Give the moguls their due. Few would disagree that their studio system was the best method ever conceived to produce, distribute, and exhibit motion pictures. Stars were created, were signed to long term contracts, and were put on a leash with morals clauses. Many classic films were released, movie palaces were comfortable and reasonably priced, and everyone was making lots of money.
All that was to change, of course, in the wake of foolish and misguided antitrust activity (as is ALL antitrust activity). Following the infamous case of US v. Paramount Pictures (1948), the studios were forced, among other things, to divest of their theater chains. Thus, the notion of a vertically integrated film industry would be dead forever more, as all the divestitures were completed in 1957.
For those who understand the unintended consequences of antitrust, the aftermath was not surprising, even though countless experts of the time were confident that everything about the movies would improve, and admission prices would drop. Of course, the opposite is what happened. Admission prices went up, even as the industry was competing with television, and more than 20 percent of theaters closed down.
Since, in foolish theory, drive-ins could house way more people than indoor theaters (but never actually did), the 1950’s saw a proliferation of these facilities, along with the low quality fare that usually played in them. Meanwhile, freed from adult supervision, stars started behaving badly, further increasing production costs, and turning off an increasingly unsympathetic public.
Scared and flustered, the newly minted studio execs would jump on any trend that seemed to work: monster movies, big-budget musicals, youth-oriented pictures, art movies, and dozens of other genres. The only problem is that they were always behind the curve. By the time Hello Dolly (1969) came out, the kids who dominated the audience were far more interested in edgier pics such as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy.
While Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were onto something with Easy Rider, the studios screwed up big time by giving Hopper a million bucks cash to produce the notorious The Last Movie (1971).
And they keep screwing up. When Star Wars (1977) came out, the biggest thing it had going for it was that it was perceived as “different,” and it wasn’t competing with a whole lot. Add to that an audience coming off one of the worst winters in history, and the crowds did flock to the theaters.
Famed filmmaker Roger Corman, who never lost a dime, noted when it was released that he had made that film several times before, and wondered what the big deal was about. Well, Roger, it was the 1970’s after all, and many things happened in that decade that seem quite difficult to explain. Besides, many studios turned down Star Wars, the crummy little film that was to become the gigantic franchise.
Predictably, Star Wars was viewed as a return to the Sci-Fi genre, but no other copycat film of the era amounted to anything. However, films that really copied what Star Wars was about (kitschy quests for some MacGuffin, interspersed with faux spirituality, with most of the leads behaving like bratty kids) did clean up. Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and Karate Kid, anyone?
Home video became the profit saver, although it was condemned (as was every single innovation that preceded it) by the industry when it was first introduced. Now, in most cases, more money is made on video sales than box office.
Certainly, this phenomenon is helped in no small way by people staying away from the theaters, and that’s where we will pick up next time.