Genius of the systemPosted: July 15, 2022
The sheer number of movies Hollywood cranked out during the peak of the studio system is wild. In 1936, for example, Paramount released 69 movies, RKO had 39, Fox had 50 movies, MGM put out 48 movies, Warner 56, Universal 34.
This was the factory-like story production processes Faulkner was working under.
Thomas Schatz’s book The Genius of the System is of daunting thickness, but it’s very readable, and I like the thesis: despite the factory nature and control by the money guys rather than the directors, real style and art was achieved.
Auterism itself would not be worth bothering with if it hadn’t been so influential, effectively stalling film history and criticism in a prolonged stage of adolescent romanticism. But the closer we look at Hollywood’s relations of power and hierarchy of authority during the studio era, at its division of labor and assembly-line production process, the less sense it makes to assess filmmaking or film style in terms of the individual director – or any individual, for that matter.
Should we look at the old studio system trying to find cases where a rare director snuck art past the suits? Or should we look at it and see a miraculous time, when thousands of artists and craftspeople came together for a brief period to create the collective dreams of a nation?
Schatz gives a good short summary of his work and the rise and fall of the studio system in this 1989 Fresh Air interview.
In The Offer, Paramount +’s show about the making of Paramount Pictures’ The Godfather, you can see dramatized some of the problems from the end of the true studio system days. The show was shot on the Paramount lot, doubling as the Paramount lot from 1971. There’s a studio, but when they start a movie, they start from scratch. Casting, finding the right people for technical roles, chain of command, getting a workflow going, dealing with the unions, the mob: all these are begun anew for each production. Poor Al Ruddy has to solve each problem fresh. Robert Evans is there, but he’s no Thalberg, with central command over all the gears in the machine. When the movie’s, it’s over. Everything resets. In the year The Godfather came out, Paramount put out sixteen pictures.
Sometimes companies manage to recreate the cohesion of the studio system. Take Pixar, for example, or the Marvel movies. How about Hallmark movies? Individual directors and producers can have runs like this too: Selznick was doing it by 1935. But at nowhere like the studio scale.
Studios had specialties, flavors: MGM had musicals, Universal had monster movies, Warner Brothers had gangster pictures. In 2022, do the streamers have anything like this? I know what BritBox is.
Gracenote, a Nielsen company, listed more than 817,000 unique program titles across U.S. traditional TV and streaming services, with many of those titles featuring hundreds of individual episodes and chapters. Back in December 2019, there were just over 646,000 unique program titles.
The Paramount decree in 1948 stopped the studios from owning the theaters. One of many blows, along with TV, shifting lifestyles, etc that forced change on the system. But we’ve re-evolved back around on vertical integration. Disney, for example, is a studio yet owns its own distribution: Disney +. Is that a violation of the Paramount decree? Let’s look into it:
As part of a 2019 review of its ongoing decrees, the Department of Justice issued a two-year sunsetting notice for the Paramount Decree in August 2020, believing the antitrust restriction was no longer necessary as the old model could never be recreated in contemporary settings.