American film industry
It can be said that the American film industry has created within itself a modern day empire. Extensively rich in resources and constantly evolving, the multi billion dollar industry holds the entire cinema audience in its hands. Hollywood is a glittering Mecca to the movie world, although it can be argued its reach stretches far beyond the realms of cinema. The global success of Hollywood remains at the heart of the American dream, and is a shining example of timeless and unreserved cinematic history.
However, it should be noted that the face of the American film industry, past and future, has been shaped by a culmination of historical, social, economical and indeed political factors affecting cinema commerce around the world – including Britain. This essay intends to examine, in detail, these issues and their respective impact on Hollywood’s dominance over all other national cinemas. To establish the initial reasons for Hollywood’s success, it is logical to examine the emergence of the industry, and obtain a historic overview of its place in the cinema world at that time.
The earliest forms of mass cinematic entertainment can be found in peep shows (nickelodeons) and novelty short films shown at vaudeville, but it was Edison’s 1903 release ‘The Great Train Robbery’ that really caught audiences attention. Longer movies with more complex story lines and innovative editing continued to be released, and cinema’s possibilities as a form of commerce were realised. In 1908, the ‘Motion Picture Patents Trust’ was founded by Edison and his main competitors as an attempt to form an alliance to enforce control over the industry through distribution and venue approvals.
It is at this point that the foundations for the American industry as we know it today are made. With these regulations focused on the eastern seaboard at the heart of the MMPT cartel, a small group of Jewish immigrants (mostly nickelodeon owners) moved west to California, and the entrepreneurial forces of William Fox, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor and others, having entered the business through exhibition, determined that they liked production better, and got out of the theater business as the nickelodeon boom ended around 1911.
The reasons behind the move west were business ones, as well as to escape persecution, but they had one very simple aim – to do it their way and make big profits. Therefore, it can be argued that the ideology behind Hollywood from the very start was indeed to dominate among the cinema world. In 1914, with the start of WW1 came massive changes to the developing British cinema. Along with many other European countries, the disruption of war had caused what Balio (1976: p338) refers to as a ‘vacuum into which American pictures flowed’.
European countries found themselves pouring funds into defense, and where the interest in viewing remained high, the interest in production fell rapidly. As Toby Miller (2001: p24) states, ‘between 1915 and 1916, U. S. exports rose from 36 million feet of film to 159 feet. ‘ Figures were similar for countries such as Australia and Germany. Ultimately, the First World War was an important milestone in American national cinema- producers and distributors were able to ‘gain control of the foreign field without competition. (Balio 1976: p338). It can be argued that it is through these war years, and the years following, we see the emergence of a distribution pattern centered around America. By the 1920’s, Hollywood had assumed its definitive form. There were no less than 15 studios operating in Hollywood, and the sheer popularity of the Californian produced movies led to a surge in foreign talent signing up with the major studios. The twenties were a very fertile period for Hollywood.
Movies grew bigger and better; with more exciting adventure movies such as The Mark of Zorro (1920) and great epics such as Ben Hur (1926) showing just what magic could be created on the silver screen. Meanwhile, as Hollywood films were thriving in America, European countries were able to show silent movies from all over the continent, reducing production costs and giving audiences the wide choices they craved. However cinema changed forever with the Warner Bros. elease The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Al Jolson, the first “talkie”, the first movie to include a fully synchronized soundtrack. Generating huge interest around the world and creating a surge in demand for more talking pictures, many non English speaking countries were left with communication difficulties. By this time, Hollywood movies were being circulated around the world, translated into more than 30 languages. Now that the war was truly over, as were the economic problems it left behind, national cinema industries were faced with a new social obstacle.
Ironically, this factor directly created another economic dilemma- it was easier and cheaper to import translated Hollywood films, than to produce a Russian or French movie- which was only profitable in that particular country. Also, most American films were transnational, and the themes they contained could be identified with all over the world. It was this advantage of global identity that made the Hollywood films so popular. The connection between social factors and their impact on money and funding can also clearly be seen in the example of Britain.
Kevin Williams (1998: p76), points out the difference in investment between the British banks, who were put off by the medium as a whole’s reputation as being unrespectable and socially frowned upon; ‘compared to the U. S. where financiers quickly saw the profit potential of film. ‘ It can be argued then that a huge factor in Hollywood’s success over Britain was one of associations with cinema from the early years, and a negative stigma which held back the U. K. industry until it was just too late to recover.
Where interest and success of the British industry fluctuated, so did the willingness of the financers, and as a result, unlike Hollywood, Britain could not make profit through national distribution alone. Looking at the involvement of sociology, it is easy to see how Hollywood gained notability within many European countries, including Britain. For the working classes, Hollywood movies, particulary the infamous glittering Hollywood musicals, provided a means of escapism. As with the MPPT, Britain had its own film moderator, the British Board of Film Censors.
Comprised of stuffy intellectuals and generally well educated individuals, the BBFC was regarded as a rigid and morally over protective system. The board was also often accused of looking after only the interests of the upper classes, and as a result, did not feel the need for working class social issues to be tackled. As Williams (1998: p79) points out, ‘American films offered a breath of fresh air from the rigid hierarchy of the British class system. ‘ What Williams states here is that the Hollywood movies, with their fresh capitalist views, brought the ‘American Dream’ ideologies home to the people of Britain.
The industry and the films it produced represented change and evolution in many senses, and the consumerist concepts rang true in the ears of the common people. This kind of inspiration, positive or otherwise, was yet to be realized in any other national cinema. As Ken Ward (1989: p57) demonstrates, ‘industries in Britain and Germany gave little hint of their social and political importance, except in a possibly negative form. ‘ Another very important factor, and one which is perhaps overlooked when examining Hollywood’s success in qualitative terms, is the political forces which helped shape the industry’s place in international terms.
In the late 1920’s, the American government interceded on the film industries behalf in France, Italy and Spain (who were all independently considering forcing restrictions on American picture distribution). The State department stressed that foreign markets and America’s investments in them could be jeopardized by restricting distribution. The 1948 Anglo-American Film Agreement, allowed American companies to withdraw only a fraction of their huge annual profits, in exchange for the abolition of import quotas.
As Balio (1976: p397) points out, the Americans held veiled advantages under the act- ‘American companies could spend there frozen earnings in Britain… to acquire story rights and buy real estate and studios. ‘ Similar terms could be found in the 1948 Franco-American Film Agreement, where ten million dollars of ‘blocked’ profits could be used to co-produce films with French companies and gain distribution rights.
It is through Government collaborations such as this that Hollywood was able to attain the status of an expansive commercial enterprise within the U. S. nd indeed outside it that it has today. Having examined several possible reasons for America’s success over all other national cinemas, it can be argued that considering all factors in detail would be an impossibility. Depending on particular areas of interest, there is a wide range of possible conclusions, for example, the economical researcher may find the answers solely based on the expenditure and profits of Hollywood alone. The sociologist could find conclusions within the capitalist industry in relation to the firm class systems of Britain, or perhaps in the war years and their impact on cinema.
Even the politician could understand the inextricable link between the State’s interference and the success of foreign alliances. However, it is important to understand that it is a culmination of these factors, along with countless tiny aspects of history that have made American cinema a global force of production and distribution. Maybe its just the air in those Hollywood hills! Whatever the reasons, and ultimately, as an active consumer, we can never fully define them, Hollywood has enriched and dominated our screens, and for the foreseeable future, will continue to do so.