Post-Modern Studio System? What Overturning the Paramount Decision Means for Film Business

While the official announcement was unaccompanied with fanfare, the overturning of the landmark ruling in “U.S. v Paramount Pictures, Inc., et al” (1948) on Friday, August 7, 2020 marks a turning point in the business of modern cinema. Also known as The Paramount Decision and The Hollywood Antitrust Case, this ruling marked the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the decline of the Studio System that upheld it. What exactly does this mean for the business moving forward? Short answer: nobody knows, and anyone claiming to know what IS going to happen is incredibly presumptuous. However, by looking at the history of the 1948 ruling and the current events surrounding the August 7th ruling, we can explore this watershed moment in the film business, both past and present. Furthermore, we can extrapolate from past precedent what may happen or even could happen today. One thing is certain, we are in rapidly ranging and even uncertain times due to the direct and indirect impacts of the response to COVID-19. Although the federal court began reevaluating this case in late 2019, it is undeniable that the impact of the response to the effects of the virus may have played a latent role in the final decision. From a massive increase in streaming content options to premium paid video-on-demand (PVOD) to continued (at the time of this writing) delays in returning “big ticket” first-run movies to theatrical exhibition, there are many factors at play here. Not to mention questions such as “if I am an indie filmmaker, will I be able to get my movies in theatrical chains,” “does this mean that Amazon or Apple will buy up struggling chains like AMC,” or “if I am a screenwriter, will I still be able to submit my screenplays to studios if they are completely vertically integrated?” Perhaps this exploration of the past, present, and future of the film business in light of the overturn of the Paramount Decision won’t be able to provide definitive answers, but it will provide historical, empirical, and observational evidences to suggest what may or could happen moving forward. 

In short, the Paramount Decision (1948) was a landmark case in which the US Government forced the eight major/minor studio players to end the practice of block booking, divest themselves of their respective theatre chains (sell them off), and modify the practice of long-term employee contracts (although, this practice would continue until the 1960s). This marked the beginning of the end of the Studio System, AKA Hollywood’s decentralization. But before we can even begin to understand the significance of the August 7, 2020 decision that overturned the landmark ruling, we have to jump in the wayback machine and head to Hollywood’s Golden Age (recently seen on Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, a 2020 limited-run series on Netflix). 

What was the studio system anyway? It was the arrangement of film production and distribution dominated by a small number of studios in Hollywood. Historically, the term refers to the practice of large motion picture studios, between the 1920s-60s, of producing movies primarily on their own backlots with creative personnel often under long-term contracts, and which dominated exhibition through the vertical integration of company-owned movie theatres. Block booking was also a common practice at this time. This process forced theatres to accept a block of movies from a studio. If an independent theatre wanted to show Movie A, then the studio would require the theatre to also accept and show Movies B, C, D, and E too.

Years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the once powerful Paramount Pictures, the biggest studio in Hollywood at the time, there were constant legal and ethical issues plaguing the storied studio system that produced some of the most foundational films in cinema history. Back during the height of the studio system, there were eight principle players: the Big Five and the Little Three. The Big Five was comprised of: Paramount, MGM, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and RKO; the Little Three included Universal, Columbia, and United Artists. You may (1) recognize some of those names today and (2) notice that there is a famous studio conspicuously missing. The latter is due to Walt Disney Studios being in its infancy during this time. Ironically, it would become nearly completely vertically integrated in the 20th and 21st centuries, minus owning a chain of movie theatres. In a manner of speaking the Walt Disney Company operates in a very similar fashion to that of its older brothers and sisters.

When I took a tour of Paramount Pictures back in 2015, I asked how many full-time staff worked on the lot. And the tour guide responded with 30-40 people. That’s right, only 30-40 people at the time. While that number may have fluctuated in the last five years, it leads me into one of the practices that came to a close when the Studio System fell. Prior to the Paramount Decision and the development of professional unions, studios held movie stars, directors, writers, and others to longterm contracts (with few, if any, options). Contracts were so tightly managed, that studios would loan stars to other studios, for example Paramount may choose to loan out Mae West to M-G-M in exchange for Judy Garland. The on screen talent wasn’t the only area treated as a commodity, virtually every role in front or or behind the camera was under contract to a studio, including directors and writers. 

While this looks like an infringement upon civil liberties through our 2020 eyes, and there are many reasons it should, there was something positive regarding employment during the Studio System: job security. When you worked for the studio, you worked for the studio and made all its pictures. Meaning, you knew you had regular employment until your contract was satisfied, you quit, or were fired. Employees didn’t have to worry about when and where the next gig was; employees went to work, Monday through Friday if you will, just like other working professionals. Furthermore, this centralized human resources system also made it possible to apply for vacant positions as a director, writer, craftsman, or any other position. There were also a great number of formal apprenticeships for those who were trying to break into the system. Sounds great, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, for reasons of streamlining the hiring process and providing stable employment in the field; and no, because the studio (that also likely controlled movie theatres) would not produce or distribute your picture unless you worked for the studio. It was a closed corporate system, so independents were largely kept out of it. From submitting screenplays to theatrical distribution, aspiring filmmakers either had to join the corporate ranks of the studio system or exhibit their pictures in small independent movie houses, IF they could even get the film developed and edited. 

Even before the 1948 decision, the studio system and studio-theatre relationships were under attack, but the studios were able to find loop-holes and political alliances in order to avoid the breakup of the vertical integration that was expensive to maintain but highly lucrative. As the movie studios regrouped for continued legal battles in the court system and Justice Department, media mogul Howard Hughes of storied RKO Pictures made the decision to sell off his movie theatres. When The Justice Department made it clear that there were to be no more deals between the government and the movie studios, Paramount sold its movies theaters in an attempt to buy into television. However, after the legacy studio’s continued involvement in all the antitrust cases leading to the final decision in 1948, the government did not permit Paramount to maintain any semblance of a monopoly in the frontier of television.The battle to keep the studio system was finally over. In the end, the Paramount case influenced the growth of television because, among other reasons, RKO and other studios sold their film libraries to television stations to offset the losses from the Paramount Decision. The studios also released actors from those longterm contracts, and many became television stars.

Although there are many side-effects and tangential reasons why the studio system (1) was lucrative and (2) hard to dismantle, there is one root reason from which everything else radiated: control. Everything gets back to control. Control of movie stars, control of writers and directors, control of the distribution and exhibition process. With all this control, the Studio System was able to craft its own narrative and success story. While the system was lucrative, it also racked up a lot of debt. Debt that came from borrowing from banks, exorbitant movie star salaries, and fighting legal battles. Even though the system had a lot of problems, it still gave us some of the best movies of all time, motion pictures that are larger than life, and those that typified the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, this system also protected its own when scrutiny or accusations arose, which is reprehensible. The Hollywood Studio System was truly its own self-contained world that outsiders were only let into through the movies and publicity. 

The film business landscape looks much different than it was during and just after the Golden Age of Hollywood. But over time, we have seen a migration back towards the ol’ system of doing things. The most recent examples of borderline antitrust infringement are Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, AT&T’s acquisition of Warner Bros. Pictures, and Comcast’s acquisition of NBC-Universal. What makes the latter two particularly interesting cases is the simple fact that both AT&T and Comcast own and operate the literal hardware in the ground and air that brings you your connection to the internet. One could read this as a form of distribution. The Disney example is more or less one of reducing the ability to equitably compete for audience dollars and the ability to create jobs. You can read more on the Disney-Fox deal in my article Out-Foxed. While block booking and price-fixing are still illegal, the overturn of the Paramount Decision does create a greater pathway to acquiring movie theatres and the ability to be more greatly vertically integrated than was possible since 1948. Interestingly, movie studios have been legally able to buy movie theatres since 1948, but because of the scrutiny and bureaucratic red tape that would come with it, it was not a practice except in the case of Disney purchasing the historic El Capitan theatre and Netflix purchasing the iconic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre (sister theatre to the world-famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre). Disney uses the El Capitan for most of its own premieres, but the movie theatre also shows a variety of other programming. But with this overturning, Disney could choose to only show its movies in the El Capitan, likewise with Netflix and the Egyptian Theatre. 

But, so what if Netflix and Disney want to exclusively exhibit their own films in their movie palaces? And you’re right, those two locations do not significantly make a difference in the grand scheme of things; but, what this represents is a microcosm of what could happen more nationally. And that’s why many of us are fascinated by this ruling; we are both anxious and eager to see what happens in this new frontier. Maybe nothing, maybe something. But film academics have a duty to analyze the situation to inform the public of the possible outcomes.

At the time of writing this article, Disney has made no claim regarding any real interest in purchasing the struggling AMC movie theatre chain nor Regal (owned by CineWorld). That said, there is more to explore that isn’t quite as in the face of the public as purchasing theatre chains. While control is the root cause for the machine that was the studio system, the reason the government went after the big studios was in-part because the studios made it nearly impossible for independent filmmakers to get their films into theatres or land distribution deals. If the studio did not produce your film, then it would not distribute it. The inequitable competition field led the US Government to bring about the landmark antitrust case. Lack of competition or lack of an opportunity to compete is what many independent producers, directors, and other creative and technical personnel fear most moving forward. It is highly unlikely that anything major is going to happen overnight; however, the studios now have the latitude, or horizontal if you will, to test the boundaries of their vertical integration and ability to strong-arm the marketplace. Suffice it to say, the studios will be “testing the fences for weaknesses, systematically…they remember” (Robert Muldoon, Jurassic Park). 

While Disney may not be presently interested in purchasing a movie theatre chain (according to the August earnings call), the three companies to watch out for are: AT&T, Amazon, and Apple. The AAA threat. Interestingly, AT&T is no stranger to monopolies or even oligopolies (like a monopoly, but when a market is controlled by a few big companies instead of one). Without going into too much detail on the U.S. v American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) case, the antitrust case was brought against the telecom giant, owner and operator of Bell Systems. Bell Systems held a monopoly over American and Canadian phone systems, a monopoly that was held since the dawn of the telephone. The end result of the 1982 ruling brought about the breakup of the Bell Systems company into seven regional “Bell” markets. From this breakup we got seven telecom companies, each operating a particular geographic region. Interestingly, four out of the seven companies are now back under the control of AT&T. The remaining three former Bell markets are owned by Verizon and CenturyLink.

If we use the AT&T case study as a parallel model for understanding studios and the film business, we can posit ideas of what may happen in light of the recent overturn. The AT&T model bares many similarities to the Studio System model. We have a monopoly (or oligopoly) that was broken up by the US Government. Then there was a time of division; but slowly those once divested companies were bought up by the big company again, and in AT&T’s case, the original company. Full circle. What’s funny is that this parallel case study involves one of the likely players in this post-Paramount Decision world. By using the AT&T model, reason stands that a big company or two (maybe three) can and will buy up smaller companies to have a larger footprint, thus reducing competition. It happened the telephone world, it can happen in the film world. After being broken up, AT&T made many smart, seemingly benign moves in order to essentially become a phoenix that is greater than it was before its empire was broken up. 

What does this mean for studios and movie theatres? It simply means that it is very likely that a major company with deep pockets will purchase movie theatre chains. Simple as that. We have seen this before in the AT&T case study. But it won’t be Disney, Universal, or even Netflix buying the theatres, it will be AT&T, Amazon, Apple, or and/or Sony. Inarguably, the first three are some of the largest, wealthiest, and most influential companies in the world, with the latter having an incredibly diversified portfolio that includes technology and more; what better way to showcase your audiovisual technology than in movie theatres??? Each of these companies has the assets necessary to acquire AMC, CineWorld (Regal), Cobb, and even Cinemark. Interestingly, AT&T, Amazon, Apple, and Sony all have investments in film and tv production. AT&T owns WarnerMedia et al., Amazon operates Amazon Studios, Apple creates original content for Apple TV+, and Sony operates Sony Entertainment et al. It is unlikely that the US Government would permit any of these companies to buy up more than one of the major movie theatre chains, but we could easily see each of the four major movie theatre players getting bought up by corporate conglomerates. While there isn’t evidence to suggest that these four corporate giants would force audiences to go to one of their theatres to see one of their movies, it is entirely possible that those corporate giants would offer additional programming (maybe certain movies primarily released on streaming services) at their company owned movie theatres. Between original and licensed/distributed content, these movie theates, tied to media conglomerates that have major studio investments, may pack the theatres with so many movies that independent filmmakers will have to see alternate means of securing distribution, be that through streaming services, independent movie theatres, or or smaller specialized chains like Studio Movie Grill and Alamo Draft House, both of which are known for catering to cinephiles, including horror fans.

In a manner of speaking, what we are looking at here is a post-modern Studio System. You’d once again have the BIG FIVE (AT&T, Apple, Amazon, Disney, and Comcast) and the LITTLE THREE (Sony, Viacom/Paramount, and Netflix). These eight companies would control the media landscape. And there will be just enough competition that it avoids any antitrust lawsuits (until it doesn’t; that’s how this goes, if you haven’t figured it out), until history repeats itself again. This new studio system will flourish for decades, but then something will happen and the government will step in and break up the companies again, most likely resulting in selling of movie theatre chains or even more sobering, movie theatres become a shadow of their former selves. It is unlikely that movie theatres will completely go away, but their purpose and role in show business may be relegated to little more than a novelty. These studios may reimagine the movie star star system, film/tv/production related unions could lose their power because of the increasing number of employees (not contractors) at movie studios, and/or there could even be more theme parks as a means to generate quick revenue to funnel back into the studio model, much like Disney and Universal Parks and Resorts do for their parent companies. Lots of job creation may happen, but these will lack in the creative latitude that many filmmakers crave.

For many independent filmmakers, the fear of the fallout from the overturn of the Paramount Decision is reduced opportunities to secure distribution deals. But it’s not only the production talent that is concerned. Writers could be greatly impacted; because, in a more heavily vertically integrated system, writers will have far fewer outlets for purchasing or licensure of their screenplays. Disney is a good example of this. Disney rarely purchases screenplays from screenwriters; their common practice is to use in-house screenwriters or commission a writer to pen a screenplay. So, if you are not IN the Disney studio system, then your chances of selling or optioning your screenplay are minimal. Since Disney owns 20th Century Fox, then this same practice carries over into that branch as well. That said, Searchlight Pictures is still a production and distribution company to which independent filmmakers and screenwriters can submit work for purchase, licensing, etc. While Disney is the easy example here, this same practice could be said of any major studio. 

More vertical integration means larger companies in a world that is shrinking. This shrinking world could mean trouble for the aspiring filmmaker or screenwriter because of the lack of opportunities to make the transition from page to set to distribution. While this new world may make it more difficult for a screenwriter to sell a screenplay to a studio that is vertically integrated, the director will also face new challenges. Independent filmmakers will have to get their films bought or licensed by a major company in order to get the exposure needed to be able to develop a substantive career. Netflix has a history of being friendly to independent filmmakers (although it has more and more original programming), so an advantage to getting Netflix to buy or option your movie is that you may just be able to screen it at the Egyptian Theatre, which would greatly aid in qualifying for the Oscars or Golden Globes. 

While independent filmmakers may face increasing odds against them for theatrical distribution, this post-modern Studio System could create thousands of jobs in the industry. But you will create what the studio wants you to create, which may not necessarily be the stories that you want to tell. And amidst this possible creation of jobs may be a world with far less opportunity for equitable competition for that golden statue and audience eyes.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

“JUDY” Biopic Film Review

A truly gripping motion picture that will bring you to tears during this somewhere over the rainbow redemption story. Bring tissues. Renee Zellweger is captivating as Judy Garland, and you’ll swear that you’re watching Garland on the big screen. Although we may be familiar with the broad strokes career of the legendary entertainer, this film goes beyond the headlines and tabloids to deliver a true life story that could ironically be titled A Star is Born, or perhaps reborn. Ironic in that this film shows the life of a movie star after the lights have faded and the offers stop coming in, much like the movie she starred in. It’s a rise and fall story, of sorts, but is more precisely a fall and rise story as the movie focusses in on the last year of Judy Garland’s life. If you are worried that the film ends on her death, you can be relived that the film chooses to stop the story prior to the end of the iconic star’s life. And it works so incredibly well! While there are many movies (not unlike A Star is Born) that focus on the rise and fall of a talent in showbusiness, this movie skips all the glitz and glamor to paint a realistic portrait of what it is like for those whom grow up in front of the camera, controlled by those around them, just to wind up in front of booing crowds, empty bank accounts, homelessness, and a tumultuous custody battle. Not to mention her addiction to pills that was caused by abusive treatment at the hands of the old studio system because of being force fed pills from an early age. Whether you are a fan of the iconic diva or not, if you love command performances, then you do not want to miss the uncanny performance of Zellweger as Judy. All the way down to the mannerisms, vocal inflections, and over all behavior, she IS Judy. Although we all know of the tragic ending, no mistaking it, this film is an inspirational story of redemption.

The money is gone, career on the rocks, and risking the loss of custody of her two youngest children, that is the last year’s of Judy Garland’s life. Unfortunately the other side of the rainbow for Judy was anything but magical. Three decades after starring in one of the greatest film musicals of all time The Wizard of Oz, the beloved actress and singer is in dire straights. She is left with virtually nothing except her name and what remains of her timeless voice that charmed millions throughout her early illustrious career. In order to prove that she can provide for her two youngest children, she accepts a gig in London playing to sold-out shows at the Talk of the Town night club. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans, fights her depression and anxiety over performing, and begins a whirlwind romance with her soon-to-be fifth husband.

“For one hour, I am Judy Garland, and the rest of the time I am just like everyone else…I want what everyone wants, I just seem to have a harder time getting it” is a paraphrased quote from the movie, but it illustrates how the actress and singer felt about her relationship with the world. The movie chronicles her inability to stay afloat financially in Los Angeles and must accept a gig in London where her personal troubles continue to follow and haunt her. Her character is so incredibly relatable because many of us have found ourselves in traps that we have stepped in and are at a loss as to how to get out. If you thought this was going to be another cliche musical biopic, then you would be mistaken. No pretense about it, this is an unapologetic look at the dark side of Hollywood in perhaps one of the greatest stories that is right up there with Norma Desmond. Now, I am not equating Judy with what is, in my opinion, the greatest film of all time Sunset Boulevard, but her story is not unlike the one experienced by Norma. The movie also comments on the far reaching effects of childhood trauma on the adult psyche. No one understood the extent that she was abused by the studio system except for Judy herself. If her present-day handlers knew what she went through during the years that American fell in love with The Wizard of OzMeet Me in St. Louis, and more, then they would not-so-casually write her off as a wrecked hasbeen who mismanaged her money and relationships. The film deals with perception versus reality. Strategically placed in the film are flashbacks to her childhood at MGM that provide context for moving the present story forward as each moment reveals a new layer to the legendary entertainer.

Zellweger delivers a performance for the ages in this film. More than a spot-on impression, she transforms into Judy Garland to the extent that you will almost believe that you are watching the iconic actress and singer on the big screen. It is clear that Zellweger studied Judy Garland for months in order to get into character. Her movement, speech pattern, posture, and other behaviors completely sell the audience on this audacious portrayal of such an icon. Never once does she break character and allow the actor to shine through, she remains committed to this phenomenally genuine portrayal of Judy Garland. We all know Zellweger can sing, after all, she wow’d us in Chicago (a rare example of when the movie adaptation IS better than the live show); but nothing will prepare you for the power of her singing in this movie. Other than Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, you will hear Zellweger sing other famous songs by Garland such as Get HappyThe Trolly SongCome Rain or Come Shine, and of course the encore of Over the Rainbow during the movie’s climactic, emotionally charged, showdown. Even when singing, Zellweger is determined to deliver the songs just as a late-40s Garland did, complete with all the stubbornness, anxiety, and even anger. I truly hope that Zellweger is nominated for this role.

Perhaps the reason why Liza Minelli was quite objectionably vocal about her mother’s portrayal in this movie is because there are creative liberties taken by the writers in order to further dramatize Judy’s story. As I’ve told my screenwriting class, dramatize don’t tell. If a “based on a true story” or biographical film was simply concerned with the timeline of events, the cold hard facts, and cause and effect, then it might feel more like a police procedural or college lecture. Hence why it is imperative that writers DO get a little creative in the dramatization of events for cinematic purposes. For instance, the facts are largely correct in this story as I have compared them to Wikipedia and other newspaper articles, but where I can see the difference is Judy’s reaction to the timeline of events. Articles and tabloids may be able to show what happened, but it is up to the screenwriters to dramatize the reaction to the conflict. So perhaps that is what Liza is upset with, she doesn’t agree with the story details between what we know from Hollywood history. One of the tangential components in the movie is Judy meeting up with “Friends of Judy” at the end of one of her shows. Judy joins them, rather than be by herself for a night of poorly made omelets and casual singing around a piano. It’s an emotionally moving tribute to all the gays who’ve loved her over the years. In all likelihood, this was written for the movie as there is no way of verifying if this night ever happened. This is the scene where I feel that she should’ve sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas because tonally it was similar to that scene in Meet Me in St. Louis. Instead, she sings Get Happy.

Maybe this is an unconventional redemption story, but that quality is clearly communicated through the film. Rising up against the internal and external monsters in your life that have dragged you down so far that there is no end in sight. Whereas Judy may not have changed as dramatically as Scrooge did in  A Christmas Carol, she does change during the climax of the movie. If you want to know just how, then you need to go out and watch it!

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com!

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“Ben-Hur” (2016) movie review

BenHurJust as epic a story today as it was during Hollywood’s golden age! Paramount Pictures and MGM Studios present the reimagined classic historical drama of Ben-Hur. Appropriately released by two of the most recognized names in the industry harkening back to the early days of cinema, Ben-Hur plays out almost as well as it did decades ago. Sitting in the auditorium last night, I wondered what it was like to see a larger-than-life nail-biting story on the silver screen when the original was released in 1959, just before the final decline of the former powerhouse of motion picture production, the studio system. The grand experience of this film is only overshadowed by the unusual pacing. Typically epic stories require a minimum of two hours, and often come close to 3-hour runtimes in order to do the story justice and tell it visually and emotionally in the most impactful way possible; however, this film is just over two hours. This moderately quick pacing hinders one’s ability to really appreciate the foreground and background stories. The grandeur of the Roman Empire fails to show as prominently as it should have in this film that bares a striking resemblance to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in many respects. There are many sweeping shots of the Circus (chariot racing arena) that are disappointingly mostly CGI’d. Still, there is something remarkable about this story. Whether you are approaching this film from a historic standpoint (historic in an appreciation for classic Hollywood stories), religious perspective (forgiveness and sacrifice), or simply for the bad ass racing of chariots in a grand arena, you will likely find something to enjoy about this movie.

On the backdrop of the final years of the messiah, Ben-Hur is about a Jewish prince named Judah Beh-Hur (Huston) who is falsely accused and betrayed by his adopted Roman brother Messala Severus (Kebbell). Sentenced to a life of perpetual rowing of Roman galleons in battle, Ben-Hur endears harsh treatment and near-death experiences in order to one day seek his vengeance. Meanwhile, Messala becomes a war hero and favorite of the people and the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. When the destruction of his ship opens the door for escape, Ben-Hur finds himself washed upon the shore to be picked up by a wealthy African (Freeman) who races chariots–or pays for young men to race chariots. Striking a deal between them, the wealthy African and Ben-Hur work together to train for Ben-Hur to defeat Massala in the circus in order to reclaim his name and truly hit the Romans where it hurts–losing at their own game.

One of the most unique aspects to this film is the parallel plot between the background and foreground, the plot and subplot. At the end of the day, the message of Ben-Hur is one of forgiveness. The forgiveness between brothers and the forgiveness of Christ. Although this is not a film based upon the story of the messiah (or passion), the character of Jesus is an important element in the journey from vengeance to forgiveness. On three occasions, Ben-Hur encounters Jesus, not knowing who he is. Each of these chance meetings can be read as symbolic of the different acts (or stages) in the film itself. As the story of the passion of the Christ is one that many recognize (even those who are not Christians), it helps to get an idea of what is going on in the background at the same time at the story at the forefront of the film.

Cinematically, the film was a little disappointing. It feels like a lot of potential and opportunity for incredible cinematography and production design was wasted. Although there are many wide or establishing shots, the majority of the film consists of American medium shots. It would have been exciting to see more of the physical world of Jerusalem and the Roman Empire but instead we spend a lot of time indoors or in close proximity to our cast. Likewise, I would have liked to have seen more in the way of physical production design. The world on screen should have been one that I could have almost felt. Furthermore, I find that the pacing of the film was not adequate enough to actually tell the story in the manner in which it should have. It’s mostly like there was a 2.5-3hr movie condensed into a typical 2hr runtime. Sometimes epic films are guilty of way too much exposition, but Ben-Hur definitely could’ve benefited from additional development and exposition. Everything just happens too quickly and with minimal challenge.

Chariot racing. That is synonymous with Ben-Hur. And you will get plenty of horses, chariots, and crashes. Not unlike NASCAR of today, chariot racing was all about the violence and crashes. Thousands of spectators gathered to watch heroes battle it out on the ground of the circus (or race track) to see who will be the “first to finish…last to die.” Many early films were more concerned about the spectacle of cinema more so than the story or message. After all, MGM’s famous logo states Ars Gratia Artis (latin for “art for art’s sake”), meaning the goal of cinema was to contribute to the world of the visual and performing arts. Not necessarily to entertain, although that is certainly part of it, but to create beauty, intrigue, and push the boundaries of the mind and eye. One of the most mesmerizing elements of the original Ben-Hur was the chariot racing. Likewise, the most exciting parts of this new incarnation are the sights, sounds, and spectacle of the chariot races.

Although there are certainly areas of the film that disappointed me, as I have mentioned, I highly recommend for anyone who appreciates historic dramas that wax nostalgic the days of the golden age of Hollywood. And who doesn’t love a great chariot race???

On Cinema and Theme Parks (part 2)

My Book

(Continued from Part 1)

Understanding the synergy or convergence that exists between the cinema and theme parks requires looking to the history of the relationship between the two entertainment giants. Before Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios), Universal Studios Florida, and more than 40 years before Disneyland was opened, the founder of Universal Studios (studio) German immigrant Carl Laemmle, opened his 250-acre-movie-making ranch, just north of Los Angeles, to the public for a mere $0.25 (Murdy, 2002). More than side income for the trailblazing studio, most well-known for its pioneering of the horror film, the original studio tour began on the outdoor backlot in March 1915. Laemmle desired to immerse the “people out there in the dark,” as famously referred to by Norma Desmond in the timeless classic Sunset Boulevard, into the magic behind the screen (Sunset Blvd, 1950).

Interestingly, according to famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, horror is often concerned with revealing “other” scenes to the audience (Freud, 1919). And, keeping with this theoretical approach to horror cinema, Laemmle opened this “other” scene to the guests of Universal Studios Hollywood.  But more than horror, Laemmle also brought the studio guests face-to-face with western action/drama (Murdy, 2002). From early in the 20th century, the concept of cinema and theme park convergence was born. The happy marriage, however, was not to last very long. Upon the introduction of cinema sound, Laemmle was forced to close the studio “park” to the not-so-quiet guests in order to facilitate appropriate recording sound for the motion pictures (Murdy, 2002). The Universal Studios tour would remain closed to the general public for over 30 years. But, in 1961, the studio would once again open its gates to a new generation of movie lovers (Murdy, 2002). Between 1961 and 1964, Universal outsourced the famed tram tour to the Gray Line bus company.  Following a feasibility study, conducted by researcher Buzz Price, the same man who helped determine the locations for Disneyland and Walt Disney World, Universal decided to start its own tram tour of its facilities, and Universal Studios Hollywood opened in July 1964 (Murdy, 2002).

Following the ending of the Studio System, the now bankrupt motion picture studios had been purchased by various conglomerates looking for new sources of income (Riley, 1998). One of the sources of income that studios began investing into was the concept of movie-based theme parks. With the opening of Walter Elias Disney’s Disneyland in 1955, Universal Studios made the decision to incorporate stand-alone attractions into its newly reopened studio tour (Davis, 1996). Both Disneyland and the future Universal Studios used their intellectual property (IP) as the basis for creating theme park rides, shows, and attractions. Although movie studios as a “park” began with Laemmle, in its current incarnation, the convergence of cinema and theme park began with Disneyland, and later was perfected by Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida. Since the movie studios already had dedicated movie-going audiences, it made sense to capitalize on the idea of incorporating the concepts from the movies into attractions that the general public could enjoy and be immersed in (Davis, 1996). This action both acts as advertising for the respective studios and generates income for the movies and park improvements.

In today’s entertainment marketplace, media conglomerates are restructuring themselves to be as large a player in entertainment and media as possible with the ability to integrate various products and services into multiple areas of exhibition (Taubman, 1970).  This is easily witnessed in how the Walt Disney Company, Sony, and Comcast companies are setup. Walt Disney Company has significant investments in: motion pictures (i.e. Disney, Buena Vista, Touchstone), theme parks, TV (i.e. ABC, Disney Channel), leisure/tourism, radio, video games, stores, and record labels). Sony has investments in consumer/commercial electronics, computers, video game systems, motion pictures (i.e. Sony, Columbia, Tristar), television (CBS), record label, recording studios, radio, and stores. And, much in the same way, Comcast has investments in motion pictures (i.e. Universal Pictures, DreamWorks-SKG), theme parks, resorts, television (i.e. NBC, Golf, SyFy), video games, radio, record labels, and recording studios.

Whereas the fall of the original studio system set the precedent for media companies not to own or operate all the elements of media creation from conception to employment to production to the distribution, also known as vertical integration, companies are now embracing the idea of horizontal integration. Horizontal integration allows a media company to push or market its products or services through various media channels. And, this is a perfect example of why media conglomerates own and operate theme parks. This is a common practice by Disney and Universal in their respective parks and resorts. Disney can release a movie, base an attraction off that movie, use that movie as the basis for a video game, and even include costume characters in the parks and on the cruise ships. In the same vein, Universal can take one of its movie properties and integrate the characters and story into a theme park experience, use the concept for a video game, and maybe even develop a TV series as a spinoff of the movie. This type of integration allows the companies to effectively customize glorified marketing campaigns for their brand. Having a given branding on various commercial outlets allows a company to maximize its exposure to general audiences/customers (Taubman, 1970). As companies acquire more intellectual properties, media outlets, and commercial infrastructure, they are able to actively change entertainment offerings over the years; and this is definitely the case with the theme parks owned by media conglomerates that also have movie studio interests.

Continue to Part 3

The Hollywood Studio System: Employment Then and Now

One of the last remnants of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre stands as a tribute to the movies that started it all.

One of the last remnants of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre stands as a tribute to the movies that started it all.

In light of the recent film Hail, Caesar!, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at the old studio system and whether resurrecting some of the practices might actually prove to be a positive affect upon employment in media and entertainment.

The entertainment industry is evolving more quickly than it ever has, and film production companies and distributors are of no exception. Just like the advent of television had a major influence on the sharp decline of movie patrons in the 1950s and 60s, the advent of on-demand and streaming “television” and movie content today is having a major impact on entertainment sources today. But this article does not aim to analyze distribution, production, nor revenue; its aim is to analyze the state of employment opportunities in the film and narrative television industries. What better way to begin to explore this controversial topic than with the studios that started it all.

HISTORY

The famous entry gate to Paramount Pictures as seen in the 1950 film, all about the studio system, “Sunset Blvd.”

The famous entry gate to Paramount Pictures as seen in the 1950 film, all about the studio system, “Sunset Blvd.”

The rise and fall of the former “studio system” lasted for a period from the 1920s to the late 1960s, with the 1940s to the 1960s being the period of the downfall. During this time, there were five major film studios known as the Big Five, essentially controlling the film industry from production to distribution. The Big Five consisted of Paramount, MGM, RKO, Loew’s, Fox Pictures, and Warner Brothers. Though not as prominent, three smaller studios known as the Little Three, consisting of United Artists, Universal, and Columbia Pictures, were the chief competition. Regarded as the end of Hollywood’s Golden Era, the landmark Supreme Court decision in United States v. Paramount in 1948 marked the delcine of the Studio System. In short, over about a 15-20 year timespan, studios began opening their lots to independent filmmakers–independent of the Big Five (not independent by today’s definition), terminating permanent staff members, and refraining from entering into longerm contracts with performers and movie houses. Although the Walt Disney Company was not part of the Big Five nor the Little Three, it is the only studio today still operating as a studio from the old Studio System.

PRESENT DAY

The Bronson Gate at Paramount Pictures as seen today

The Bronson Gate at Paramount Pictures as seen today

With the major studios today only producing about 20 films a year, the majority of films releasing in first-run movie theatres are produced by independent producers. As stated earlier, this is not independent as we think today; independent by this definition means movies produced outside of the major studios, but often distributed by them (or a subsidiary). Think: Star Wars or Jurassic Park. Since the fall of the Studio System, big banks are more reluctant to invest in or finance films, so producers are responsible for securing their own funding. Less funding means fewer job opportunities for film and television graduates. Most film and television professionals in the entertainment business today are independent contractors–being attached to films and television shows for however long the production time or run-length is. Although a long-running television show provides more employment stability than films do, both are high risk professions. Of course, along with the high risk comes potentially great rewards.

According to Hollywood folk lore, making a wish at the famed Bronson Gate is said to bring good luck. This is me (30lbs ago!) on the Paramount Studio tour in March 2015.

According to Hollywood folk lore, making a wish at the famed Bronson Gate is said to bring good luck. This is me (30lbs ago!) on the Paramount Studio tour in March 2015.

Why would the return of some semblance of the old Studio System be a good turn of events in today’s economy? Simply stated: more jobs and opportunities for budding professionals and college graduates. Why is that? Any first-year film student can tell you that studios keep a low threshold of permanent staff members in administration and production. The majority of talent and crew on each film is independently contracted. And with gaining entry into a union becoming increasingly difficult, it leaves many potentially talented professionals out of work or in low-pay positions on low and moderate budget films. If the Studio System were to return, they would have the collateral that big banks are looking for to invest in films. After all, film, television, and to some extent theatre, are the United States’ largest exports even though they are only recently counted as part of the U.S.’ GDP (gross domestic product) in terms of evaluating the health of the economy. If there were more permanent positions in production with studios and production companies, the unemployment rate would drop significantly in entertainment because budding professionals and college graduates could land positions in which they could grow and excel.

An aerial shot of the Desilu Stages in Hollywood in the 1960s

An aerial shot of the Desilu Stages in Hollywood in the 1960s

But what about exploitation and monopoly? Are those not reasons why the Supreme Court stepped in? Yes. However, there are many reasons why personnel in entertainment today, as permanent staff members, would not undergo the same treatment. The reason: unions. SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, TEAMSTERS, and EQUITY do an excellent job at protecting creative peoples’ rights and opening doors of opportunity. But, it is becoming increasingly difficult to gain access into these organizations. And with the unions being the gatekeepers to opportunity in the industry, where is a budding professional or college graduate supposed to go? If studios produced more in-house movies and television shows, then that would require them to hire permanent staff members. Those seeking a career in the industry would find their place. Some may argue that production companies offer internships to recent graduates; but with lawsuits increasing in the last few years, internships are increasingly being seen in a negative light. One hypothesis is that unpaid internships are taking the place of entry level jobs. With the number of entry-level jobs decreasing since the recession began, the unemployment rate in entertainment is rising.

One way to combat the increased unemployment in entertainment business is to bring back the large studios that have the financial assets to offer and hire permanent positions. This would enable the studios to hire a number of cinematographers, writers, directors, etc. And, those individuals would work on the films produced by the respective studios. If studios were to increase the number of films produced each year, as they once did, then there would be more opportunities for professionals. Regarding the monopoly studios had on movie houses, the present laws on the books would not allow for a studio to have complete control over a particular theatre chain.

There is plenty of room for studios and production companies large and small. Unlike the days of the Studio System, in which outside companies could not shoot films or television shows on another company’s lot, the smaller studios should be allowed to still rent the stage and lot space as they do today. Of course, if Studios were producing more movies on their lots, that may cause the smaller companies to have to look elsewhere for locations. But, that could be a good thing; because if they purchased land for a backlot or sound stages, that would create more jobs for craftsman. In order to combat the rising unemployment rate in the entertainment business, professionals need to get together to develop ideas as to how to hire more personnel. Bringing back the Studio System is just one idea as to how to create more full-time jobs in film and television production.

One of the entrances to MGM Studios (now owned by Sony Pictures) in Hollywood

One of the entrances to MGM Studios (now owned by Sony Pictures) in Hollywood

With studios forced to produce more movies in order to make payroll, that could potentially mean more writers can sell their scripts and perhaps more original ideas will make their way to the silver screen. This action could create human resource databases at the various studios and production companies that would advertise vacant positions. Just like applying for a job at Disney World, you could see what positions are available. Bringing back a new Studio System would allow for studios to advertise full and part-time regular positions. For instance, you could see which studios are hiring cinematographers, directors, composers, etc. Professionals in the creative and technical arts would also benefit from employer provided health insurance and retirement. Although as independent contractors, film and television professionals make more money than working as a regular employee, regular employees benefit from regular paychecks and benefits, and to an extent job security.

Technology is making the production of movies and television shows more efficient than ever, so a major studio could hire permanent staff members to work as producers, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, etc. Employment opportunity and stability are key elements to the health of an industry–even creative ones. Even though the old Studio System ran unchecked for many years, causing the eventual breakup, carefully constructed and regulated today, the return of a new Studio System could mean more jobs and opportunity for college graduates pursuing entertainment business careers. And just maybe, more movies!

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • US adds entertainment and innovation to GDP, Time Magazine, http://entertainment.time.com/2013/08/01/hey-america-entertainment-just-made-you-hundreds-of-dollars-richer/
  • History of the Studio System, Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/394161/history-of-the-motion-picture/52153/The-Hollywood-studio-system
  • Paramount Pictures v United States, 334 U.S. 131 (1948)
  • Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, New York Southern District court, http://www.nysd.uscourts.gov/cases/show.php?db=special&id=300
  • US Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/entertainment-and-sports/home.htm
  • Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc. 2013 WL 2495140 (S.D.N.Y.) – See more at: http://blog.legalsolutions.thomsonreuters.com/legal-research/westlaw-topical-highlights-labor-and-employment-july-10-2013/#sthash.J9tcpnM1.dpuf
  • Hollywood Studio System Collection, http://mediahistoryproject.org/hollywood/
  • Bigelow v. RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., 327 U.S. 251 (1946)