The Hollywood Studio System: A Technology Whose Impact Is Still Felt Today

One kind of technology I learned about this semester is the Hollywood Studio System. What makes this technology so interesting is that it isn’t something that would usually come to mind when “film technology” is mentioned. I learned, through our studies, that technology doesn’t have to be some piece of equipment; in fact, one working definition of technology is just something that changes or shapes the way we view or think about the world. The Hollywood Studio System certainly changed very much of the way people viewed films during that era, and its impacts have shaped the way we view films even today.

The Hollywood Studio System began around 1917 and essentially created a new way of thinking about film and film-making. Previously, films had been made for predominantly artistic purposes, much like story-writing. Stories were made by an author or writer of some sort, films were carefully edited by some small-scale company, and eventually the films were distributed into the public by some other small corporation. Films were appreciated by the public, but film-making as a job was not necessarily very lucrative. It was an art, not really a business. This all changed with the Hollywood Studio System, which transformed film-making truly into an industry. Big companies (namely, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros., and RKO) implemented vertical integration into the idea of film-making. In the past, the different aspects of film-making were pretty separate. For example, The New York Hat was a film made by D.W. Griffith that was produced and distributed by a company called Biograph Company. In comparison, other films by Griffith, such as Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation, were written and produced by himself but distributed by Triangle Distributing Corporation and Epoch Producing Corporation, respectively. Something to notice is that the parts of the job throughout the film-making process were split among different people. In the new Hollywood Studio System era, one company controlled every aspect of film-making, from production to distribution to exhibition, and five companies (plus 3 smaller ones) controlled the entire film industry–they had a monopoly. 

Another thing to notice from the examples regarding Griffith is that he had no personal ties with Biograph, Triangle, or Epoch. The big companies of the Hollywood Studio System era had specific writers, actors, editors, etc. that worked under them, and people outside of one of those companies did not work on films made by those companies. Something that this system perhaps introduced was consumer loyalty. Fans that enjoyed films/actors from a certain company probably continued to view films made by that industry. However, a downside to this system would be the potential limitations it put on creativity (if the company didn’t like your work, it would be very hard to get your work to the public). Regardless, many of the films we studied this semester were born during this era, and we see that all of them were produced by one of the “Big 5” companies (for example, Laura was made by 20th Century Fox, Bringing Up Baby was made by RKO, and Merrily We Go to Hell was made by Paramount). The stars of the movies often belonged to that specific company and consistently acted for them. These stars gained their own following of fans and possibly increased the popularity of all the films made by that specific company.

Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant starring in RKO Radio’s Bringing Up Baby (1937)

Despite this era coming to an end in 1948 (as a result of the antitrust laws), we continue to see its effects today. Film-making is a big and lucrative industry. Though it is still a form of art, it will never just be that anymore. As we approach the next decade, we are beginning to see things (namely, Netflix, which has taken over production, distribution, and exhibition of its “Netflix Originals”) that are eerily similar to the ideas first presented in the Hollywood Studio System era.

For more information on how the Hollywood Studio System worked and its impacts during its time, visit this great website!


Works Cited

Bringing Up Baby.” Wikipedia.

Intolerance (film).” Wikipedia.

“Laura (1944 film).” Wikipedia.

Merrily We Go to Hell.” Wikipedia.

“Studio System.” Hollywood Lexicon.

“Studio System.” Wikipedia.

The Birth of a Nation.” Wikipedia.

The New York Hat.” Wikipedia.

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