The Birth of Hollywood: Reel Profits
You’re working under the false assumption that studios were once in the business of making art and now they’re in the business of making profit. That’s not the case at all. Hollywood was founded by very shrewd businessmen who had the vision to recognize the opportunity to build an emerging industry from the ground up. They took a big risk, setting up shop in the California desert and constructing a community built around a business with no guarantee of success. Men like Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle, Jesse L. Lasky, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, and Adolph Zukor built Hollywood, and nearly right from the start, the studios codified a system to most cheaply and efficiently produce movies and put out the most product in the shortest amount of time. They were factories and this model was inspired by Henry Ford’s innovative assembly line method of building automobiles. These businessmen were most concerned with profit, and they built studios like machines, with a film passing down a virtual conveyer belt, from department to department, each adding and shaping the film io conform to studio standards. Artistic considerations were a nice added bonus, but always an afterthought, when assessing a film’s cost and marketability. The films had to make a profit, and the easiest way to do so was to rigidly adopt a recipe with proven success and the ability to be reproduced ad infinitum.
The Studio Assembly Line
All films started with writers, and the studios had a stable of its own writers –some of them famous fiction writers, who no doubt added quality and esteem to a script. In those days, Hollywood ransacked all of literature for story ideas, and were far less reverential with adherence to the source material than we are today. Great works of literature were rewritten and edited to fit into the studio formula, and to make the films more exciting for an audience. Writers also wrote original screenplays, which tended to be more artistically viable. Even still, the writers were rolling off pages in what might be considered a film nursery. These writers churned out scripts to be produced, from the small low cost B-movie to the grand epic costume drama. The studio business model was then, and still is, to pour considerable money into large and lavish productions (what we would call a blockbuster today), practically sparing no expense, and providing directors with a wide array of resources and some artistic latitude. This function of this model is to produce a large budget film, which would be heavily marketed and be a huge commercial success, filling the coffers, and not only funding the next large picture, but providing the revenue to fund all of the small B-pictures, which no one film is expected to bring in huge profit, but since there are many small films, with small budgets and few stars, they can stagger their releases, and always have revenue coming in, and altogether, the films made a profit. The big guy funds the little guy, and both bring in money in different ways. Again, the films vary in quality, and many of the B-films are poor;y produced, made on the cheap, and shot very rapidly.
It’s important to point out that the studios weren’t any less greedy back then, but arguably better at choosing their talent. Although many of the writers were hacks who dashed off tired old scripts one after the other, However, there were also quality writers who produced great scripts that seemed to find their way into the hands of quality directors.
Like today, successful directors were allowed more creative freedom, such as John Ford and Howard Hawkes. However, for the most part, both men managed to direct artistically pleasing pictures, while staying within the confines of the system. Ford was more difficult to contain, but his films were quite popular and he wielded more power. Frank Capra was the quintessential studio director, and his films were often simple and straightforward, formulaic, and sentimental, while championing the everyman and scoring high with audiences. Nearly all of these films were produced with deadlines and budgets capped and enforced. Many of these directors were under contract, and shot an agreed upon number of guaranteed films per year. They were studio men, and they knew the system, and most worked within its perameters. These men captured lightening in a bottle. The 1930s and ’40s paired some marvelous scripts with talented directors. In addition to the men above, there was George Cukor, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Preston Sturges, and William Wyler, to name a few. This Golden Age of cinema was spoiled by riches, and some of the greatest artists in the profession belonged to this age. Many of the films these directors helmed managed to work from solid scripts, and were directed artistically and responsibly, while also conforming with the studio expectations and model of success. The bottom line was always profit, but the studios recognized that a work could be artistic and high quality AND be marketable and lucrative. If this happily aligned, than the studio was satisfied. Ultimately though, profit was their motive. Most of these directors were not editing their own work, and the studio was still crafting the films to their rigid standards. Somehow the acting and directing were good enough to withstand the handiwork of others. High quality movies made it through, and it may seem they were more plentiful, but the poor quality and shabbily constructed films were numerous and aren’t in our sight. Profit was king, and if art emerged too, than that was just icing on the cake.
All’s Well That Ends Welles: The Rebuke of a Rebel’s Career
If profit was supreme, and artistry tolerated, Orson Welles was filmmaking’s grand martyr, sacrificed at the altar of profit and punished for not playing by the studio’s rules. Learning to play by the rules was a hard lesson for a genius and innovative visionary like Orson Welles to accept, and he spent his life feuding with studio heads, It didn’t start out that way. Welles had been a wunderkind prodigy of the stage and radio back east, and Hollywood aggressively courted him and signed him to direct his first feature with RKO. Because of Hollywood’s efforts to woo him from the theaters of New York, he received an almost unprecedented amount of creative control from RKO Studios in his first contract. He was free to choose the cast as well as to write, direct, produce, edit, and act in the film he created. Citizen Kane was Orson’s first Hollywood film, and in the years since, has come to be generally considered the best film ever made. It still tops the AFI 100 Best Films list. Not bad for a first time filmmaker. Despite only being his first picture, this would end up being the last one Orson had complete artistic control over. Although it was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, it only won one Oscar, for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) for Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz. The film was seen as being based on the life and career of William Randolph Hearst, the famous newspaper tycoon, and he did his best to prevent its release, which hindered its immediate commercial success. Almost instantly, the film was universally praised for its brilliance, sophistication and innovation and it has since justified its production costs many times over. Unfortunately, the film was not an immediate commercial success, and the studio was burned by its failure. Welles’ budget has been $500,000—a significant amount for an unproven filmmaker, and an amount that Welles managed to exceed by nearly $200,000. From then on, Welles was damaged goods, and not to be trusted. They would never give him complete artistic control again.
Welles’ second feature film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was unacceptable to studio execs, and was taken away from Welles, only to be savagely cut, reordered, and edited to their liking. Welles hardly recognized the film they released. Over the course of the next four decades, Welles alternated between clashing and reconciling with studio heads, and continued to direct commercial projects of uneven quality and economic flops. He also was eager to accept lucrative acting roles, in order to raise money to ultimately finance his own films. He had many in development. Few came to fruition though. Welles’ genius was rebuked by a system that refused to cede artistry to proven commercial success, and films they could market. The world was undoubtedly robbed of more masterpieces like Kane. Welles was a mercurial artist, filled with pride and arrogance, and undoubtedly difficult to control. However, he was appallingly treated by a studio system that cared more about profit, and producing films that all had the same look and aestheyic, and were hastily made for as little as possible, and pieced together and vetted, before being released to the public. An artist like Welles couldn’t bear to have a slew of other peoples’ fingerprints all over his work, and he fought the system from within, and met with resistance the rest of his life.
Fall of the Golden Age & Rise of the Auteur Director: Gritty Realism of the 1970s
Welles was one of the first auteur directors, with sometimes unlimited creative control. He would usher in a new generation of directors, who became the sole crafter of the work, and visionary lead artist. Some of these men included Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Terrenc Malick. The ’70s were a vibrant era for cinema, and perhaps the most permissive. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam and Watergate, and the collapse of the Golden Age of film and big studio pictures, the ’70s told intimate, gritty, violent, sexy, and socially minded films filled with method actors like DeNiro, Pacino, Hoffman, and Caan. The movies were sometimes self-indulgent, but also engaging and artistically vigorous. The studios seemed to take the decade off, as the hippy baby boomers ran the studios, and created movies with characters that looked like them, and topical issues of the day. The films of the ’70s are the most risky, interesting, provocative, artistic, and ostensibly, the least marketable films Hollywood has ever produced. They were not glamorous, but somehow succeeded at the box office.
The Birth of the Modern Blockbuster
As the ’70s drew to an end, one film would single-handedly return Hollywood to its senses, and bring back profit margins and the pursuit of hitting box office gold. When Stephen Spielberg released Jaws, no one knew what they had on their hands. The film met with rave reviews and became a cultural sensation, scaring an entire generation from getting in the water. The film was such a huge box office success, it cemented Spielberg as an A-list director, spawned a franchise of sequels, and most importantly, ushered in a new era of filmmaking…the summer blockbuster. Just two years later, the George Lucas brainchild, Star Wars, would add a new spin on the science fiction genre and breaking all box office records, taking in obscene amounts of money and convincing the studios that this blockbuster model was a solid and profitable one. Lucas and Spielberg would go on to strike gold at the box office — Lucas with his Star Wars franchise and Spielberg with an almost improbable run of beloved hit movies. From the late ’70s on, the blockbuster has been a perennial hit and fixture on the Hollywood horizon. Studios still pour massive amounts of money into making these films, and they almost always managed to make all the money back and a handsome profit. With the recent release and considerable success of Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, it is obvious to see Hollywood is sticking to its reliable model.
Bottom Line is Top Priority: Hollywood’s Picks Profit Over Progress
Apart from the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s when the industry was abandoning the old classic film style and embracing gritty realism and method acting, and thus focusing less on profit, Hollywood film studios have always led with profit first, and attending to the bottom line. If they hired well (and they did), blessedly had more access to better talent (especially directors), and guided their crew to work fast and efficiently and according to a formula that worked, they would often be rewarded with a film that was both profitable and high quality art. That still happens today, but perhaps less frequently. None the less, studios have always been consumed by profit, they just went through periods where the artists managed to mask it in artistry better. Orson Welles is proof that studios chose to violate artistry for the sake of profit, and always viewed the film as their property, with the right to change whatever they wanted, so long as it make the film more marketable and successful. Welles fought desperately for the sake of art and the right to shape his own work, but was ultimately a casualty in the battle to elevate art over profit.