The American Film Industry



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Why is the Film Industry one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the world? Simple. People like entertainment. Movies are entertainment. Movies are like books, only they’re visual. People like seeing other people cast in roles, and playing out a story. Why not turn to plays instead, you ask? Movies give people the actors and the stories, along with background music, special effects, and overall satisfaction within a 2 hour period of time. Movies can also take you to a physical state that theatre can not. They take you to real physical locations instead of just a cardboard stages. It’s the same reason people like television so much.

The birth of cinema came in the late 1800s. One of the major reasons for the emergence of motion pictures in the 1890s was the late 1880s development of a camera that could capture movement, and a sprocket system that could move the film through the camera. William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, a young assistant in Thomas Edison’s laboratories, designed an early version of a movie-picture camera – called a Kinetograph – that was first patented by Edison in 1893. Early in 1893, the world’s first film studio, the “Black Maria”, was built on the grounds of Edison’s laboratories at West Orange, New Jersey and the first successful motion picture was made – a re-creation of a sneeze. Most of the earliest moving images were non-fictional, unedited, crude documentary views of simple, ordinary slices of life – street scenes, the activities of police or firemen, or shots of a passing train.
Then, in 1894, along came another marvelous Edison Company invention in the mid 1890s – the Kinetoscope. It was basically a bulky, coin-operated movie peep show viewer for a single customer, in which the images on a continuous film loop-belt were viewed in motion as they were rotated in front of a shutter and a light. On Saturday, April 14th, 1894, the Holland Brothers opened their original Kinetoscope Parlor at 1155 Broadway in New York City and for the first time, commercially exhibited movies as we know them today. Early spectators in Kinetoscope parlors were amazed by even the most strange moving images in very short films (between 30 and 60 seconds) – an approaching train, a parade, women dancing, dogs terrorizing rats, and other such things. In 1895, Edison exhibited hand-colored movies, including Annabelle The Dancer, in Atlanta, Georgia at the Cotton States Exhibition. In one of Edison’s 1896 films, entitled The Widow Jones, often called “The Kiss”, May Irwin and John Rice re-enacted a scene from a Broadway play – it was a close-up of a cinematic kiss. In 1909 the first movie studio was started – Universal Studios.
The ten year peiod of 1920-1930 was the period between the end of the Great War and the Stock Market Crash. Film theaters and studios were not initially affected in this decade by the crash. Films really blossomed in the 1920s, expanding upon the foundations of film from earlier years. Some of the best artists from European film-making circles were imported to Hollywood and adapted there. The basic pattern of the film industry, and its economic organization, was established in the 1920s – the studio system was essentially born in the second decade of the century.

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With films, came a need for protection, and ratings. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) acted domestically as the voice and advocate of seven of the largest producers and distributors of filmed entertainment. MPAA’s counterpart, the Motion Picture Association (MPA) served the same purpose on an international basis. Founded in 1922 as the trade association for the American film industry, the MPAA has broadened its authorization over the years to reflect the diversity of the expanding motion picture industry. Today, these associations represent not only the world of the theatrical film, but also major producers and distributors of entertainment programming for television, cable, and home video, and looking into the future, for delivery systems not yet imagined. Among its principle missions, the MPAA directs an anti-piracy program to protect, through copyright and other laws, U.S. films in 65 countries throughout the world. The MPAA also works to eliminate unfair and restrictive trade regulations and practices and non-tariff trade barriers to allow free competition in the international marketplace.

The firms that were to rule Hollywood filmmaking for the next half-century were the giants. Warner Bros. Pictures incorporated in 1923, and in 1924, MGM, Columbia Pictures, and MCA (Music Corporation of America) were all created or founded. Later, RKO Pictures went into business in 1928. After World War I and into the early 1920s, America was the leading producer of films in the world – using Thomas Ince’s “factory system” of production – although the system did limit the creativity of many directors. Films were bigger, costlier, more polished, and the major film emphasis was on swashbucklers, historical extravaganzas, and melodramas. MGM was to become the dominant studio of Hollywood’s Golden Age during the 30s.

The 1930s decade has been rightfully labeled as the most memorable era of all, with the term “The Golden Age of Hollywood”. It was called this because of the great prosperity of the movie industry. New films were being developed, new techniques, and people were soaking them in. The 30s was also the decade of the sound revolution, color revolution, the advance of the talkies, and the advancement of film genres (gangster films, musicals, newspaper films, historical biopics, westerns and horror to name a few).
Most of the early talkies were successful at the box-office, but many of them were of poor quality – dialogue-dominated play adaptations, with stilted acting and an unmoving camera or microphone. Nonetheless, a tremendous variety of films were produced with a wit, style, skill, and elegance that has never been equalled. Rouben Mamoulian, a successful Broadway director, refused to keep the cumbersome sound cameras pinned to the studio floor, and demonstrated a graceful, rhythmic, fluid, choreographed flowing style to his films – with his directorial debut 1929 film Applause. Mastery of techniques for the sound era were also demonstrated with many films, by combining a mobile camera with inventive, rapid-fire dialogue and quick-editing. After 1932, the development of sound-mixing freed films from the limitations of recording on sets and locations. Scripts from writers were becoming more advanced with witty dialogue, realistic characters, and plots.
The first film, though a short one, produced in three-color Technicolor was Walt Disney’s animated story Flowers and Trees, which came out in 1932. Hollywood’s first full-length feature film photographed entirely in three-strip Technicolor was Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp in 1935. In the late 30s, two beloved films, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, both in 1939, were expensively produced with Technicolor. Special-effects processes were advanced by the late 1930s, making it possible for many more films to be shot on sets rather than on-location. In 1937, the first feature-length animated film was premiered by Walt Disney Studios – which was becoming quickly known for it’s sophisticated animation – was a milestone for all cinema. It was the classic cartoon story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The American film industry was extremely popular, prosperous, powerful and productive during the 40s. The four “P;s” every industry wants to achieve. Hollywood film production reached its peak during the years 1943 to 1946, more than a full decade after the rise of sound film production. The world was headed toward warfare in the early to mid-1940s, and the movie industry, like every other aspect of life, responded by making movies – producing many war-time favorites. Tinseltown aided in the defensive war effort, whether as combatants, propagandists, documentary, newsreel or short film-makers, educators, fund-raisers for relief funds or war bonds, or morale-boosters. Hollywood Canteen, made in 1944, was a typical star-studded, plotless, patriotic extravaganza – one of several during the war years which featured big stars who entertained the troops. Big name stars and directors either enlisted, performed before soldiers at military bases, or in other ways contributed to the war mobilization.

The 50s decade was known for many things: post-war affluence and increased choice of leisure time activities, conformity, middle-class values, a baby boom, the advent of television, the rise of drive-in theaters where young teenaged couples could find privacy in their hot-rods, and a youth reaction to middle-aged cinema. In the period following the war when most of the films were idealized with conventional portrayals of men and women, young people wanted new and exciting symbols of rebellion. Hollywood responded to audience demands – the late 1940s and 1950s saw the rise of the anti-hero, with stars like newcomers James Dean, Paul Newman, and Marlon Brando. Sexy anti-heroines included Ava Gardner, Kim Novak, and Marilyn Monroe.

Cinema in the 1960s reflected the decade of fun, fashion, and tremendous social change. With movie audiences declining due to the television, major American film companies began to diversify with other forms of entertainment: records, publishing, TV movies and the production of TV series. In 1961, TWA Airlines began the first regular in-flight movies with a Bell and Howell projector aimed at a screen to show the glossy soap opera By Love Possessed. In 1965, Columbia released folk/rock singer Bob Dylan’s album Highway 61 Revisited. Increasingly, in the 60s, the major studios financed and distributed independently-produced domestic pictures. Studio-bound “contract” stars and directors were no more. Many of the studios sold off their backlots as valuable California real estate.
The studios were quickly being taken over by multi-national companies, with the deaths of movie studio big shots such as Louis B. Mayer of MGM and Harry Cohn of Columbia. The traditional, Hollywood studio era would soon be history, as more and more studios were acquired by other conglomerates, and the age of “packaged” films and the independent producer began. In 1962, the growing entertainment conglomerate MCA acquired Universal Studios, a merger that would have lasting influence on show business. In 1966, Gulf Western Industries bought Paramount – setting off a buying/selling frenzy of other major conglomerates investing and trading in studios and networks. New Line Cinema was founded in 1967 by Robert Shaye as a privately-held distributor of art films. In 1967, Jack Warner (co-creator of the famous studio) sold his interest in Warner Bros. to a Canadian production and distribution corporation called Seven Arts, and the company was re-named Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. The new company acquired Atlantic Records, but being debt-laden, was sold in 1969 to Kinney National Services Incorporated. MGM was acquired by the Las Vegas financier Kirk Kerkorian in 1970.

The 1970s was a creative high point in the US film industry and Hollywood was renewed and reborn – it was also a box-office-oriented decade, with the average ticket for a film in 1978 costing about $2.50. Hollywood’s economic crises in the 1950s and 1960s, especially during the war against the lure of television, were somewhat eased with the emergence in the 70s. Summer “blockbuster” movies marketed to mass audiences, especially following the awesome success of 27 year-old Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, in 1975 and 33 year-old George Lucas’ Star Wars, in 1977. Although the budget for Jaws grew from $4 million to $9 million during production, it became the highest grossing film in history – until Star Wars. The average film budget in 1978 was about $5 million – increasing dramatically to $11 million by 1980 due to inflation and rising costs.
Motion picture art seemed to flourish at the same time that the Vietnam War, the Kent State Massacre, the Watergate scandal, President Nixon’s fall, the Munich Olympics shoot-out, and a growing energy crisis showed tremendous disillusion among the public, and a lack of faith in institutions – a comment upon the lunacy of war and the dark side of the American Dream. 1960s social activism turned into an inward narcissism, and yet this uncertain age gave rise to some of the finest, boldest pictures ever made.

The decade of the 1980s tended to consolidate the gains made in the seventies rather than to initiate any new trends equal to the large number of disaster movies, buddy movies, or “rogue cop” movies that characterized the previous decade. After the innovations of the 70s, films in the 80s were less experimental and original, with few of what could be called classics. Hollywood continued to search, with demographic research, for the one large blockbuster or “event film” that everyone “had to see”. The ones with the dazzling special effects technology, sophisticated sound tracks, big marketing budgets, and costly, highly-paid perfect-faced stars. Most films took expensive fortunes to produce but promised potentially lucrative payoffs. The average ticket price at the end of the decade was a little over $4.00, while the average film budget was over $18 million. The industry also continued to lean towards the tastes and desires of young people – one of the negative legacies of Star Wars, made in 1977, of the late 70s. Steven Spielberg’s name has often been associated with the term “blockbuster” – and his films inevitably continued to contribute to the trend during the specific decade.

Film budgets skyrocketed due to special effects and inflated salaries. Big business increasingly took control of the movies and the way was opened for the foreign ownership of Hollywood properties – mostly by the Japanese. United Artists merged with MGM in 1981 to form MGM/UA, which was subsequently acquired by Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., in 1986. A number of the studios were taken over by multi-national conglomerates as their entertainment divisions: Paramount by Gulf Western in 1989 – re-named Paramount Communications, Inc.; 20th Century Fox by an oil tycoon in 1981 and then a shared ownership with publisher Robert Murdoch in 1985; Columbia Pictures by Coca-Cola in 1982; and MCA/Universal by Matsu*censored*a in 1990. In 1989, Sony purchased Columbia and Tri-Star Pictures from Coca-Cola for $3.4 billion, naming itself Sony Pictures Entertainment. Walt Disney Productions appeared to be one of the few studio-era survivors. Because costly film decisions were more in the hands of people making the financial decisions, not the film makers. Movies were made only if they could guarantee financial success, thereby leaning towards well-known star names attached to film titles without as much attention paid to intelligent scripts. With this kind of pressure, film stars demanded higher salaries, up front, as well as a percentage of the film’s gross take, earning as much as $20 million. Budgets and actors salaries skyrocketed out of control, and powerful agents negotiated outrageous deals.

In 1988 technical breakthroughs were accomplished in Robert Zemeckis’ innovative Who Framed Roger Rabbit – it seamlessly blended animated cartoon characters and live action in a hard-boiled, 1940s-style Hollywood murder mystery. The film was a collaboration between Steven Spielberg and the Walt Disney Studio. Earlier, in 1964, Disney had married animation and live-action in the 60s hit Mary Poppins. In 1989 Disney Studios returned to its old-fashioned film values with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids – an inventive, special-effect-filled comedy about a father/scientist who accidentallyreduced four children to ant-size proportions. Disney also scored with one of its old-fashioned musical animations that appealed to both children and adults in 1989. Its 28th feature-length cartoon titled The Little Mermaid heralded a new generation of successful animations.

In the 1990s for the most part, cinema attendance was up – mostly at multi-screen cineplex complexes throughout the country. Although the average film budget was almost $53 million by 1998, many films cost over $100 million to produce. Higher costs for film star salaries and agency fees, expensive price tags for new high-tech and digital special-effects and CGI (computer generated images), costly market research and testing, and big-budget marketing all contributed to the inflated, excessive spending in the film industry. Character development and intelligent story-telling often suffered in the process. In the early 1990s, box-office revenues had dipped considerably (the averageticket price for a film was around $5 by the end of the decade), probably due in part to the American economic recession of 1991.
By the beginning of the decade, the VCR was a popular appliance in most households, and rentals of videotapes were big business. By 1997, the first DVDs (digital video discs) had emerged in stores, featuring sharper resolution pictures, better quality and durability than VHS tapes. In 1999, foretelling new methods of Internet-based marketing, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s low-budget, roughly-made, offbeat independent film The Blair Witch Project, a quasi-documentary about a horrifying camping trip experienced by three vanished student film-makers, reaped a greater audience (and box-office receipts) from Internet exposure. It became the most profitable film (percentage-wise) of all time, earning $140 million domestically, and having only budgeted only $30,000. But there still existed an imbalanced emphasis on the opening weekend, weekly box-office returns, critics’ ratings, and the belief that expensive, high-budget films meant quality.
One of the emerging trends of the late 80s and 90s was that although about the same number of pictures were produced as in the “Golden Age of Hollywood” (about 450-500 in a year), many of the films that were produced (an estimated 40%) went directly to video with no cinematic release at all. And the window of time between a film’s theatrical opening and availability for cable TV or home viewing shrunk drastically. It was significant that the first new Hollywood studio in many decades, Dream Works (SKG), was formed in 1994 as the brainchild of director-producer Steven Spielberg, ex-Disney executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, and film producer/music industry giant David Geffen. The studio’s first theatrical release was first-time feature director Mimi Leder’s The Peacemaker, in 1997. In the very next year, Disney Studios acquired the maverick studio for $65 million.

The trend toward sequels from the previous decade continued, but Hollywood was also attempting to deal with serious themes, including homelessness, the Holocaust, AIDS, feminism, and racism, while making bottom-line profits. There were a number ofmainstream films that confronted the issues in a profound way. In 1993, director Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, was the first big-studio attempt to deal with AIDS,winning for Tom Hanks the first of consecutive Best Actor Oscars. With seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, Steven Spielberg’s long and serious B/W Holocaust epic Schindler’s List, made in 1993, was a significant milestone, but also a grim story about an opportunistic German businessman in Poland who ultimately saved over 1,000 Jews from death.

Two special-effects-laden, predictably-scripted apocalpytic disaster films racked up huge profits. Both were about destructive meteors or asteroids hurtling toward Earth: Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact, and Michael Bay’s Armageddon, both in 1998. At the close of the decade, three other major films appeared: George Lucas’ computer-generated return to his epic saga with the first sci-fi space episode titled Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, in 1999; and writer-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski’s ambitiousvirtual-reality flick The Matrix, also in 1999 – with computer-enhanced digital effects that won four Academy Awards, all in sound, editing, and visual effects technical categories.

The US has the most powerful, diverse, and technologically advanced economy in the world, with a per capita GDP of $31,500, the largest among major industrial nations. In the United States there are more than 1,500 (including nearly 1,000 stations affiliated with the five major networks-NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, and PBS; in addition, there are about 9,000 cable TV systems) television broadcasting systems, and more than 550 movie studios. That was the rate in 1997. Now, those figures have gone up by about 56%. Americans like entertainment. That’s what they spend their money on.
Each year the movie industry earns more and more money. It’s not just that movies are gaining larger audiences, and more movies are being produced, but it’s the fact that movie prices are rising. Ticket prices are at a peak, selling in some places for as much as $10.50 a pop. Not to mention when movies come out for sale, most VHS start at a record breaking $24.99, and most DVDs start st $39.99. Why are the movie bosses charging this much? Simply because they can. People would probably pay even more if they had to, and in my opinion they’ll soon have to. American has adopted movies into their family, and they don’t want to stop watching them.


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