An Introduction to the History of the Study of the Cinema

Categories: Film

What value is there for you in the study of the cinema of the past? Cinema as an art form has stood the test of time for over one hundred years, since the Lumiere Brothers exhibited a series of moving images to the public in 1895. What started off as a documentary-tableau style of moving photography progressed into a contrived and well-planned medium. New filmmakers were pushing the medium further. Georges Melies A Trip to the Moon (1902) showcased a vaudeville style previously only seen in theatres.

Edward S. Porters The Life of an American Fireman (1903) and more so The Great Train Robbery of the same year put forward the idea of story telling through space and time, via the unique technique of editing scenes together. He also hinted at the importance of the protagonist and antagonist to carry the narrative through to the viewer The success of these early films aroused the interest in several entrepreneurs who, having seen the great public demand, saw what could turn out to be a great money-spinner.

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The new place to be was California as the second gold rush began, that is, Hollywood. At first there was a large number of companies set up to cash in on this new industry.

However, it was a highly competitive business and a lot of the equipment and talent was owned by a small number of larger companies, such as the Edison Company. This led to a number of small businesses going under or being bought up by the self-sufficient larger companies.

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By 1920 the system had calmed down somewhat. Hollywood was home to the production side of several large studios such as Universal, Paramount, First National, Loews-Metro (MGM) and Warners. These studios still had their front offices in New York to handle all financial transactions. Their integrated system of production, distribution and exhibition monopolised ! the market and seemed impenetrable to anyone who was not affiliated with the Majors. The company directors and presidents of these studios were mainly businessmen from the East Coast who operated the financial market perfectly. They had set up their empires with a means to make money at exhibition in their cinemas and theatres. However, what they needed was a new type of executive to deliver more product. They needed someone with an understanding of finance, marketing and filmmaking. They needed Producers. These were the new breed of second generation Hollywood.

These were the players who dominated and built the Hollywood Studio System. The three most influential players in Hollywood during the studio system and its Golden Age were Irving Thalberg (MGM), Daryl Zanuck (Warners, 20th Century-Fox) and David O. Selznick. As a student filmmaker I find great importance in studying filmmaking of the past. By studying what has happened before I can better prepare myself for the future. I also find it vital to understand who played what function and how they operated. My future aspirations lie in producing independent films. As such I take an interest in individuals who have previously undertaken this challenge, both successfully and not. However, it is one man who stands head and shoulders above any of his contemporaries, the original modern independent producer, David O. Selznick. Born in 1902, Selznick began his film career working for his fathers production companies. In 1926 he joined MGM as a reader and quickly rose to assistant producer.

Two years later he left to become executive assistant at Paramount. Whilst at Paramount he proposed two important ideas. First, he saw the importance of a formulaic way to produce films based on a budget, star and genre. Second, he envisioned the role of the modern Line Producer: The best way out of the pit of bad and costly pictures in which we are now sunk is through breaking up production, in whole or in part, into smaller units. In 1931 he moved to RKO as vice president in charge of production. His appointment was given more as a trouble-shooter than anything else. The Great Depression had finally caught up with Hollywood, especially the inefficiently run RKO. His task was to reverse the downward trend by cutting costs and upgrading the market value of the studios releases (a trait that was to remain throughout his professional life). He managed to put RKO back on track, find them a new star in Katherine Hepburn, sign a promising dancer named Astaire and give approval on a well-known gorilla picture. Nevertheless, his authority was always being questioned by the front office and he felt stifled by his employers. He left in 1933 to return to MGM. His new post allowed him to work with another major Hollywood player, Irving Thalberg. At first it was feared that Thalberg would not work well with the new upstart, but these fears were soon quashed, as the two became close allies. In fact Thalberg agreed with Selznick on many levels. His ideas on formulas selling pictures was commonplace, for example, RKOs Fred and Ginger specials, Warners crime thrillers and MGMs whimsical musicals. He felt that it was time to start producing pictures that challenged the usual output. He argued with his superiors about producing the Dickens classic, David Copperfield: There is no question in my mind that the public has finally decided to accept the classics as motion fare..

He noted that these stories had withstood the test of time and that they were a welcome change from the: ..outmoded (movie) formulas that the public knows even better than the producers. This demonstrates the characteristic knowledge of his audience that kept Selznick one step ahead of the competition. He also disregarded the machine-like production values of the studios and looked towards more prestigious productions. He resigned from MGM in 1935 with the foresight of setting up an independent production company. He believed that the improving economic climate demanded an increase in higher quality entertainment. By 1936 Selznick International Pictures (SIP) had made its mark on the Hollywood map. Being an independent producer did not necessarily mean he was independent of the studios power. He signed a multi-picture deal with United Artists and Technicolor. His new company allowed him to produce a low number of high quality films. Working as an independent in the late 1930s, Selznick discovered that more money could be made turning out one or two hits per year than eight or ten competitive A-class features. This is clearly seen in the case of Selznicks Gone With The Wind (1939).

In 1940 SIP had only three pictures in release, Gone With The Wind, Rebecca and Intermezzo, whereas the other majors were each releasing an average of one feature per week. Yet SIP took $10 million compared to the best of the studios, MGM who took $8.7 million, of which half came from the exhibition profits of Gone With The Wind! In just a couple of years he had made so much money that he had to dissolve his company because it could not cope with the capital income. In fear of losing! a fortune to tax he sold up and started a new company, David O. Selznick Productions in 1940. Selznick exploited industry trends and audience tastes. He saw great importance in market research and regularly used Gallups ARI polls to help work out a strategy on releasing films. He had a handson approach with his productions and was well respected by writers, directors and editors alike. He seemed to have a sixth sense as to how to sell a picture to the audience. In 1942 he formed another company, Vanguard Films. This was his way of re-entering the movie arena. For a couple of years he had taken a more business-orientated role in film. He had discovered another new concept in Hollywood the package deal.

He started to loan his key contracted personnel out to studios in small units. He then discovered that a large amount of money could be made by assembling a package of star, script and director and selling it on at a flat fee as well as receiving a hefty percentage of ticket receipts from the finished project. Selznick, however, missed the thrill of filmmaking and set up Vanguard for his return. Four years later he created his own distribution company, Selznick Releasing Organisation. This was the pinnacle of his career as a Hollywood player. He had control of almost every aspect of the independent movie business. Yet he saw what was stored for the future. He predicted the downfall of the studio system and increasing importance of smaller independent companies. It seems apt that the man who was brought up in the studio system, reformed the studio system, had a twenty year love/hate relationship with the studio system was in fact probably the same man who instigated its downfall. His strategies were to be emulated by others who increasingly worked outside the studios infrastructure, causing its economic collapse. This led to an independent boom in New Hollywood.

In a personal discussion with long time companion, writer Ben Hecht in 1951, Selznick said: The movies are over and done with. Hollywood is already a ghost town making foolish efforts to seem alive. The studio system, the Golden Age, was over. After the end of World War Two people were being introduced to a more lucrative society. Families were moving out of the cities and into the suburbs. They were literally moving away from the cinemas. Better working conditions and better jobs allowed for more leisure time. Dynamic family activities such as fishing, camping and sports were looked upon as healthier than passive activities such as watching a movie. And there was television. The advent of television exploded in the USA in the 1950s. Who needed to go to the cinema when the cinema could come to the front room? Cinema ticket sales plummeted. Bizarre new gimmicks were invented to coax the public back. Cinemascope, Panavision and 3-D films were released but to no great response. Television had seriously damaged Hollywoods cinematic world. Selznick had seen this coming and by 1957 had produced his last film. He had been on top of his game for over twenty years and knew when to stop, unlike many of his contemporaries. His brave steps into independence have influenced a great number of new producing directors such as Hitchcock, Coppola and Spielberg.

If I look at the problems a young European producer has to face now I will always try to imagine what Selznick would have done. The need for co-productions. The demand for commercially viable scripts. An understanding of the statistics and demographics that 4.5% of European films released in 1989 were comedies compared to 14.8% in 1995. Why dont comedies cross borders well? Why havent European writers been able to create formulaic but nonetheless blockbuster stories like The Fugitive, Speed and Die Hard? Why doesnt someone take a stand and produce films that will sell? Where is the showman and sophisticate, crassly commercial and exploitive yet a man of cultured tastes? Where is the new David O. Selznick? Even though Selznick chose to become an independent producer in what is known to be perhaps the greatest moment in Hollywood and movie history, it gives me a great deal of encouragement that someone can take on the system, use it to their advantage and succeed. I would be both nave and arrogant if I were to think that I could follow Selznicks footsteps and conquer Hollywood. But by understanding what he was up against and how he was always questioning what the audience wanted I can maybe make a small indent on a large corporately run business. Selznick believed in his own ideas and that of others. He had a gut feeling which way to go. And he respected how an audience would react. If I just learn that then I feel as though I have learned something important. A lot of value can come from discovering the past. If it werent for D.W. Griffith, Eisenstein would have had to start from nothing. If it wasnt for Kurosawa what would Peckinpah be doing? The way movies are !

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An Introduction to the History of the Study of the Cinema. (2022, Oct 09). Retrieved from

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