When the average Friday night cinema-goer sits down to watch a film in this country they would most probably be waiting to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster projected onto the screen. This seems to have been the norm for decades now but it wasn’t always the case. Cinema was born in France with the introduction of motion pictures from the Lumière brothers; Auguste and Louis. The first presentation of motion pictures and the Lumière Cinématographe (a combined camera, printer and projector) was to the Society for the Promotion of Industry (Société d’Encouragement a l’industrie Nationale) on March 22, 1895. Only one film was shown, Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory (La Sortie des usines Lumière), shot by Louis. It was projected, almost as an afterthought, following their lecture on advances in experimental colour photography. It was nine months later in the darkened rooms at the Grand Café in Paris on December 28, 1895 that the first exhibition of moving images was opened to a paying, European audience. Included on the playbill were The Arrival of the Train (L’Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat), Baby’s Meal (Repas de Bébé) and The Sprayer Sprayed (L’Arroseur et arrosée). However, it wasn’t long before cinema became international when the Americans tried their hand at making movies. In the period between the Lumieres’ first private and public exhibitions, two brothers, Otway and Gray Latham, screened the very first film to the paying public; Young Griffo versus Battling Charles Barnett, an impressive eight minute reel of a boxing match between the titular Griffo and Barnett. Their small storefront theatre in Broadway, New York became the first dedicated cinema.
Over the next twenty years the number of filmmakers and films being made increased. This period of frantic filmmaking became known as the Silent Era. All over the United States movies were being shown at ‘Nickelodeons’; shops that had been transformed into exhibition areas where films were projected onto screens, walls or hanging sheets. This was not just an American phenomenon; here in the UK over 3000 cinemas had opened by 1917. The number of important films of this era included Georges Méliès’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune) based on Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon (De la Terre à la Lune) that is recognised as being the first science fiction movie; Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 movie The Great Train Robbery that introduced complex narrative structure it its editing techniques; and D.W. Griffith’s 1915 feature The Birth of a Nation which grossed $10 million at the box office.
The next logical step for this new industry was to integrate sound with the images. In 1927 Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer, the first ‘talkie’ feature film to be widely distributed. This invention practically caused the death of the Silent Era as audiences demanded sound with their films and heralded the ‘Golden Age’ of cinema. But once again it was not an industry completely dominated by Hollywood. The French idea of commercial movie houses became the international model, and entrepreneurs scurried to build impressive movie houses across North America and Europe including theatres to seat up to 5,000 people, rather than relying on the storefront Nickelodeons from the turn of the century. Birmingham born businessman Oscar Deutsch opened his first Odeon cinema in the UK in Perry Barr, Birmingham in 1920. By 1930 the Odeon was a household name and to this day there is still an Odeon in the prime location of British cinema exhibition, Leicester Square.
Since the Second World War (1939 – 1945) the dominance of Hollywood as the motion picture production capital of the world has been virtually unchallenged. With the exception of the Indian Film Industry, lovingly named ‘Bollywood’, there has not been a notable challenger to Hollywood’s crown. There have been moments when a possible contender to the throne has emerged from within Europe or the UK, bringing with it a new style of filmmaking, a new school of thought or an embarrassing outburst at an awards ceremony; “The British are coming!” In the last sixty years there have been several European film movements that have demonstrated that there is an alternative to the Hollywood system, however they have not managed to topple the system and in some cases have been neatly integrated and repackaged into the Hollywood blockbuster.
In this essay I shall look at the stranglehold that Hollywood seems to possess over the global film market and contrast it to the state of the European film industries and in particular to the British film industry. I shall emphasis the importance of European and British films, filmmakers and movements and how they relate to the Hollywood system. Being that this is such a large topic area I shall focus on how Hollywood has figuratively grown into a dragon and that the sporadic attempts at slaying it by European ‘knights in shining armour’ more often than not end up feeding it and making it stronger. I shall try to determine how influential non-Hollywood films are on Hollywood, and vice versa. I also intend to examine how the British film industry has fared since the end of the Second World War against such stiff competition from the other side of the Atlantic; and what lies ahead in the not too distant future.
For the purposes of this essay I shall refer to the mainstream American film industry as ‘Hollywood’; I am not saying that Hollywood ‘is’ the American film industry as there are a number of independent filmmakers producing and releasing feature films that frequently make box office profits, most notably Miramax, but for this essay I shall be focusing purely on the Hollywood system.
The Hollywood as we know it today began in earnest in the 1910’s when major producers such as Carl Laemmle, William Fox, Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew decided to disassociate from the Film Trust based in New York (a ‘trust’ of the ten leading American and European producers of movies and manufacturers of cameras and equipment set up in 1908 that would tax filmmakers into using their patents to allow the film to be officially ‘legal’) and venture into a more independent, West coast filmmaking structure in the all-year sunshine of California. This departure from the Trust afforded the producers to shoot feature films instead of the normal short one or two ‘reelers’ (so named after the length of the reel of film used to shoot it). These independents introduced a vertically integrated system that eventually covered production, distribution and exhibition. The Hollywood studio system was born and names such as Paramount (formerly Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players-Lasky), Fox, Warner Brothers, Universal (formerly Carl Laemmle’s Independent Motion Picture Company), Columbia, Universal Artists and Marcus Loew’s MGM blossomed. According to Douglas Gomery: “…the average cost for Hollywood features of the day rarely ranged beyond $500,000, expanding distribution across the globe meant revenues regularly topped $1,000,000.” (Nowell-Smith 48). This was a massive leap in the twenty years from a time when a film of a train approaching a railway station was shown to the general public. Hollywood understood that the needs and demands of the masses had become more sophisticated over the short period of time that was cinema’s infancy. As such the producers looked towards popular pulp fiction novels, plays and in particular the newly invented genre of the Western to entertain their audiences.
In 1922 the major Hollywood companies formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distribution Association of America (MPPDA) to assist in the promotion and distribution of films worldwide. This was run by a former Republican politician, William H. Hays. His work for the MPDDA was closely linked with the US State Department and allowed Hollywood to dominate the UK, Canada, Australia, Europe (except Germany and the Soviet Union), South America, Central America and the Caribbean. This world domination looked set to continue until the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Even though Hollywood had originally distanced itself from New York, financial backing from the East coast was needed to fund the studios. As such the Depression that followed the stock market crash proved a difficult time for Hollywood, though not immediately as the movie industry enjoyed its best year in 1930 as studio profits reached record levels. However, between 1930 and 1933 theatre admissions fell from 90 million per week to 60 million, gross industry revenues fell from $730 million to about $480 million, and combined studio profits of $52 million became net losses of some $55 million. (Nowell-Smith 220). However it wasn’t all doom and gloom. As the ‘Big Five’ of Paramount, RKO, Warner Bros, Fox and MGM had to reorganise their financial structure (the integration of owning their own cinemas was almost bankrupting them), the ‘major minor’ studios of Columbia, Universal and United Artists were enjoying the freedom of only being production and distribution companies; therefore having the freedom to continue producing high quality films without the noose of the exhibition property around their necks. In fact it was in this period that the minor studios were producing ‘B-movies’; factory-produced low cost, low risk genre films usually made up of cowboys, gangsters or horror (for example; South of the Rio Grande Columbia 1932, Afraid to Talk Universal 1932, and White Zombie United Artists 1932).
This ability to adapt to the market is an early demonstration of why Hollywood is still the market leader in feature films. From these early years it was evident that the studio system was going to be at the forefront of film production. The 1930’s and 1940’s were to prove to be the beginning of the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema with the introduction of colour films and the release of such popular films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney 1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (Warner Bros 1938), Gone with the Wind (MGM 1939), The Wizard of Oz (MGM 1939), and Citizen Kane (RKO 1941). When the United States entered the Second World War in 1941 the Hollywood machine was utilised by the government to produce propaganda films for the American public. Within one year of the attack on Pearl Harbour, nearly one third of Hollywood’s feature films were war related, as were the vast majority of its newsreels and documentaries (Nowell-Smith 234). Yet again Hollywood was flexible enough to meet the demands of the public and due to the nature of the audiences at home and most notably abroad (the UK), Hollywood’s foreign revenues reached record levels. Like the Depression before it, even the Second World War could not stop Hollywood.
The next period of Hollywood cinema came in the 1960’s and continues today. This is regularly referred to as Modern Cinema and saw the power of the studios sway towards the director (often regarded as the auteur). In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind highlights Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (Warner Bros 1967) as the first of the new breed of films, “Bonnie and Clyde was a movement movie; like The Graduate, young audiences recognized that it was ‘theirs’” (Biskind 49). This ‘new’ Hollywood saw new players attract new audiences. The new kids on the block included George Lucas (THX 1138, American Graffiti, Star Wars), Steven Spielberg (Jaws, ET, Jurassic Park), Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Raging Bull, The Aviator) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Dracula). The power of the director was affirmed when George Lucas’s 1977 film Star Wars was released and confirmed that a single film could earn its studio huge profits and turn a poor year into a very successful one. Star Wars had a production budget of around $13 million (imdb.com) and has (as of the end of June 2005) grossed nearly $798 million. (thenumbers.com) While the American film industry had always looked abroad for sources of revenue, the global focus of Hollywood was also amplified in this period. Overseas theatrical and video markets exploded during the second half of 1980’s; between 1984 and 1986, Hollywood’s European exports alone jumped 225 percent to reach $561 million annually. In some major European markets, Hollywood movies accounted for 45-65 percent of total box-office receipts. (Herman 39) In fact, according to The Numbers (a free resource for industry professionals to track business information on movies) out of the top 100 all-time highest grossing movies worldwide, only one movie was made before the period of Modern Hollywood Cinema (Gone with the Wind which has grossed $350 million dollars since its release in 1939). (thenumbers.com) With the top two films grossing $2,000 million having been released in 1997 (James Cameron’s Titanic) and 2003 (Peter Jackson’s third instalment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King) it is obvious that the Hollywood machine still manages to churn out money-making productions.
So what is it that keeps Hollywood head and shoulders above other national film industries? In his essay Reconceptualizing National Cinema/s, Stephen Crofts points out that there are seven varieties of ‘national cinema’ as licensed by the political, economic and cultural régimes of different nation-states: “Cinemas which differ from Hollywood, but do not compete directly, by targeting a distinct, specialist market sector; Those which differ, do not compete directly but do directly critique Hollywood; European and Third World entertainment cinemas which struggle against Hollywood with limited or no success; Cinemas which ignore Hollywood, an accomplishment managed by a few; Anglophone cinemas which try to beat Hollywood at its own game; Cinemas which work within a wholly state-controlled and often state-subsidized industry; and Regional or national cinemas whose culture and/or language take their distance from the nation-states which enclose them.” Crofts 50) He argues that Hollywood can not be seen as a national cinema due to its trans-national appeal. Thomas Elsaesser adds that Hollywood is “totally other” to national cinema it is difficult to maintain because “so much of any nation’s film culture is implicitly ‘Hollywood”. (Elsaesser 166). This is echoed in the words of Edward Buscombe who states that “at times Hollywood appears to be… no longer a national cinema but the cinema” (Buscombe 141) These views propel the ideology that Hollywood is the word people use to describe popular cinema. As Crofts identified, there are a number of ways in which non-Hollywood cinema has tried to challenge (or indeed avoid confrontation) the American system. The fifth example; ‘Anglophone cinemas which try to beat Hollywood at its own game’ best represents how the British film industry tried to challenge the giant that is Hollywood (with varying results). The European film industries would fall into the third and seventh categories; ‘European and Third World entertainment cinemas which struggle against Hollywood with limited or no success’; and ‘Regional or national cinemas whose culture and/or language take their distance from the nation-states which enclose them’. Due to the many different European languages the latter example is perhaps the most relevant but at the same time admits defeat in attempting to export the film to the United States. However, this is not to say that Hollywood has not had to adapt to remain the world leader. The early 1980’s saw a dramatic drop in box office receipts. The beginning of the decade saw a 9% drop in tickets sold nationwide in American cinemas when only 1,022 million were sold. This figure got worse in 1986 when just over 1,017 million tickets were sold (boxofficemojo.com) (compared to over 4,500 million ticket sales in 1930). The home video market had certainly dented theatrical sales but Hollywood would always recoup somehow. The immediate problem was the cost of keeping cinemas open; a similar situation to the post Depression period of the 1930’s. Another financial reshuffle was in order.