The Studio System is a term used to describe Hollywood production during its Golden Age, also called the Classical Era, from 1930 to 1949. This is the era when Hollywood dominated the world’s film industry. The First World War destroyed European competition; with no outside competitors and the ‘block booking’ practices and ‘vertical integration’ of the major American studios, the industry flourished at home. ‘Block booking’ was a distribution practice that involved selling films to theatres as a unit. Big budget and low budget films would be sold together so all films produced by a studio were profitable. The vertical integration of the major studios meant that the same company controlled the production, distribution and exhibition arms of the business. This meant there was little to no competition in the market, and guaranteed distribution meant costs of production were recuperated by sales.
Defined by an assembly-line model of production, the industry was dominated by five major and three minor players who collectively produced nearly 350 films a year. Production was ‘rationalized’: each studio had its own wardrobe and property departments and technical crews and long-term contracts with its creative personnel, including the actors, producers, directors and writers. The process of filmmaking was streamlined, with personnel working around the clock on manufacturing film; like any industrial product film made in this mode tended to become standardized. Genres provided the formula for making different movies with similar techniques and the reuse of similar properties, costumes, storylines and stars made the production process more economical.
Besides the refining of genre production methods, the studio system refined production techniques: films were constructed using the continuity system to ensure that everything was made clear to the viewer. Psychologically rounded, goal oriented characters drove the action, the scripts were plotted with cause and effect or linear narratives clearly defined. All conflicts were resolved by film’s end and the continuity editing system was applied to make the story flow smoothly. The sum of all these methods is now known as classical film form.
The decline of the studio system began in 1948 with government legislation introduced that prohibited vertical integration. Studios were required to sell off their theater chains and to end ‘block booking’ practices; both measures to allow fairer competition in the field. Additionally the rise in trade unions meant higher costs for contracts with personnel, and the stars, the most valuable studio asset, sought greater independence from the studios by demanding fixed contracts at higher pay. The growth of interest in European films, the move of the urban populations to the suburbs and the advent of television all factored into the further erosion of the market. Between 1946 and 1956 audiences fell by half.
The Star System was a major component of the Studio System. The stars were considered key marketing tools and major assets in the promotion of film and so the studios took responsibility for the shaping and maintenance of the star’s public image. Contracts had morality clauses prohibiting the stars from using drugs or having affairs, dictating dress and make-up usage. Gossip columnists were paid to provide good press and paid off not to write damaging stories. Actors felt ‘owned’ by the industry and as early as 1919 four major movie stars started their own company so they could control their own careers: Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith formed the United Artists studio.
Modern Times was written and directed by Chaplin in 1936, after the beginning of the sound era. The film, distinguishes itself from others of this period as it makes extensive use of sound effects but uses no direct dialogue. When the spoken voice is heard, it emanates from loudspeakers or recording devices: it is never heard directly and though Chaplin sings in the film, the words are unintelligible, drawn from a language of his own design. Stylistically, the film demonstrates many of the stylistic features of the system—the use of well rounded, goal driven characters, a linear, fast-rising storyline and continuity editing techniques. The genre is clearly defined and the settings, properties, lighting, all tightly controlled.
Modern Times tells the story of a young man trying to find a place in modern life, a world of automation. We first meet him struggling to keep up with a production line and in each subsequent scene our hapless hero has to confront another stumbling block of modern times.
Consider the role of sound and it absence in the picture. How do sound and silence work to create effect? How does Chaplin’s treatment of sound reflect the thematic issue of the film?
With notes taken from: Studying Film, Nathan Abrams, Ian Bell and Jan Urdris, London: Oxford University Press, 2001, and http://classichollywoodcentral