple films to a theatre as a unit. As such, the studios would sell five films to a theatre, but only one would be good quality.

In 1948, the Big Five went up against a lawsuit called the Paramount Case. The court decided that the studios violated antitrust laws, which separated the studios and theatres. Because of this case, studios could no longer practice block booking.

As a result, the studio system began to crumble. Most actors broke contracts with the studios and instead began to freelance. The studios found themselves in a competitive market with television now widespread. In 1957, half of films made in Hollywood were by indie filmmakers outside of major studios.

The Hollywood New Era 

After the Hollywood studio system fell, a new era emerged called New Hollywood. It was a response to the staleness of studios during the past few decades. In addition, world cinema, such as the French New Wave, was now allowed to screen in American theatres. 

The New Hollywood began in the 1960s, with many big name directors now being seen as auteur directors with more control over their films. Notable names from this time include Martin Scorsese, Woody Allan, and later Stephen Spielberg. This era created many successful films that inspired studios to take more risks and invest in big blockbuster movies. 

In addition, The Hays Code ended, which opened up the floodgates of creativity for Hollywood filmmakers. Still, it’s worth mentioning that despite the collapse of the studio system, major studios still have the biggest market share of movie releases today. 

Wrapping Up

To sum up, the Hollywood studio system controlled cinema for two decades. It was also known as the Hollywood Golden Age because the system made film classics that followed traditional story structure. As a result, this era had a very distinct look and feel.

However, the system failed due to its control over the creativity and release of films. When allowed more freedom, actors and directors left studios and began making indie films. The fall of the studio system led to the rise of the blockbuster movie that we see today.

Amy Clarke
Amy Clarke
Amy is a content writer at the Video Collective. She is a former script supervisor and writes about careers in the film industry. Follow her on Facebook.
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