There have been a TON of books written about the movie industry.
Shelf after shelf about the stars and about some of the great films like Casablanca and Citizen Kane. Then more books about the most famous directors. And plenty of reference books – a few weeks ago I praised the best “Encyclopedia of Film.”
But in this flood of paper, there is very little written about the history of the business of movie making. Few people realize that famous M-G-M production chief Louis B. Mayer actually had a boss in New York, home to most of the movie companies. Few people know that the man probably most responsible for the movie industry was Adolph Zukor, a teen orphan who came to New York from Hungary with $40 stitched into his jacket: he built Paramount. The man who created M-G-M – Marcus Loew – was his friend, neighbor, and occasional business partner. The stories of these men, their successes and failures, their innovations and their lives, are fascinating.
At the peak of the classic studio system in the 1930s, there were five major studio companies, each of which owned a chain of movie theaters as well as production studios – Loew’s (M-G-M), Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO. In addition, three smaller firms made plenty of movies but owned no theaters – Universal, Columbia, and United Artists. United Artists was created by a group of top artists (including Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin) trying to get free of the “crank ‘em out” mentality of the big studios.
Most of your favorite movies, even to this day, came from one of these companies, or from Disney, who did not rise to importance until later. The histories of these companies and how they won and lost competitive battles are every bit as fascinating as the stories of the men who built them and the men and women who wrote, produced, directed, and acted in the movies.
The best book to summarize this whole story, including how the movie companies reacted to the arrival of television after WW II, is The Hollywood Studio System: A History by Douglas Gomery (British Film Institute, 2008). Gomery, a professor at the University of Maryland, has written several books and lots of articles about the entertainment industries, and is one of the best film historians out there. He has a unique breadth of view that comes from understanding that films are not solo efforts dependent on just one person, but require the co-ordination of many parts, from scriptwriter to projectionist. And that takes large enterprises.
His history is interwoven with plenty of lessons for today. Consider the arrival of new technologies. If you ran a movie company, how would you have reacted to the arrival of sound? Would you have waited to see whether it took off or not (like Adolph Zukor) or jumped on it immediately (like Harry Warner and William Fox). How would you have reacted to television – would you have banned your movie stars from appearing on television, thinking you could fight it off, as did some studio executives? Or would you have jumped on the opportunity to produce TV shows, as did Lew Wasserman of Universal or the Cohns at Columbia?
How would you finance your business? The 1920s, which included the 1927 arrival of sound and talkies, was a boom period for the industry. Giant new picture palaces were built across America, in towns large and small. The big investment banks like Goldman Sachs began to see this industry as being worth financing. Would you have borrowed the money or sold stock? Because of decisions like these, two of the giant studios went broke in the depression, while two others sailed right through.
Whether you are looking for business insights, a better understanding of where the movie industry came from, or just a good history reading experience, this book should do the trick. It is one of my favorites.