Films on the Brink: Reliving the 1950s

December 11, 2010

Watching Episode 6  “Moguls and Movie Stars: Attack of The Small Screens”, the brilliant Turner Classic Movies documentary, I was struck by how eerily the film industry in 2010 now seems now to be reliving many of the same challenges it faced in the 1950s.

In the 1950s, the studio system was decaying. Television had become an existential threat to the film industry’s domination of visual filmed entertainment, she star system was breaking down, agents such as Lew Wasserman were wielding more and more power, and the moguls who had founded the business 40 years earlier were dying, leaving a gaping void of visionary leadership and movie business acumen. From Bringing Back The Old Hollywood:

“Giving The Inmates The Keys and The Deed To The Asylum

For the first fifty or so years of its existence, studios kept one hundred percent of the receipts that they received back from theaters. Much of that money was then funneled back into production.

In 1950, however, James Stewart became the first actor to receive a profit participation in a film (Winchester 73). Even though I can already hear the screaming of the agents (not to be confused with The Silence of The Lambs), the advent of sharing profits, and later even grosses, with actors, actresses, writers, directors, and producers marked the beginning of the end of the studio-dominated Old Hollywood structure.

When much of the receipts from a film are siphoned away, there is simply much less money available to put back into production.

To go even further, the advent of profit sharing began the process of focusing more and more on “star power.” Salaries escalated into the stratosphere, making movies much more expensive to make, reducing the capital available for production, and ultimately reducing greatly the number of films actually being produced.”

Star power itself did not work so the film industry then responded by resorting to technological gimmickry such as Cinerama, Vista Vision, Cinemascope, and 3-D. Audiences were indeed dazzled for a while but the fads quickly faded. Hmmm. Star power faded and technology fizzled. Sound familiar?

The 1950s and 2010 are also eerily similar in the way the studios started to focus in on young audiences.

More on that tomorrow.

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