The Old Hollywood Studio System

Why everything was different back then

Hi, I'm Kat!
What I am most passionate about is to inspire you to see that your life is your own and biggest masterpiece.

If you have listened to this podcast for a longer time, you heard me refer to the term “Old Hollywood” and “Studio system” many times already. And I had roughly outlined the system which the actresses and actors of Old Hollywood worked in. Today, I want to take this episode to fill this term with a bit more life and colour. 


So, what exactly is the studio system?

It roughly refers back to the time between 1927, which marked the introduction of sound to the movies, and 1948, which marked the beginning of the demise of this system because of a Supreme Court ruling that demanded separation between production and distribution. And it is called studio system, because the film industry was controlled by a fairly low number of vertically integrated companies that had complete control of each aspect of the production.

There were eight big studios that formed this system with the big five being the first ones out: 

  • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
  • Paramount Pictures
  • Warner Bros. Pictures
  • 20th Century-Fox
  • RKO Radio Pictures

The other three were

  • Universal Pictures
  • Columbia Pictures
  • United Artists

The elements of omplete control of the production

  1. Long-term contracts with actors and directors

Actors, Actresses and directors, costume makers and screenwriters – they were all employed based on a contract with weekly salary. Very much the opposite of the film industry today, where it actually is all a freelance gig and the creatives are forced to being their own brand and advocating for themselves. They have become their own micro-corporations since the mid-1950s. 

But when being employed that meant that the studio decided whether or not it wanted to make the investment, what kind of movies they wanted to make in the upcoming years, whether someone took a liking to you and whether or not you would be groomed into an A-list star. And it would also mean that you were forced to take on roles that actors and actresses disliked, that they could be cast in horrible movies with little talent or prospect – as they did with Elizabeth Taylor to punish her for divorcing Conrad Hilton. And, talents could be lent to other studios for some extra cash. So, actors did not have much agency, but on the other hand, when they got employed, they had steady income and could rise the rank. 

Their own studio lots and production facilities 

They did not have to hunt for locations or pay rental fees, but they owned all the studio facilities to film and finish basically all movies they could dream of with all camera and sound equipment on hand. So, there were basically no extra costs in producing extra movies and that’s why the cash was constantly streaming in. For me, as I love the lavish clothes and the extraordinary set designs from those earlier days of Hollywood, it was also a good thing that they had their own costume departments and set design departments, which allowed for great costume designers to really make a mark on long-term actresses and develop their style. Although Adrian, Travilla and Edith Head would have made their way one way or the other anyway, I think this environment contributed to their legacy 

  1. Distribution and exhibition

They also owned distribution systems and the big three also theatre chains in which the movies were shown. They did not have to rely on anybody else, but could get anything they wanted in front of millions. 

Reasons why the studio system was so immensely successful

1) The Great Depression

It was fairly cheap and basically all Americans streamed to the cinemas for a couple of cents. There were more than twice as many theatres in the US than in the mid-1980s and definitely more than today as more have closed down in the process. 

2) Block Booking

When block booking, a studio sold a block of movies, an average amount was 5 movies, to the theatres. And of those five, mostly only one was of good quality, the others were average B-movies. As Life magazine wrote in 1957 in a retrospective on the studio system, “It wasn’t good entertainment and it wasn’t art, and most of the movies produced had a uniform mediocrity, but they were also uniformly profitable … The million-dollar mediocrity was the very backbone of Hollywood.”[6]

And it was specifically block booking that was outlawed by the Supreme Court ruling in 1948. 

3) Complete control

The studios had complete control about everything – from the movie market right down to the lives of their employees, the actors. From marriages to hairstyles – everything was decided for them. As Hollywood biographer David Stenn puts it: “It’s probably easiest to think of MGM as a totalitarian state. Pretend it’s not a movie studio – pretend it’s a country”

And it was also the time in which stars where enigmas. Where the image was carefully created and the actors and actresses had to adhere to a pre-written script. If they failed to live up to the expectation, they were cut off. 

It was big money in bed with big illusion sold to the public. Basically, just what really good marketing does. Still today. 

Why and how did the studio system collapse?

The collapse formerly came with the Supreme Court ruling in 1948 which ordered “divorcement” between production and distribution and exhibition. But the ultimate kill was made by none other than Howard Hughes. Some of you might wonder “Who?” Other who know him already “What?”

For those of you who do not know him: In short, Howard Hughes was a very influential man in Old Hollywood and the movie “The Aviator” starring Leonardo DiCaprio is about him. He had multiple affairs with the biggest stars of Hollywood and made and produced movies, he is most known though for his aviation business as well as his eccentric behaviour in his older age, when trauma from plane crashes as well as neurosyphilis and allodynia made him almost unfit for business. 

So, he was the one who broke off the studio system when he saw the ruling as a chance rather than a problem. Reason: He already had shares in RKO, one of the big five studios, but it was the financially most unstable of the five with distribution and exhibition being its painpoint. So, he freely agreed to the divorcement and set up to separate companies – one for production, one for distribution and exhibition. And he set a future date by which he would sell his stakes in one of them to avoid conflict. That undermined all other studios that handed in appeals that this demand of divorcement was unfeasible. 

The rise of television also demanded less of Hollywood – the appeal of the cinema slowly started to vanish as the first TV sets were available and Americans could watch talkies from the comfort of their own home. 

With all my love!




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