Cinema and Media Studies Hollywood Studios
by
Peter Lev
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0231

Introduction

“Studio” and “Hollywood” are interestingly complex terms. “Studio” originally meant a room with abundant natural light. The first motion picture studios were large, glass-walled rooms designed for filming with natural light. The term “studio” expanded to refer to a motion picture production facility; then it expanded again to mean a company that made motion pictures. By the late 1920s the best-known American studios were large, vertically integrated corporations that produced, distributed, and exhibited films: Paramount, MGM, Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO. Columbia, Universal, and United Artists were also considered major studios, though they owned few or no theaters, and there were smaller B-movie companies such as Monogram and Republic. “Hollywood” refers to a neighborhood north and west of downtown Los Angeles where a number of movie companies settled when they left the East Coast for California in the 1910s. This term has expanded in meaning as well; it now means all film production in the Los Angeles area, and even by synecdoche the entire American film industry. From about 1920 to 1950, film was the dominant entertainment industry in the United States, and the eight major studios firmly controlled this medium. The studios’ top executives, sometimes called “moguls” to emphasize their power, supervised thousands of employees and decided what films were made, how they were made, and how they were released. This is often called the “studio period,” or the “classic period,” or the “golden age of Hollywood.” After 1950 there was a gradual change to independent production as directors, producers, stars, and agents took over the creative aspects of filmmaking, with the studios mainly responsible for financing and distribution. Eventually, the Hollywood film studios expanded to other fields such as television, cable, music, home video, theme parks, and Internet, and they were bought or merged with larger corporations. The giant media conglomerates of today (Disney, Time Warner, News Corp., Viacom, Comcast, and Sony) resemble the studios of old in their domination of the entertainment industry. This bibliography will concentrate on the studio period, especially the economic and institutional histories of the eight major studios. However, since almost all of these companies still exist, and they are still called studios, some entries will discuss what happened to the American film industry and to the individual companies since the 1950s.

General Works

The three books that define original, high-quality work on the Hollywood studios are Bordwell, et al. 1985; Schatz 1988; and Gomery 2009. Bordwell, et al. 1985 defines the studio system as a mode of production and a series of narrative and aesthetic conventions. This formalist approach describes a whole period of films, from the 1920s to about 1960, and finds a surprising homogeneity; one characteristic of the period is consistency of approach from studio to studio and from filmmaker to filmmaker. Schatz 1988 is methodologically important because it insists that the Hollywood studios should be researched via primary sources such as memos, correspondence, contracts, business records, etc., rather than via newspapers, publicity, or even interviews (which are primary sources but often inaccurate). Schatz delves into the histories of MGM, Warner Bros., and Universal plus the independent producer David Selznick. Gomery 2009, the revised version of a book first published in 1986, is the single best source for short histories of the Hollywood studios. The revised edition takes Gomery’s account into the 21st century and includes a helpful bibliographic guide. Powdermaker 1950 is an influential study of Hollywood from an anthropological perspective. Her phrase “the dream factory” is often quoted. Bernstein 2012 briefly presents the economic and institutional context of the studios from 1929 to 1945, and he nicely defines the role of the mogul. Sklar 1994 is an excellent cultural history of American movies, with ample attention to the Hollywood studios and their most innovative managers (Zukor, Thalberg, Selznick, Zanuck). Dixon 2012 views the rise and fall of the studios through the lens of the rise and fall of the moguls. Schatz 1997a briefly describes three periods in studio history: the classic period (1920s to 1950s), when studios had a lot of power to creatively shape films; the transitional period (1950s to about 1980), when agents and independent producers took much of that power; and the conglomerate period (1980 to today) when massive media conglomerates incorporating the old film companies dominate the entertainment and media fields. Schatz’s examples of successful media conglomerates are Time Warner and Disney.

  • Bernstein, Matthew. “Era of the Moguls: The Studio System.” In The Wiley-Blackwell History of the American Film, v. 2, 1929 to 1945. Edited by Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, and Art Simon, 23–54. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    A good account of the various factors that shaped the studio system c. 1930–1950. The brief histories of individual studios are less convincing.

  • Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203358818E-mail Citation »

    An important book about film style, but it also has chapters (mainly by Janet Staiger) about how the studios were organized and how this changed over time.

  • Dixon, Wheeler Winston. Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    Good histories of the individual studios into the 1960s or even 1970s, depending on when management changed from the moguls to more corporate and conventional successors.

  • Gomery, Douglas. The Hollywood Studio System: A History. London: British Film Institute, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    High quality histories of the eight most important Hollywood studios, plus chapters on “industry advocates” (e.g., Will Hays), labor unions, and agents. Includes a good deal of original research and innovative thinking.

  • Powdermaker, Hortense. Hollywood, the Dream Factory. Boston: Little Brown, 1950.

    E-mail Citation »

    Powdermaker did her field work in 1946 and 1947, with good access to the various studios. She was particularly interested in how individuals and organizational structures shaped the movies.

  • Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. New York: Pantheon, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    A terrific book using archival research to figure out how the studios worked in the so-called classical or studio era. Schatz has influenced a whole generation of film historians.

  • Schatz, Thomas. “The Return of the Studio System.” In Conglomerates and the Media. Edited by Patricia Aufderheide. New York: New Press, 1997a.

    E-mail Citation »

    Argues that the traditional Hollywood studios are still important, since several of them are now core businesses of enormous media conglomerates.

  • Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of the Movies. Rev. ed. New York: Vintage, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Sklar’s book was originally published in 1975. The revised edition includes, in lieu of endnotes, a detailed section called “Notes on Sources.”

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