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The Golden Age of Hollywood could not last forever. A number of outside forces were conspiring to make it impossible for the studio system to continue for more than a few decades in the post-war era. This is the Fall Of The Studio System, a period of time stretching from roughly the late 1940s to the late 1960s.

How the Cookie Crumbled (or, Trust-Busting, TV, and Tabloids, oh my!)

The moment that is often considered to be the beginning of the end for the studio system, and the end of Hollywood's Golden Age, is the 1948 landmark Supreme Court decision United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. This decision not only outlawed the practice of block booking[2], it also forced the studios to sell their theater chains. The result of this was that studios, no longer able to dump a whole year's worth of movies on theaters, now had to be far more selective in what they did produce. This led to an increase in the production values and budgets of Hollywood's motion pictures, and a decrease in their number. This also gave more freedom to independent filmmakers and smaller studios, as they could distribute their product with much less interference by the majors. The studios that saw the most benefit from this decision were Universal, Columbia Pictures, and United Artists - the "Little Three" studios that, unlike the "Big Five"[3], did not own their own theater chains.

The need for the Hays Code was the next to go. The Paramount decision had already weakened it by causing the rise of independent "art-house" theaters that could show foreign and independent films that weren't covered by the Code. The real death blow to the Hays Code, however, was another landmark Supreme Court decision, the 1952 case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, also known as the Miracle Decision after the name of the film involved. The Miracle Decision declared that film was an artistic medium protected under the First Amendment, thereby eliminating the threat of government censorship that had led to the implementation of the Code in the first place. When combined with the waning influence of the National Legion of Decency by the time The Sixties rolled around, this meant that the tide in Hollywood was turning against censorship.

Except, however, for one particular type of censorship. The post-war period was the age of America's Second Red Scare[4], and people started fearing that the entertainment industry was being infiltrated and turned into a Communist Propaganda Machine by leftists and Soviet sympathizers. Over 170 screenwriters, actors and directors with suspect political views suddenly found their careers in the American film industry yanked out from under them in the "Hollywood Blacklist" of The Fifties. Another 151 people were named by the right-wing pamphlet Red Channels, published by the anti-Communist group AWARE, as Communist subversives; these people likewise found themselves effectively barred from working in film, radio, or television. A fair number of the people who were blacklisted (including Charlie Chaplin, Richard Attenborough, and Orson Welles) would continue to find work in Britain -- a point that will become relevant later. As The Fifties wore on, the entertainment industry struck back against the Red Scare; the 1956 Bette Davis film Storm Center was one of the first to directly target anti-Communist hysteria, and in 1957, Radio host John Henry Faulk sued AWARE for ruining his career (winning his case in 1962).

The new medium of Television was also placing growing pressure on the industry. The days of film serials and newsreels that ran before and between movies quickly came to an end, and moviegoers were bleeding away to television at a rapid pace. Consequently, the studios introduced numerous innovations (including widescreen projection, color, and stereo sound) and gimmicks (3D movies and countless others) to pull customers back and provide them with an experience that television could not. The culmination of this effort was the rise of the Epic Movie, the multi-million-dollar, three-hour-long, cast-of-thousands epic that had to be seen in theaters to be properly enjoyed. Even then, however, television was proving to be a nearly unstoppable juggernaut.

Finally, the star system crumbled during this period. Established stars like Jane Greer and Bette Davis were battling studio heads at every turn, often refusing certain parts that they didn't want and even suing to get out of their contracts. The publicity this generated meant that new arrivals in Hollywood were becoming increasingly Genre Savvy, knowing about the restrictions that they would face by signing contracts with the studios. As a result, they were becoming more selective and demanding with their contracts, with some opting to go for free agency instead. In addition, the rise of the modern, scandal-obsessed tabloid media, led by magazines like Confidential and the infamous book Hollywood Babylon, was making it next to impossible for studios to hush up the indiscretions of their stars, and the myth of Golden Age Hollywood as being clean and wholesome was swept away like so much garbage.

The damage

Hollywood did not take the fall of the studio system well. While the smaller studios Columbia Pictures and United Artists thrived in the new climate, quickly gaining market share and becoming the most profitable studios in Hollywood, most of the Big Five struggled to survive. The hardest-hit studio was RKO Radio Pictures, historically the weakest of the Big Five, which fell apart under the mismanagement of Howard Hughes and left the movie business entirely in 1959. The other studios also faced a slow decline, and many of them found themselves getting bought out. The major studios all but abandoned the production of B movies to independent filmmakers and minor studios, focusing instead on smaller numbers of bigger-budgeted pictures. When these Epic Movies succeeded, it was all well and good, but when they flopped (as was known to happen on occasion), it vindicated the old saying about putting all of your eggs into one basket. Finally, the House that Mickey Built entered the live-action film business with the establishment of the Buena Vista Film Distribution Company in 1953. While not considered a major studio at the time due to its focus on family films, Disney was still able to snatch up significant market share with films like 1954's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and 1964's Mary Poppins.

The final nail in the coffin of the studio system was the rise of foreign cinema in The Sixties. Despite the Miracle Decision, Hollywood was still bound by the outdated, self-imposed terms of the Hays Code, which meant that there was a long list of topics and themes that it couldn't touch. This left a massive opening for foreign filmmakers and studios to eat up lots of market share. Italy had already made the Code look ridiculous with the 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves (which the Code tried to censor because it had a completely sexless scene in a brothel), and it followed that up by unleashing "Spaghetti Westerns" that deconstructed one of Hollywood's most cherished genres. The French New Wave, with such masters as Francois Truffaut, was breaking all of the conventions of filmmaking and cinematic form, to immense critical acclaim. Japanese cinema, led by the popular Godzilla and the lavishly lauded, much imitated, works of Akira Kurosawa, was also making a splash stateside.

The biggest threat to Hollywood dominance, however, came from Britain. As it had done in music, The British Invasion was sweeping over the film world as well. Such works as the James Bond movies, Lawrence of Arabia, the output of Hammer Film Productions, the Beatles films A Hard Day's Night and Help, and others spoke to a generation of young Americans in the swinging, countercultural '60s. Out of ten Best Picture winners in The Sixties, four were British films. And there was little Hollywood could do in response.

By the mid '60s, the American film industry had collapsed under its own weight, toppled by bloated budgets, diminishing returns, stale product, and huge losses in market share to TV, independents, and the British. Someone had to do something to stop the decline...

On a somewhat related note, Animation was also facing a steep decline during this period; for more information, see The Dark Age of Animation.


  1. No, that is not a shot from a Disaster Movie -- the Hollywood Sign really had fallen into such disrepair by The Seventies.
  2. The system where major studios forced theaters to buy films in large bundles, usually sight-unseen, in order to get the few A-list films they actually wanted.
  3. Paramount, MGM, Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, and RKO.
  4. The first happened immediately after World War I.
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