The dominance of Hollywood in the global film market | Film Studies
When the average Friday night cinema-goer sits down to watch a film in this country they would most probably be waiting to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster projected onto the screen. This seems to have been the norm for decades now but it wasn't always the case. Cinema was born in France with the introduction of motion pictures from the Lumière brothers; Auguste and Louis. The first presentation of motion pictures and the Lumière Cinématographe (a combined camera, printer and projector) was to the Society for the Promotion of Industry (Société d'Encouragement a l'industrie Nationale) on March 22, 1895. Only one film was shown, Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory (La Sortie des usines Lumière), shot by Louis. It was projected, almost as an afterthought, following their lecture on advances in experimental colour photography. It was nine months later in the darkened rooms at the Grand Café in Paris on December 28, 1895 that the first exhibition of moving images was opened to a paying, European audience. Included on the playbill were The Arrival of the Train (L'Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat), Baby's Meal (Repas de Bébé) and The Sprayer Sprayed (L'Arroseur et arrosée). However, it wasn't long before cinema became international when the Americans tried their hand at making movies. In the period between the Lumieres' first private and public exhibitions, two brothers, Otway and Gray Latham, screened the very first film to the paying public; Young Griffo versus Battling Charles Barnett, an impressive eight minute reel of a boxing match between the titular Griffo and Barnett. Their small storefront theatre in Broadway, New York became the first dedicated cinema.
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Over the next twenty years the number of filmmakers and films being made increased. This period of frantic filmmaking became known as the Silent Era. All over the United States movies were being shown at ‘Nickelodeons'; shops that had been transformed into exhibition areas where films were projected onto screens, walls or hanging sheets. This was not just an American phenomenon; here in the UK over 3000 cinemas had opened by 1917. The number of important films of this era included Georges Méliès' 1902 film A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune) based on Jules Verne's novel From the Earth to the Moon (De la Terre à la Lune) that is recognised as being the first science fiction movie; Edwin S. Porter's 1903 movie The Great Train Robbery that introduced complex narrative structure it its editing techniques; and D.W. Griffith's 1915 feature The Birth of a Nation which grossed $10 million at the box office.
The next logical step for this new industry was to integrate sound with the images. In 1927 Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer, the first ‘talkie' feature film to be widely distributed. This invention practically caused the death of the Silent Era as audiences demanded sound with their films and heralded the ‘Golden Age' of cinema. But once again it was not an industry completely dominated by Hollywood. The French idea of commercial movie houses became the international model, and entrepreneurs scurried to build impressive movie houses across North America and Europe including theatres to seat up to 5,000 people, rather than relying on the storefront Nickelodeons from the turn of the century. Birmingham born businessman Oscar Deutsch opened his first Odeon cinema in the UK in Perry Barr, Birmingham in 1920. By 1930 the Odeon was a household name and to this day there is still an Odeon in the prime location of British cinema exhibition, Leicester Square.
Since the Second World War (1939 - 1945) the dominance of Hollywood as the motion picture production capital of the world has been virtually unchallenged. With the exception of the Indian Film Industry, lovingly named ‘Bollywood', there has not been a notable challenger to Hollywood's crown. There have been moments when a possible contender to the throne has emerged from within Europe or the UK, bringing with it a new style of filmmaking, a new school of thought or an embarrassing outburst at an awards ceremony; “The British are coming!” In the last sixty years there have been several European film movements that have demonstrated that there is an alternative to the Hollywood system, however they have not managed to topple the system and in some cases have been neatly integrated and repackaged into the Hollywood blockbuster.
In this essay I shall look at the stranglehold that Hollywood seems to possess over the global film market and contrast it to the state of the European film industries and in particular to the British film industry. I shall emphasis the importance of European and British films, filmmakers and movements and how they relate to the Hollywood system. Being that this is such a large topic area I shall focus on how Hollywood has figuratively grown into a dragon and that the sporadic attempts at slaying it by European ‘knights in shining armour' more often than not end up feeding it and making it stronger. I shall try to determine how influential non-Hollywood films are on Hollywood, and vice versa. I also intend to examine how the British film industry has fared since the end of the Second World War against such stiff competition from the other side of the Atlantic; and what lies ahead in the not too distant future.
For the purposes of this essay I shall refer to the mainstream American film industry as ‘Hollywood'; I am not saying that Hollywood ‘is' the American film industry as there are a number of independent filmmakers producing and releasing feature films that frequently make box office profits, most notably Miramax, but for this essay I shall be focusing purely on the Hollywood system.
The Hollywood as we know it today began in earnest in the 1910's when major producers such as Carl Laemmle, William Fox, Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew decided to disassociate from the Film Trust based in New York (a ‘trust' of the ten leading American and European producers of movies and manufacturers of cameras and equipment set up in 1908 that would tax filmmakers into using their patents to allow the film to be officially ‘legal') and venture into a more independent, West coast filmmaking structure in the all-year sunshine of California. This departure from the Trust afforded the producers to shoot feature films instead of the normal short one or two ‘reelers' (so named after the length of the reel of film used to shoot it). These independents introduced a vertically integrated system that eventually covered production, distribution and exhibition. The Hollywood studio system was born and names such as Paramount (formerly Adolph Zukor's Famous Players-Lasky), Fox, Warner Brothers, Universal (formerly Carl Laemmle's Independent Motion Picture Company), Columbia, Universal Artists and Marcus Loew's MGM blossomed. According to Douglas Gomery: “…the average cost for Hollywood features of the day rarely ranged beyond $500,000, expanding distribution across the globe meant revenues regularly topped $1,000,000.” (Nowell-Smith 48). This was a massive leap in the twenty years from a time when a film of a train approaching a railway station was shown to the general public. Hollywood understood that the needs and demands of the masses had become more sophisticated over the short period of time that was cinema's infancy. As such the producers looked towards popular pulp fiction novels, plays and in particular the newly invented genre of the Western to entertain their audiences.
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In 1922 the major Hollywood companies formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distribution Association of America (MPPDA) to assist in the promotion and distribution of films worldwide. This was run by a former Republican politician, William H. Hays. His work for the MPDDA was closely linked with the US State Department and allowed Hollywood to dominate the UK, Canada, Australia, Europe (except Germany and the Soviet Union), South America, Central America and the Caribbean. This world domination looked set to continue until the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Even though Hollywood had originally distanced itself from New York, financial backing from the East coast was needed to fund the studios. As such the Depression that followed the stock market crash proved a difficult time for Hollywood, though not immediately as the movie industry enjoyed its best year in 1930 as studio profits reached record levels. However, between 1930 and 1933 theatre admissions fell from 90 million per week to 60 million, gross industry revenues fell from $730 million to about $480 million, and combined studio profits of $52 million became net losses of some $55 million. (Nowell-Smith 220). However it wasn't all doom and gloom. As the ‘Big Five' of Paramount, RKO, Warner Bros, Fox and MGM had to reorganise their financial structure (the integration of owning their own cinemas was almost bankrupting them), the ‘major minor' studios of Columbia, Universal and United Artists were enjoying the freedom of only being production and distribution companies; therefore having the freedom to continue producing high quality films without the noose of the exhibition property around their necks. In fact it was in this period that the minor studios were producing ‘B-movies'; factory-produced low cost, low risk genre films usually made up of cowboys, gangsters or horror (for example; South of the Rio Grande Columbia 1932, Afraid to Talk Universal 1932, and White Zombie United Artists 1932).
This ability to adapt to the market is an early demonstration of why Hollywood is still the market leader in feature films. From these early years it was evident that the studio system was going to be at the forefront of film production. The 1930's and 1940's were to prove to be the beginning of the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema with the introduction of colour films and the release of such popular films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney 1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (Warner Bros 1938), Gone with the Wind (MGM 1939), The Wizard of Oz (MGM 1939), and Citizen Kane (RKO 1941). When the United States entered the Second World War in 1941 the Hollywood machine was utilised by the government to produce propaganda films for the American public. Within one year of the attack on Pearl Harbour, nearly one third of Hollywood's feature films were war related, as were the vast majority of its newsreels and documentaries (Nowell-Smith 234). Yet again Hollywood was flexible enough to meet the demands of the public and due to the nature of the audiences at home and most notably abroad (the UK), Hollywood's foreign revenues reached record levels. Like the Depression before it, even the Second World War could not stop Hollywood.
The next period of Hollywood cinema came in the 1960's and continues today. This is regularly referred to as Modern Cinema and saw the power of the studios sway towards the director (often regarded as the auteur). In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind highlights Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (Warner Bros 1967) as the first of the new breed of films, “Bonnie and Clyde was a movement movie; like The Graduate, young audiences recognized that it was ‘theirs'” (Biskind 49). This ‘new' Hollywood saw new players attract new audiences. The new kids on the block included George Lucas (THX 1138, American Graffiti, Star Wars), Steven Spielberg (Jaws, ET, Jurassic Park), Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Raging Bull, The Aviator) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Dracula). The power of the director was affirmed when George Lucas's 1977 film Star Wars was released and confirmed that a single film could earn its studio huge profits and turn a poor year into a very successful one. Star Wars had a production budget of around $13 million (imdb.com) and has (as of the end of June 2005) grossed nearly $798 million. (thenumbers.com) While the American film industry had always looked abroad for sources of revenue, the global focus of Hollywood was also amplified in this period. Overseas theatrical and video markets exploded during the second half of 1980's; between 1984 and 1986, Hollywood's European exports alone jumped 225 percent to reach $561 million annually. In some major European markets, Hollywood movies accounted for 45-65 percent of total box-office receipts. (Herman 39) In fact, according to The Numbers (a free resource for industry professionals to track business information on movies) out of the top 100 all-time highest grossing movies worldwide, only one movie was made before the period of Modern Hollywood Cinema (Gone with the Wind which has grossed $350 million dollars since its release in 1939). (thenumbers.com) With the top two films grossing $2,000 million having been released in 1997 (James Cameron's Titanic) and 2003 (Peter Jackson's third instalment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King) it is obvious that the Hollywood machine still manages to churn out money-making productions.
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So what is it that keeps Hollywood head and shoulders above other national film industries? In his essay Reconceptualizing National Cinema/s, Stephen Crofts points out that there are seven varieties of ‘national cinema' as licensed by the political, economic and cultural régimes of different nation-states: “Cinemas which differ from Hollywood, but do not compete directly, by targeting a distinct, specialist market sector; Those which differ, do not compete directly but do directly critique Hollywood; European and Third World entertainment cinemas which struggle against Hollywood with limited or no success; Cinemas which ignore Hollywood, an accomplishment managed by a few; Anglophone cinemas which try to beat Hollywood at its own game; Cinemas which work within a wholly state-controlled and often state-subsidized industry; and Regional or national cinemas whose culture and/or language take their distance from the nation-states which enclose them.” Crofts 50) He argues that Hollywood can not be seen as a national cinema due to its trans-national appeal. Thomas Elsaesser adds that Hollywood is "totally other" to national cinema it is difficult to maintain because "so much of any nation's film culture is implicitly 'Hollywood". (Elsaesser 166). This is echoed in the words of Edward Buscombe who states that "at times Hollywood appears to be… no longer a national cinema but the cinema" (Buscombe 141) These views propel the ideology that Hollywood is the word people use to describe popular cinema. As Crofts identified, there are a number of ways in which non-Hollywood cinema has tried to challenge (or indeed avoid confrontation) the American system. The fifth example; ‘Anglophone cinemas which try to beat Hollywood at its own game' best represents how the British film industry tried to challenge the giant that is Hollywood (with varying results). The European film industries would fall into the third and seventh categories; ‘European and Third World entertainment cinemas which struggle against Hollywood with limited or no success'; and ‘Regional or national cinemas whose culture and/or language take their distance from the nation-states which enclose them'. Due to the many different European languages the latter example is perhaps the most relevant but at the same time admits defeat in attempting to export the film to the United States. However, this is not to say that Hollywood has not had to adapt to remain the world leader. The early 1980's saw a dramatic drop in box office receipts. The beginning of the decade saw a 9% drop in tickets sold nationwide in American cinemas when only 1,022 million were sold. This figure got worse in 1986 when just over 1,017 million tickets were sold (boxofficemojo.com) (compared to over 4,500 million ticket sales in 1930). The home video market had certainly dented theatrical sales but Hollywood would always recoup somehow. The immediate problem was the cost of keeping cinemas open; a similar situation to the post Depression period of the 1930's. Another financial reshuffle was in order.
The six major Hollywood film studios were now part of conglomerates. Gulf & Western (Paramount's parent company) also owned Madison Square Gardens, Desilu, Simon and Schuster, and Paramount Pictures Television. Yet, only 11% of Gulf & Western's revenues were derived from entertainment industry holdings and just 4% from Paramount Pictures in 1981. That same year, United Artists was bringing only 12% of the revenues in for Transamerica, Universal represented 22% of MCA's income, and Warner Bros. accounted for 24% of Warner Communications revenue. (Lewis 86). However, by 1989, the entertainment division of Gulf & Western, led by Paramount Pictures, accounted for over 50% of Gulf & Western's yearly income during a year in which Paramount had only fourteen releases and a 13.8% share of the market thanks to the success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ($197 million domestic box office), (the-numbers.com) demonstrating again just how important a single film had become by the end of the 1980's. These blockbusters were to save Hollywood and allow it to grow stronger, and in 2002 ticket sales were over the 1,523 million mark which was the highest figure for over twenty years.
It is practically impossible to pinpoint a single film that best demonstrates how the Hollywood system works. I have chosen to examine three different movies from three different periods of its history to illustrate how Hollywood evolves; Intolerance (1916), Singin' in the Rain (1952) and The Matrix (1999).
D.W. Griffith directed over 500 films during his career, most of them were shorts produced between 1908 and 1914. In 1915 he directed Birth of a Nation, a film that “…established him as one of the first truly great film directors, able to balance scale with intimate, impassioned storytelling” (Falk 11) but the film also has its critics: “Hopefully the only film in movie history to project in its publicity the Ku Klux Klan as the heroic defenders of Christian civilization” (Shiach 12). Two years later he directed Intolerance. Intolerance is, in my opinion, a better example of a Hollywood film than the overtly racist Birth of a Nation. Its narrative structure is interwoven with four different stories from four different periods in history each telling their own stories of intolerance, be it through religion or society. This storytelling device of jumping from one story to another allowed Griffith to direct the film at a speed that would keep the audiences enthralled to the very last reel. Unfortunately it failed at the box office. The production budget was over three and half times than that of Birth of a Nation and the box office did not return this. The lavish sets and numerous extras that were brought in by Griffith to turn this into a spectacle ended up leading to its financial failure. This was an early lesson to the studios that throwing a lot of money at a production did not necessarily mean that it was going to be successful. In hindsight this film stands up well; the crowd scenes are epic, so to the Babylon sets and the innovative use of camera angles and cross-cut editing techniques. Griffith formed United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart and Mary Pickford in 1919, cementing his position as a major player in the early Hollywood years.
The year 1952 saw the highest grossing film in America to be the documentary This is Cinerama showcasing the possibilities of Cinerama; a widescreen system that employed stereophonic sound and used three cameras and three projectors to cover a huge curved screen. Further down the list was Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's musical Singin' in the Rain (MGM 1952). Not only does the film include perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in Hollywood history (the song and dance of the title) but also one of the first big budget films to poke fun at its own industry. The story takes place during the transition from silent film into ‘talking pictures' and highlights some of the problems that arose for all the major studios. Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times proudly states that “Singin in the Rain has been voted one of the greatest films of all time in international critics' polls, and is routinely called the greatest of all the Hollywood musicals. I don't think there's any doubt about that. There are other contenders… but Singin' in the Rain comes first because it is not only from Hollywood, it is about Hollywood.” (Ebert). The film was rushed through by MGM (the studio that produced most of the lavish musicals) after the success of 1951's An American in Paris and as such the film was an original screenplay and Donen and Kelly were freed from the constraints of adapting a stage musical, being able to develop something completely from scratch. This freedom is present on screen and, like the previous example Intolerance has won more fans in the years after its release than the audiences at the time. Today the musical is a rare sight to emerge from Hollywood. It is seen as an expensive genre that has served its time. There have been a few exceptions like Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (20th Century Fox 2001) and Rob Marshall's Chicago (Miramax 2002) but I cannot see any Hollywood studio spending money on this genre like MGM did in the Golden Age.
Brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski directed the science fiction action movie The Matrix in 1999. Labeled by some as a “cult classic” (Gottlieb), I find it hard to agree that a film that has grossed over $450 million (thenumbers.com) worldwide should be called a ‘cult'. Set sometime in the near future the film taps into a common paranoia that all is not as it seems. Hollywood released this film, with its $65 million (thenumbers.com) production budget knowing that the recent trend of Asian kung-fu movies were entertaining the young generation like Hark Tsui's 1991 film Once Upon a Time in China (Wong Fei-hung) or Woo-ping Yuen's 1993 film Iron Monkey (Siunin Wong Fei-hung tsi titmalau). This film was also used in an extensive advertising campaign to promote the sales of DVDs; a figure of $20 million was spent on prints and advertising costs. With the combination of kung-fu, a storyline focusing on paranoia and special effects never seen before in a major blockbuster; it would not be cynical to believe that Hollywood thought of The Matrix as their ticket into the new millennium.
The British film industry has historically always been the poorer cousin to Hollywood, or as Robert Murphy suggests, “British cinema has been despised and disparaged for much of its existence” (Murphy 5). While Hollywood was experimenting with and developing the dramatic narrative of feature films in the early 1910's, Britain did not realise the potential of the longer film format; and one of the only company's releasing fictional drama, albeit single reel films, was Hepworth who produced films such as Rescued by Rover (1905), Faust (1911) and A Fisherman's Love Story (1912). As late as 1925 Joseph Schenck commented on the inferiority of British cinema saying that “You have no personalities to put on the screen. The stage actors and actresses are no good on the screen. Your effects are no good, and you do not spend nearly so much money.” (Schenck). This statement is eerily poignant eighty years after he said it. In fact as early as 1907 Hollywood was acting swifter than Britain in developing the cinematic world by exploiting British cultural heritage when the Selig Polyscope Company produced the one reel short A Tale of Two Cities based on Charles Dickens' novel. Four years later Vitagraph remade the film as a thirty minute short in 1911. In fact Hollywood then remade the film six years after that when Fox produced A Tale of Two Cities in 1917. It wasn't until W. Courteney Rowden directed the one reel film of the same title that Britain finally had its own film version of the novel in 1922. And it wasn't until Ralph Thomas directed A Tale of Two Cities (Rank 1958) that Britain had its very own feature film of the novel; the sixth remake since the original 1907 film.
Even though the British film industry was slow to accept the possibilities offered by the dramatic narrative of feature film there were some important figures to emerge. Alfred Hitchcock directed his first completed feature film in 1925 with the crime drama The Pleasure Garden, having already made a name for himself as a writer on Graham Cutts' Woman to Woman (1923). He followed that up with a number of groundbreaking films including The Lodger (Gainsborough Pictures 1927), his first talking movie Blackmail (BIP 1929), and Jamaica Inn (Mayflower 1939); his final film in Britain before Hollywood producer David O. Selznick sent for him from Hollywood. At a time when Hollywood was going from strength to strength with the help of the MPPDA, Britain was finding that too many American imports were saturating the home industry; $165 million revenue was made for Hollywood by the overseas British market. (Nowell-Smith 58). The Films Act of 1927 set a quota on imported movies that “was progressive, beginning at 5 percent and rising to 20 percent in ten years' time.” (Balio 469). This should have been a period in which Britain could progress both in quality and quantity of film production as the Act was meant to “open up the market for ‘long' (over 3,000 feet in length) British films by stipulating that 7.5 per cent of films acquired by film renters each year had to be British and 5 per cent of those shown by exhibitors also had to be of British origin, both percentages rising to 20 by 1935 and remaining at that level until 1938 when the Act expired.” (Street 10). In reality it allowed a number of cheap productions, or “quota quickies” (Balio 469) to be made that did more harm than good for the British film industry. However, the Act allowed Britain to emulate the American system of vertical integration with companies able to produce, distribute and exhibit its own films; this introduced The Associated British Picture Corporation and the Gaumont British Picture Corporation. The British film movement enjoyed a period of producing a number of fine films (most notably by Alfred Hitchcock) that included Alexander Korda's period drama The Private Life of Henry VIII (London Film Productions 1933), Marcel Varnel's comedy starring Will Hay, Oh, Mr. Porter! (Gainsborough 1937), and Sam Woods' drama Goodbye Mr. Chips (MGM 1939). When the Second World War broke out in 1939 Britain had to focus on the war effort; just as what was to happen in Hollywood, the films produced up to the end of the war were predominantly propaganda films.
Some of the greatest filmmakers in British cinema were to come to the public's attention during the war; directors such as Michael Powell (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp 1943), David Lean (In Which We Serve 1942), Thorold Dickinson (Next of Kin 1943) and Carol Reed (The Way Ahead 1944) exploded onto the scene. The 1940's were an exciting time for the British film industry with box office admissions peaking at 1,635 million in 1946 (Sparos 14) and companies such as the Rank Organisation began to expand, with a massive screen empire embracing the Gaumont British company; this included the Gainsborough Studios, the Odeon cinema circuit and Pinewood and Denham studios. The famous Ealing Studio, under Michael Balcon, secured its place in film history with the production of comedies such as Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets, all made in 1949. Two years earlier Balcon founded the British Film Academy in a hotel suite at the Hyde Park Hotel on the 16 April 1947. This was later to become BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts).
Running parallel to the Ealing comedies was the movement of social reality films, commonly referred to as ‘kitchen sink dramas' but often named the New Wave. At a time when the British public was feeling the burden of the aftermath of the war with rationing and high unemployment, there was a need for film to reflect the lives of the masses. One of the first major forays into this genre was produced by Filippo Del Giudice. Del Giudice was an Italian lawyer who left his native fascist Italy for London in 1932 and helped set up Two Cities Films in 1937. In the 1950 film Chance of a Lifetime directed by Bernard Miles, the story focuses on trade unionism and what stage the co-operative movement had reached in 1950, a few years after the reforming Labour government was elected but months before the re-election of Winston Churchill; showing that the country was oscillating between Socialism and Conservatism. Miles's intelligent script was even-handed in its approach to these issues and also gave insights into the class system of the time yet did not go so far as to support the unions at the time. Alan Wood, biographer of Rank, charged the film with being “a crude form of anti-Socialist propaganda” (Wood 245). Even though critics felt the film did not go far enough into the class struggle it opened the doors for directors to comment on such issues as unemployment and the working classes. In earlier British films we had seen the working class as ‘good and decent' supporting roles to the more noble upper classes (the most obvious analogy would be in the wartime Navy film where the working class would be below deck powering the ship and the upper classes above deck steering its course). Here we saw their lives at the centre of the action in great detail, told to the audience in an everyday household situation; hence 'the kitchen sink' tag. We see events through the emotional journeys of these characters. Films like Jack Clayton's Room at the Top (Remus 1959) painted their protagonists to show that they had moved on from the hero at Normandy to an average, everyday person who wanted to make the most of their life and somehow try to improve their social position. This did not have to be solely represented in social realism, comedy crossed over as well. In John Boulting's comedy I'm Alright Jack (British Lion 1959) the class divide is made perfectly evident in the dispute between the workers and the owners of a factory; with the inclusion of Peter Sellers' trouble-making union representative thrown in for good measure. At last the British film industry, as had the French and Italians, were producing films with a strong political and artistic background of their own that they would develop and progress into the 1960's. However, this particular notion of reality is much debated and is a problem when looking at whether film is “a product of society or that of an ideology of one director or author.” (Murphy 146)
These New Wave films represented an “extremely dynamic, but short lived, period of film-making.” (Nowell-Smith 605). By 1963 London became the party capital of the world and the notoriety of ‘Swinging London' and its Soho clubs and cinemas was in complete contrast to the gritty social dramas of the late 1950's. Suddenly British culture was internationally recognised. With the mass popularity of The Beatles in music, Mary Kwant in fashion and David Hockney in art people were looking towards Britain to produce films that captured the spirit of the moment: "The 1960s witnessed a revitalisation of British Cinema and the emergence of a flourishing and diverse film culture after what was widely perceived to be the 'doldrums era' of the 1950s.” (Moore-Gilbert 218). People demanded films that were not as ‘angry' as the previous decade but celebrated the new possibility of social freedom. Unfortunately the money was not immediately available from British financiers and it was Hollywood that came to the rescue. The commercially successful Tom Jones, directed by Tony Richardson in 1963 was backed by United Artists and a number of American studios began investing heavily in British cinema. It is ironic that just as Hollywood saw the possibilities of exploiting British culture at the turn of the century, they were equally as deft to jump on the original ‘Cool Britannia' bandwagon; leaving British investors to miss out all over again. United Artists also saw a lucrative business opportunity in Ian Fleming's charismatic character James Bond. With the backing of United Artists, Terence Young's 1963 film Dr. No, the first official Bond feature film, has grossed an impressive $60 million from a production budget of around $1 million. (the-numbers.com) Thankfully there were successful films that were produced by British companies; The Carry On series of films became hugely popular comedy films for Anglo-Amalgamated Productions and the horror films from Hammer were equally as successful; an argument that British films had to be camp to be successful can be made. Unfortunately towards the end of the 1960's both these production companies were guilty of merely trading on their name and the formulaic output became weaker as the years progressed; Hammer must have seen the beginning of the end with the appalling Dracula A.D. 1972, directed by Alan Gibson in 1972. However, Britain produced some classic films in the 1960's that were not churned out by the factory-style production houses of Hammer and Anglo-Amalgamated. David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia (Horizon 1962), Tony Richardson's adaptation Tom Jones (Woodfall/United Artists 1963), Fred Zinnerman's costume drama A Man For All Seasons (Open Road 1966) and Carol Reed's musical Oliver! (Romulus/Warwick 1968) all won Academy Awards for Best Picture. In terms of critical success this was an important period for the British film industry but despite such a strong line-up of films, cinema attendance collapsed in the decade, from 501 million in 1960 to 193 million in 1970 (bbc.co.uk).
The 1970's saw the Hollywood studios pull out of Britain and concentrate on the new films being made by Penn, Spielberg, Lucas and the new generation of director/auteurs that were taking America by storm. Unlike the successful decade before that saw four British films win the Best Picture Oscar, there was not a single winner and only four nominees for the entire decade (oscars.org). There was a return to the gritty storyline made popular in the 1950's with the release of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (ABC 1971), Mike Hodge's Get Carter (MGM 1971) and John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday (British Lion/Handmade 1980). It is interesting to note that Hollywood remade Get Carter in 2000 with aging leading man Sylvester Stallone playing the role made famous by Michael Caine. The signs looked ominous that this was to be a dark era for the British Film Industry.
When Colin Welland made his infamous announcement to the audience at the 1981 Academy Awards ceremony there was a feeling of excitement that the British film industry had turned things around. Hugh Hudson's sports drama Chariots of Fire (Enigma/Goldcrest/Warner Bros. 1981) had picked up the Oscar for Best Picture and was duly followed the following year with Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (Goldcrest/Indo-British 1982) winning the same accolade. Suddenly Britain was important again in the eyes of Hollywood. However, this mini revolution ended before it really had a chance to progress. Goldcrest who had worked on Chariots of Fire and Gandhi collapsed in 1986 after an over-ambitious production slate left them penniless, Virgin (who had an investment in one of Goldcrest's productions, Absolute Beginners) was forced to withdraw from film production after only four years, and Palace Pictures who produced Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984), Mona Lisa (1986) and The Crying Game (1992) was forced to close its production and distribution activities in 1992. This was certainly not helped by the Thatcher government of the time that decided to introduce the Films Act 1985 that dissolved the British Film Fund Agency, ending the Eady levy system established in 1951 in which a proportion of the ticket price was to be pooled; half to be retained by exhibitors (effectively a rebate on the tax) and half to be divided among qualifying 'British' films in proportion to UK box office revenue, with no obligation to invest in further production. The Act repealed the Films Acts 1960-1980 and also repealed certain provisions of the Finance Acts 1982 and 1984 and substituted new provisions for determining whether or not a film was 'British' film eligible for capital allowances. This drove the lucrative Hollywood businesses away and what had started as a decade to celebrate British film turned into the darkest period of its history. This treatment by the Conservative government led then National Theatre director Sir Peter Hall to say “Well over 90 per cent of the people in the performing arts, education and creative world are against Mrs. Thatcher” (Young 411). There was a glimmer of hope with the news that Channel Four was to invest in British film production and under the leadership of David Rose, ‘Film on Four' funded films for cinema release, prior to subsequent television transmission and some of its early successes were spectacular, including Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), Neil Jordan's Angel (1982) and Stephen Frears/Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). Over the next few years the emphasis was on releasing films that could compete with Hollywood; this was something that had been tried before and failed. However, the films slowly started to win over audiences in Britain, but most importantly they broke into the American market. Mike Newel's Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Danny Boyle's Trainspotting (1996) were huge international hits that paved the way for more successful releases. Channel Four Films have produced over 300 feature films since 1981 and are the most accomplished British production company and distribution company at this current time. If it hadn't have been for Channel Four fulfilling its commitment to British film then there would not be a film industry to talk about.
To write about the entire European film industry that spans over a period of 110 years would require more than one essay; and certainly more than one chapter. However, I feel that is important to demonstrate the importance of European film in relation to Hollywood and the British film industry. For the purposes of this essay I am referring to European film as non-English language and non-British films.
Considering that Europe was the birthplace of cinema it is not surprising that there is such a rich cultural background of film throughout the continent. From the birth of film from the Lumière Cinématographe in France, to the German Expressionism movement of the early 1920's, to the Soviet Formalism of the mid 1920's, to the Neo-Realism of the Italian cinema in the 1940's, to the New Wave of French cinema in the 1950's and the vow of chastity that began the Scandinavian Dogma movement in the 1990's the European film industries have developed ideas that are still used today all around the world.
It feels morally wrong to skim over these movements and label them as ‘European' when they all have strong individual traits that distinctively belong to each specific country. However, looking at them in context to how Hollywood perceives them is to view them as a pool of talent that can be ‘fished' to improve the Hollywood machine. Whereas Britain had always hoped to compete with Hollywood, the European countries seemed to feel more comfortable releasing films for their own market. However, that is not to say that Europe did not have the same problem Britain had with the mass export of Hollywood films. The end of the First World War opened a floodgate of opportunity for the American film industry to infiltrate the cinemas of France. As one Hollywood industry leader stated “the re-opening of the European market is the big opportunity we've been awaiting for four years.” (Higson 137). The following years saw Hollywood increase their distribution into Europe with the help of the MPPDA, and in 1927 Edouard Herriot, the Ministere de l'Instruction Publique et des Beaux Arts of the French government, responded to the actions of the U.S. Congress by establishing a Cinema Commission that consisted of government officials and representatives from all branches of the French film industry. The goal of the commission was to collect information about the impact of the American cinema on French film production. After discovering the magnitude of the American film imports, the minister reported to the French Senate that “France would soon be colonized by foreign motion picture interests if we do not do something about it.” (Higson 193).
It was not only France that foresaw the problem of Hollywood infiltrating and diluting their film industries. Germany, which was the only nation in Europe that produced more films than it imported in the 1920's, instituted a contingent plan to limit foreign films being exhibited in the country. In 1927 German studios produced 241 features, which amounted to 46.3% of the total films exhibited that year (Nowell-Smith 58). These protective measures allowed European cinema to research new ideas and develop new movements up to the beginning of the Second World War. Some of the films that were coming out of Europe in the pre-War era were notably some of the greatest movies ever made; in 1920 the German director Robert Wiene released The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligar Decla-Bioscop AG) that began the Expressionist movement, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein released the powerful Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin Goskino) in 1925 demonstrating the power of Formalism and its form of language over content and subject, and German director Fritz Lang released his dark thriller M (Nero-Film AG 1931). These are just three films of the pre-war era that defined Europe's ability to create modern art in film. Hollywood stood up and noticed. Not before long the horror of Robert Wiene's films were being (albeit in diluted form) presented in the Universal horror films of the 1930's, Eisenstein's unique use of editing to further the narrative was honed by Hollywood and the famous Odessa Steps sequence is still being parodied in modern films (most notably in Brian de Palma's The Untouchables in 1987), and the dark, moody lighting of Lang's films was to turn up in the Film Noir films of Warner Bros. in the 1940's (Mildred Pierce, White Heat, Key Largo, The Maltese Falcon).
In more recent times it can be argued that the only two European nations that regularly vie for Hollywood's attention are France and Italy. Since the beginnings of the New Wave in France, directors Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut developed a cinema that was ‘truthful' and did not cater for the happy endings that Hollywood so often delivered to their audiences. Tragedy is a common theme in French films and can be found in a range of films including Régis Wargnier's lavish costume drama Indochine (1992) that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Mathieu Kassovitz's uncompromising film La Haine (1995) and Virginie Despentes/Coralie's brutal independent feature Baise-moi (2000). Italy on the other hand can be accused of relying on its past glories of Neo-Realism and offering the world films served with a spoonful of sugar; perfect for the American public and suitable for Hollywood remakes. Giuseppe Tornatore's sweet reminiscent film Nuovo cinema Paradiso (1989) picked up the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film as did Gabriele Salvatores' light-hearted World War Two comedy Mediterraneo in 1991. The Second World War is also the theme in the moving, but ultimately charming Roberto Benigni film Life is Beautiful (La Vita è bella 1997) that also picked up the same Oscar as the previous two films. It is apparent that Hollywood appreciates the Italian style of story-telling, but at the same time it would be foolish not to imagine these films being remade by the studios for a wider American and world audience.
Hollywood has been the dominant force in the global film market since the turn of the twentieth century. It has learned to accept change and develop it into a product that the public wants. This change is not a single entity. It covers technology, artistry, society and money.
The changes in technology have forged the film industry into what it is today; from the very first days of the Lumieres' Cinématographe projecting employees leaving a factory in 1895, to the introduction of sound in The Jazz Singer, to the beginning of colour film in the 1930's, to the ability to watch films in your own home with video and DVD. Every time there has been an advancement in technology Hollywood has adapted, researched, developed and exploited it. There have been some technological breakthroughs that have been left at the wayside; 3-D productions, for example, but it is this willingness to take a risk that has enabled Hollywood to remain at the forefront of all film producing nations.
The art of filmmaking has changed dramatically since its inception in the 1890's. Audiences are far more sophisticated than they were when the first talking pictures were released and Hollywood has revised the way films are made to cater for their new tastes. Hollywood understands that the only way to keep the money coming in is to present a product that the public will want to pay money to go and see. It can be argued that Hollywood is a touch conservative artistically compared to the more independent film producers but it must be noted that most independents aren't completely free of Hollywood's financial backing. Even the most leftfield production company will somehow receive funding from the Hollywood establishment, allowing for a convenient partnership of artistic experiment with the knowledge that if it ‘works' it will be utilised in a major production somewhere down the line. There is also the fact that Hollywood will look into other countries' artistic pools of talent and when the needs arise, pluck an actor from country ‘A', a writer from country ‘B' and a director from country ‘C' with the promise of bigger budgets and an array of talent at their disposal. If that is too complicated then why not just buy the film and remake it with the already established Hollywood faithful?
Society as a whole will always have needs that relate to the situation at the time. In Hollywood this can be identified in many ways. After the Great Depression of the late 1920's and early 1930's there were a lot of films produced that encouraged the country to get back on its feet. During the Second World War there were propaganda films demonstrating the bravery of the troops and how any single person's efforts could eventually win the war and bring the troops home. In the 1960's there was an emphasis on the new generation of American who had chosen a path that was not as conventional as had been followed before, in turn cinema became an outlet for unconventional ideas and subject matter. Hollywood can never really be labeled as creating the market, but it is rarely far behind to cater for it. If the public cannot identify with what Hollywood is offering then they will not go to the cinema, and Hollywood will not receive the money they need to continue production.
Hollywood runs on box office receipts. Admittedly in recent years there has been the additional income of television rights, video and DVD rentals and sales, merchandising and corporate sponsorship. However, the most important thing for any film producer is to produce a film that makes money at the box office. With spiraling production costs there is more pressure on getting audiences into the cinemas. Special effects, remakes of classic films, major celebrity stars and ingenuous promotional activities are commonly used to make sure the public go to see film ‘A' instead of film ‘B' (but with an emphasis on trying to get them to eventually see both). Hollywood is a business. If people stopped going to the cinema there could possibly come a time when there is no Hollywood. The emphasis on throwing vast amounts of money at a production to ‘fix' it has been around since Intolerance and has cost a number of major studios dearly, yet it has not seen the topple of Hollywood as a whole. It is currently hard to see Hollywood losing its grip on the global film market. Until a serious contender steps into the arena Hollywood has a pretty easy time of it.
In contrast the film industries in Europe and Britain have to fight for scraps thrown to them from Hollywood, private investors and their own governments. Once proud cinematic nations such as Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Russia have reverted to smaller productions that are meant mainly for their home audiences. France, the ancestral home of cinema, still produces movies that have an international appeal but these are few and far between. The uncompromising dramatic storylines of their inner city dramas alienate an American audience used to the eternal happy ending. The Italians who boasted a host of neo-realist directors are caught somewhat in a time-warp, releasing films for international recognition that recall a past glory. Even if the European nations were to count the number of successful movies that have been internationally released in one year they would probably still be outnumbered by the summer release schedule of a singular smaller Hollywood studio.
Britain suffers the same fate. It is hard not to look back on a national film industry that has as many great writers as the French, as many wonderful directors as the Italians and more than the rest of Europe's choice for international acting talent. Yet the same problem exists. The British film industry is a drop in the ocean compared to Hollywood. There is a sense of pride when a British film achieves success in America; but the fact is that the film would have needed to have been popular in America for the British public to actually choose to go and see it rather than the Hollywood blockbuster playing at the same time. At a quick glance there seems to be a lack of choice of British films to go and see; it is either the comedy drama about upper class twits or the comedy drama about working class grafters. It is only on closer inspection that the lack of choice is not the problem; it is the complete lack of films to choose from in the first place.
There does seem to be another wave of interest coming from Hollywood. Investment in British films is rising and more studios are filming in the UK with British crews. However, this has happened twice before in recent times only for the Americans to leave and the British not having put together a working, structured system to support the film industry. As such it is with a sense of regret that I can see another lean spell of British production and distribution appearing in the future. The British film industry cannot compete with Hollywood and it would be foolish to try without a structure akin to the Hollywood studios (we have been down that route and failed on each occasion). The British film industry cannot produce films without the support of Hollywood money, and the irony is that this money is rarely put back into our industry; we have become the prostitutes working for the Hollywood pimps, and as soon as they realise that there is nothing left but wasteland and high taxes they will smuggle as much money and talent out of the country as quickly as they possibly can. The British film industry is not just the poorer cousin of Hollywood; it is the sickly child in a Dickens novel that will not live to see another Christmas.
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