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American Film since 1945

Summary and Keywords

Over the past seventy years, the American film industry has transformed from mass-producing movies to producing a limited number of massive blockbuster movies on a global scale. Hollywood film studios have moved from independent companies to divisions of media conglomerates. Theatrical attendance for American audiences has plummeted since the mid-1940s; nonetheless, American films have never been more profitable. In 1945, American films could only be viewed in theaters; now they are available in myriad forms of home viewing. Throughout, Hollywood has continued to dominate global cinema, although film and now video production reaches Americans in many other forms, from home videos to educational films.

Amid declining attendance, the Supreme Court in 1948 forced the major studios to sell off their theaters. Hollywood studios instead focused their power on distribution, limiting the supply of films and focusing on expensive productions to sell on an individual basis to theaters. Growing production costs and changing audiences caused wild fluctuations in profits, leading to an industry-wide recession in the late 1960s. The studios emerged under new corporate ownership and honed their blockbuster strategy, releasing “high concept” films widely on the heels of television marketing campaigns. New technologies such as cable and VCRs offered new windows for Hollywood movies beyond theatrical release, reducing the risks of blockbuster production. Deregulation through the 1980s and 1990s allowed for the “Big Six” media conglomerates to join film, theaters, networks, publishing, and other related media outlets under one corporate umbrella. This has expanded the scale and stability of Hollywood revenue while reducing the number and diversity of Hollywood films, as conglomerates focus on film franchises that can thrive on various digital media. Technological change has also lowered the cost of non-Hollywood films and thus encouraged a range of alternative forms of filmmaking, distribution, and exhibition.

Keywords: film, cinema, movies, Hollywood, media, studios

Hollywood Cinema, 1945–1965

The decade after World War II effectively ended the remarkably stable Hollywood studio system that had flourished since the 1920s. Despite postwar changes in American society, which hastened a precipitous decline in movie attendance, 1946 was a record year for Hollywood revenues. Between 1945 and 1955, Hollywood’s audience declined by roughly half from the 90 million viewers who attended the movies weekly in 1946.1 Suburbanization dispersed families away from major cities, home to the marquee theaters that earned the lion’s share of movie ticket revenue. As Americans acquired more leisure time and a greater range of activities through car ownership, Hollywood faced increased competition from other activities, from amusement parks to golf outings and weekend road trips. But television posed the greatest threat to regular movie going during its rapid adoption over the course of the 1950s. Television displaced movies as a habitual, frequent form of entertainment. To thrive, movie attendance had to become an event rather than an everyday pastime.2

The Supreme Court’s Paramount Decision of 1948 dealt another momentous blow to the industry. The ruling forced the vertically integrated studios to divest from owning theaters and outlawed block-booking, the practice of forcing theaters to buy groups of films in order to book the most desirable films. Now each film had to be sold on an independent basis to nonaffiliated theaters, a new reality that quickly eliminated low-budget B-movies and raised the budget for all studio films. The theater divorcement took as long as ten years for some studios; nonetheless, Hollywood’s business strategy dramatically shifted from a focus on owning the premier downtown theaters to further controlling the channels of distribution.

Throughout this period, Hollywood steadily decreased its output of motion pictures, forcing exhibitors to pay higher prices to fill their theaters with a limited product supply. Once a mass-production system, Hollywood now focused on a smaller number of massive productions. Studios shed personnel in various departments, no longer requiring such a large workforce to meet the steady demand for product in studio-owned theaters. This approach dovetailed with the rise of independent production companies led by former studio contract employees, such as top stars, producers and directors. Rather than staffing a picture with the studio’s own roster of creative talent, studios shifted to package production, funding film projects with stars, producers, directors and/or writers already attached, in exchange for the right to distribute the picture for roughly a third of the box office gross. Meanwhile, independent producers helped meet theaters demands for movies no longer satisfied by the major studios like Warner Brothers, Twentieth-Century Fox, MGM, and Paramount.3 These productions ranged from the prestige pictures distributed by United Artists to top urban theaters to the cheap, youth exploitation films distributed by American International Pictures to the growing number of suburban drive-in theaters.

While fortifying their distribution power, studios devised several strategies to drive attendance. Color film, occasionally used for major features in the 1930s and 1940s, was used in 50% of films by the mid-1950s, a visible alternative to the black-and-white television image.4 Widescreen processes, the most successful of which was Fox’s Cinemascope, dramatically enlarged the screen and offered a more immersive, spectacular experience for audiences. Other failed techniques, such as the 3-D boom of 1953, followed a similar logic, working to create a larger-than-life movie experience that transformed a typical movie into an event.5 Meanwhile, these new technologies justified higher ticket prices at the top urban theaters and lured moviegoers back to these profitable exhibition centers. By the 1960s, the roadshow served a similar end as a distribution strategy. Studios booked their top pictures for exclusive, reserved-seating engagements at top theaters, where a successful movie, like The Sound of Music (1965), could play for upwards of a year.

Another major trend, runaway production, particularly in Europe, emerged from a similar confluence of factors. To counter America’s dominance of the international film market, European nations like England and Italy froze a significant portion of Hollywood profits in that country. But studios could spend frozen funds to shoot pictures in Italy because they would employ Italians and contribute to the local economy. Thus, epics like Ben-Hur (1959) took advantage of historic Italian locations and otherwise inaccessible capital. Top stars also benefited from a loophole that allowed them to escape American income taxes if they worked for eighteen consecutive months abroad. Depending on the year, upwards of 60% of American films shot abroad, as the 1950s production incentives morphed into more complicated, European co-productions.6

As the Hollywood lots emptied of film production, many studios successfully refilled them with television production. By the end of the 1950s, studios like Warner Brothers, Columbia, and Universal produced the bulk of network television, adapting efficient B-movie production methods to the new medium. Studios also sold their pre-1948 films (free of residual payment agreements to talent) to the networks and by the early 1960s, realized handsome profits selling individual films for prime-time broadcasts. Thus, while Hollywood films sought to distance themselves from television, the two industries grew intertwined, a trend that would accelerate in the decades to come.7

The narrative and style of American films changed less drastically than the nature of the American film audience during this time period. Certainly, the 1950s and early 1960s courted a growing youth market, starting with juvenile-delinquent melodramas like Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Rebel without A Cause (1955). Hollywood’s self-censorship through the Production Code grew increasingly lax, evidenced by more frank sexual themes appearing in dramas like Cat on A Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Anatomy of A Murder (1962). Nonetheless, Hollywood’s major hits, from Oklahoma! (1955) to Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) and Swiss Family Robinson (1960), courted wide family audiences. Hollywood continued to produce genre films, from film noir in the 1940s and 1950s to Westerns, ranging from inexpensive productions to epics like How the West Was Won (1962). However, the receipts (and budgets) for the top films came to dominate Hollywood’s financial picture. Ben-Hur (1959) saved MGM from potential bankruptcy, while Cleopatra (1962) sunk Fox into massive debt. The importance of these blockbuster productions would nearly destroy Hollywood in the late 1960s, only to lift Hollywood to outrageous profits by the second half of the 1970s.

Hollywood Cinema, 1965–1980

Many of the Hollywood studios came under outside corporate ownership in the second half of the 1960s, as non-media conglomerates like Gulf and Western (who bought Paramount) and Kinney Services (who bought Warner Brothers) found undervalued assets in Hollywood studios struggling to earn consistent box-office returns. In particular, film libraries reaped rising profits from sales to network television.8 Yet this new wave of corporate mergers failed to stabilize studio profits. The remarkable success of The Sound of Music (1965), which earned $135 million dollars and ran for two years, helped precipitate Hollywood’s worst recession between 1969 and 1971. Nearly every studio produced one or more expensive musicals hoping to follow the film’s success, yet nearly all of them, such as Paint Your Wagon (1969) and Darling Lili (1971), returned only a fraction of their production costs. Not only the failure of these films but the sheer amount of money studios had tied up in these films demanded high interest payments and ground the production of expensive features to a halt. The major studios survived largely through federal assistance that in 1971, began to offer tax credits for production losses and tax shelters for movie financing.9

Hollywood’s financial disaster helped sustain one of its most celebrated periods of artistic achievement, the Hollywood Renaissance. Beginning with innovative films The Graduate (1969), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Easy Rider (1969), inexpensive pictures that became runaway hits, Hollywood studios acknowledged both the growing importance and their growing unfamiliarity with the teenage and twenty-something audience that proved to be the most reliable moviegoers of this period. When the recession hit, studios like Warner Brothers and Paramount invested in dozens of lower-budget, youth-oriented pictures directed by young directors with little experience making studio films. These films also benefited from the transition from the Motion Picture Production Code established in the 1930s to the ratings system, allowing more realistic language, nudity, and subject matter in movies like Five Easy Pieces (1970) and M*A*S*H (1970). The waning power of the Production Code became starkly apparent when MGM released the British film Blow-Up (1966) without a Production Code seal of approval; it became the studio’s biggest hit of the year.10 Replaced by the ratings system in 1968, which for several years, left the X-rating available for bold artistic films rather than pornography, young filmmakers brought a frank realism to the screen, exemplified by Midnight Cowboy (1969), which won the Oscar for Best Picture. Often shooting on location with new portable cameras, fast color film stock, and full-service production vehicles, even mainstream genre films like The French Connection (1971) and The Godfather (1972) presented a gritty and jaded image of America befitting the cultural disillusionment of the early 1970s. Hollywood also tried to expand its audience by targeting African-American viewers with “Blaxploitation” films, inexpensive productions that gained little critical acclaim but nonetheless gave African-American performers their largest screen presence in history.

While focusing on specific audiences like college students and African Americans, Hollywood rediscovered a mass audience and launched a far more successful blockbuster strategy following the recession. The Godfather (1972), an ambitious production based on a best-selling novel, was the runaway hit of the year, grossing more than double the gross of its closest competitor, the disaster movie The Poiseidon Adventure (1972). The Godfather spawned a sequel, another profitable trend that rose to prominence by the 1980s, and proved that a single film could lift a company like Paramount back to profitability. Jaws (1975) became an even more prototypical blockbuster that redefined Hollywood strategies for movie releases. Also based on a best-selling novel and relying on a “high-concept” story, Jaws relied heavily on television advertising, a holiday release date, and saturation-booking, opening on far more screens nationwide then a typical release. The film earned record profits over $200 million dollars, led to sequels and ancillary products like toys and video games, and set the precedent for the modern blockbuster.11 Yet just two years later, Star Wars (1977) broke Jaws’ record performance and more fully exploited the merchandising and sequel potential of franchise filmmaking.

These landmark hits established a new dominant strategy for Hollywood studios. By 1980, they collectively cut their annual output in half from 1970, focusing on tent-pole productions and hoping that at least one picture a year could return the bulk of the studio’s profits.12 Like Jaws, the studios targeted Christmas and summer for their top releases, advertised extensively on television, and booked top films on an increasing number of American screens. The construction of multiplexes, usually adjacent to suburban shopping malls, boomed throughout the 1970s, creating exhibition venues convenient to the core suburban youth audience and allowing top films to occupy multiple screens per theater.13 Hollywood studios filled the rest of the schedule with less expensive features, including comedies, horror films, and occasionally, critically acclaimed hits like Annie Hall (1977) and Network (1976). This second tier of pictures paled in comparison to the revenue earned by films like Superman (1976) and The Empire Strikes Back (1977).

This period upended the genre hierarchies of the previous decades. Westerns and musicals, staples of 1960s big budget production, grew far less prevalent by the end of the 1970s, with the major exception of the hit Grease (1976). Yet Grease also tapped into a new trend for nostalgia films, including American Graffiti (1973) and Animal House (1978). Disaster films like The Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake! (1974) and Airport 1975 (1974), that placed a large cast of major and minor stars in peril, thrived in the mid-1970s. What they shared with later blockbusters like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a tremendous emphasis on special effects, an ancillary component of most Hollywood films prior to the 1970s. Perhaps most surprisingly was the new prominence of science fiction films, a hitherto staple of low-budget exploitation filmmaking that gained wider appeal with ambitious films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Planet of the Apes (1968) before dominating the box office in the late 1970s. Even horror films, particularly The Exorcist (1971), became major hits during this transitional blockbuster phase.

This shift in genres owes much to Hollywood’s shifting production strategy. Science fiction and horror were staples for exploitation filmmakers, who pioneered saturation booking in the 1950s and 1960s. They developed posters and trailers before creating a film and opened as widely as possible before bad reviews or word-of-mouth could ruin box office returns. Hollywood embraced this tactic, selling “high concept” films that could be neatly and excitingly summarized with an iconic image, like the famous poster for Jaws (1975), where a massive shark ascends upwards towards a scantily clad female swimmer. The expense of television advertising and wide releases encouraged a focused campaign toward opening weekend, when the marketing push would have the peak of its impact.14 While Hollywood largely profited from its new blockbuster mentality, the risks exposed during the Hollywood recession remained. Banking on the success of breakout young directors Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino, whose first major film, The Deer Hunter, won Best Picture in 1977, United Artists launched expensive, prolonged, and chaotic productions of Apocalypse Now! (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980). The former proved worth the trouble, while the latter realized a staggering loss that essentially drove United Artists out of business.15 Blockbusters remained a high risk/high reward proposition through the 1970s, but the growth of new technologies and corporate reorganizations in the 1980s and 1990s helped eliminate much of this uncertainty.

Hollywood Cinema, 1980–1995

The 1980s cemented and stabilized Hollywood’s blockbuster strategy through the rapid expansion of ancillary markets for Hollywood products, particularly home video and cable. The major studios sued Sony when it introduced the Betamax VCR player in 1975, originally marketed as a device for recording live television and thus, studio-owned film and television content. However, VCRs proved to have little impact on theatrical attendance, which rose during the 1980s. Meanwhile, the profits earned from distributing video cassettes to an explosion of video stores, and later in the decade, direct sales of cassettes to consumers, established a booming new ancillary market for Hollywood films.16

At the same time, cable television, introduced in the mid-1970s, grew widespread during the 1980s and 1990s while the number of cable networks expanded. Successful stations like pay channels HBO and Showtime, as well as basic cable networks like TNT and USA, relied heavily on Hollywood films to drive subscriptions and fill out schedules. By 1990, the major studios earned more from ancillary markets than theatrical releases, despite rising theatrical profits as the number of American screens grew by 60% to provide even wider releases for blockbusters.17 These developments dramatically increased the profitability of successful films while cushioning the potential losses for unsuccessful ones.

But promoting films to so many screens, as well as the various release windows of theatrical, home video, cable, and network television sales, required extraordinarily high marketing costs. Production costs also escalated as powerful talent agencies leveraged the box office potential of major movie stars to higher salaries and profit percentage deals, and largely created the package of script, director, stars and producers necessary for a major studio to finance a high-budget film. A reliance on state-of-the-art special effects and other spectacles to sell these “event” movies further contributed to rising production costs. Such inflationary trends helped maintain a level of risk for a major flop and ensured that most films were still unprofitable, yet a blockbuster hit every few years could more than make up for a slate of box office failures.18

Rising costs and potential profits drove a new wave of conglomeration, this time led by media firms rather than more diversified corporations. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation acquired 20th Century Fox in the mid-1980s, followed Time’s purchase of Warner Brothers and Sony’s purchase of Columbia in 1989. Unlike the conglomerates of the 1970s, these media companies found “synergy” between Hollywood films and print media, cable networks, home video, television series, recorded music, and even amusement parks. These firms could exploit hit films such as the Indiana Jones franchise across various media all under the same corporate umbrella. With Fox’s launch of a fourth television network in the mid-1980s and later, Disney’s acquisition of ABC in 1995, media conglomerates began to unify the film and television industries under a handful of corporate parents. The Reagan administration’s emphasis on deregulation, partly through lax enforcement of anti-trust laws, facilitated these corporate maneuvers.19 In fact by the late 1980s, film companies (or their parent companies) began acquiring movie theater chains, the precise form of vertical integration outlawed by the 1948 Supreme Court decision.20

More than anyone else, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg helped define the blockbuster aesthetic of the 1980s and early 1990s, collaborating on Raiders of the Lost Ark (the top film of 1980) and its sequels (both top three hits), while Lucas’ Star Wars sequels were each top hits (more than doubling the year’s second-highest grossing film) and Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) earned over $350 million, as did Jurassic Park (1993).21 In addition, Spielberg served as executive producer for blockbusters like the Back to the Future films, Gremlins (1984), and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). All of these projects were “high concept,” relied heavily on special effects, featured male protagonists, and exploited ancillary markets from toys to soundtracks and video games. They also targeted the entire family with PG ratings while pushing the limits of acceptable content within such movies. Graphic violence in Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) precipitated a new rating, PG-13, which grew in popularity through the 1980s and 1990s, allowing for violent action to attract teenage and young adult viewers while not restricting viewers less than eighteen years of age from buying tickets.22

R-rated films continued to thrive, particularly male-oriented action films like Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Like the family blockbusters, action-filled plots translated well for global audiences, whose importance greatly increased by the early 1990s, when foreign profits surged ahead of domestic profits. As a point of comparison, E.T. made roughly 55% of its profits in the United States and Canada, while later blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 made only 40% of their profits domestically.23 A growing reliance on the foreign box office further increased marketing and production costs and reinforced Hollywood’s high-concept approach, favoring action adventures that translated easily to other cultural contexts. Sequels and pre-sold properties (Batman, Jurassic Park) helped ensure that expensive blockbusters had global brand recognition and appeal before the start of their marketing campaign.

As in the Hollywood Renaissance, Hollywood’s declining output and preoccupation with blockbusters left an opening for less expensive films to capture attention. In 1989, Sex, Lies and Videotape marked the beginning of an independent film boom, and its distributor, Miramax, soon became synonymous with edgy, low-to-mid budget films like The Crying Game (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Such films gained critical acclaim and box office success as alternatives to Hollywood blockbusters. Film festivals, particularly Sundance, created an alternative market where distributors could bid on completed films that showed well at the festival and prepare them for wider release. As independent films grew in popularity, the conglomerates took a greater interest in these low-risk projects that could provide a breakout hit and fill gaps in the release schedule. Disney acquired Miramax in 1993, while other studios formed their own in-house divisions like Sony Picture Classics and Focus Features (part of Universal) in the early 1990s.24 The growing scale and cross-media integration of the Hollywood studios’ parent companies allowed them to readily absorb and exploit the independent market.

Hollywood, 1995–2015

The media conglomerates that owned the Hollywood studios grew further integrated by the early 2000s, resulting in the “Big Six,” the handful of conglomerates that now control the vast majority of the film and television industry. Continued government deregulation in the mid-1990s further encouraged media conglomeration, including the end of Financing and Syndication rules that prevented networks from owning their prime-time content, as well as the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed many existing limits on cross-ownership. Parent companies could now combine film studios with broadcast and cable networks, owning the key promotional medium and distribution outlet for their films. By the mid-2000s, all of the major broadcast networks fell under conglomerate ownership: Universal merged with NBC, Disney acquired ABC, and Viacom paired with CBS and Paramount. Following the model set by News Corporation, which launched its own Fox network in the 1980s, Time-Warner launched the WB network in the 1990s. Sony Pictures (formerly Columbia Pictures) remains the only “Big Six” player without an affiliated broadcast network, although they have created hardware synergies with Playstation gaming systems that now stream movies and the industry-standard Blu Ray disc format.25

At this stage, American film can only be understood within this larger structure of conglomeration. Blockbuster films now have far longer profit windows beyond theatrical release through various forms of home viewing. They serve additional roles as content for their parent companies’ various networks, such as the Fox movies regularly playing on the FX network. This system ensures that unlike the earlier blockbuster era, only the greatest of flops can fail to return a profit. Meanwhile, the potential returns for film franchises grow ever more lucrative. NBC–Universal (now owned by cable giant Comcast) has not only released eight Harry Potter films but also has opened a Harry Potter theme park at Universal Studios and will soon begin another series of films set in the Harry Potter universe. Unlike 1980s blockbusters, with the exception of Star Wars, contemporary film franchises can sustain corporate film profits for more than a decade. At the same time, only a limited number of stories can be magnified to such a monumental scale or achieve global awareness prior to a film’s release. As a result, Hollywood studios have focused much of their effort on securing intellectual property that can be widely exploited in perpetuity, particularly as copyright law has continually extended corporate ownership rights.

The effect on Hollywood filmmaking is most apparent in the current dominance of the comic book superhero genre. Franchises like Spiderman (Sony) and Batman (Time-Warner) benefit from internationally recognized characters, a wealth of pre-established storylines, vast merchandising opportunities, and the potential to “reboot” the franchise for the ever-changing youth audience. While talent agencies remain powerful in setting up package deals, the appeal of these characters and their world can outlast any given star’s appeal in a given role. Comic book properties also take full advantage of CGI (computer graphics imagery, technology that allows Hollywood productions to create previously unfilmable or inordinately expensive spectacles), from Spiderman swinging through the city to armies of robots and dozens of building-razing explosions in The Avengers (2012). These action spectacles readily translate to a global audience, particularly the increasingly important Chinese film market, which grew exponentially with China’s rapid industrial growth in the 21st century.26 A greater dependence on the global box office has limited Hollywood investment in genres that translate poorly abroad, like comedies, and reinforced Hollywood’s focus on the white, heterosexual male protagonists that have become universally accepted in international markets through decades of Hollywood exports.

To efficiently exploit its international marketing efforts, Hollywood studios have continued to refine their distribution strategies. Perhaps the greatest change was technological, as theaters rapidly converted from film to digital projection during the early 2000s. Digital copies prove far less expensive to create and distribute than physical film, allowing movies to open across far more screens with no risk of overproducing prints. Coupled with piracy concerns and the need to coordinate global marketing campaigns, Hollywood studios have increasingly moved towards same-day global releases. Thus, opening weekends provide windfall profits and more or less determine a movie’s box office potential and the length of its theatrical run. A shortening of the theatrical window to maximize early returns applies to home video as well, where releases arrive closer on the heels of theatrical runs to quickly return the massive production costs of the film and to benefit from the recent theatrical marketing push. With the need for any major blockbuster to dominate its opening weekend, studios carefully coordinate their release schedules to avoid unnecessary competition between blockbusters. Instead, smaller films or unsuccessful projects draw the remaining audiences as either counter-programming or an alternative when tickets to the newest blockbuster sell out.

The conglomerate Hollywood system has brought far greater stability and profitability to the American film industry than it ever achieved during its pre-World War II classical era. However, this system produces far fewer films, draws a far smaller American audience, and targets avid young movie fans rather than a broad audience. The biggest threat to this stasis, particularly among young audience members, is the Internet. The 2000 America Online and Time-Warner merger failed disastrously, as the companies found little corporate synergy in an era of limited video streaming and as America Online subscriptions rapidly declined.27 The DVD market proved outstandingly profitable in the 2000s, but sales of this and the new Blu Ray format have steadily fallen with the rise of video-on-demand services. Meanwhile, “cord cutting” has eroded the subscriber base and thus, advertising rates for the conglomerate-owned cable networks, while services like YouTube and Netflix steadily chip away at broadcast audiences. Finally, television series with high production values, like AMC’s Madmen, HBO’s Game of Thrones, and Netflix’s House of Cards, have driven subscriptions to streaming services far more than Hollywood blockbusters, which continue to seek profits through direct downloads and cable network deals. In fact, as Hollywood’s products have become more homogenous, creative talent has migrated to television, which has achieved the critical acclaim and variety that was once the sole province of the movie studios.

Non-Hollywood Cinema after 1945

While the majority of American film historians focus on the Hollywood industry and its films, other scholars have expanded this scope to include the myriad other forms of filmmaking and exhibition that play a significant role in American culture. These include documentaries, adult films, film festivals, experimental films, home movies, educational films, and industrial films. This section provides a brief summary of key developments and areas of particular scholarly interest in these types of film, roughly ordered from the most widely seen to the most obscure.

Documentaries reached their peak popularity for American audiences during World War II, as Hollywood-produced newsreels and short documentaries, along with some government-produced films, offered a powerful visual link to the fight abroad. Yet following the war, Hollywood phased out newsreel production as studios struggled with overhead and television rose as the primary news medium. Television documentaries formed the basis for an important new style of documentary, direct cinema, pioneered by Robert Drew and Associates in the early 1960s.28 Films like Primary (1960) limited voiceover narration, largely eschewed sit-down interviews, and relied on a free-wheeling handheld camera to intimately capture political figures like the Kennedys as if they were caught unaware. Later, direct cinema filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers gained theatrical releases for their documentaries on countercultural musicians, such as Don’t Look Back (1967) and Give Me Shelter (1970). Woodstock (1970) became a top-ten hit in theatrical release. Documentaries have remained a staple at art cinema theaters and occasionally gain wider releases, such as Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911. The direct cinema style has largely replaced the omniscient, voice-over narrated style associated with 1940s war documentaries.

Pornographic films largely circulated through art catalogs and small “stag film” distributors until the early 1970s,29 when the advent of the ratings system, Hollywood’s debilitating recession, and a change in sexual mores gave rise to XXX films and theaters. Deep Throat was the fifth-highest grossing film of 1971, marking a peak for mainstream attendance of adult films.30 Soon Hollywood recovered and adult film theaters lost their fleeing mass appeal, as many closed with the rise of video stores in the 1980s. Adult sections, often placed behind a curtain in the back of the store, were a staple of independent video stores but Blockbuster Video, who refused to stock these and certain controversial films, overtook the video industry in the 1990s. Adult video once again became a staple of another new technology, online streaming video, in the 2000s.

Hollywood studios regularly employed independent producers, but these were largely former studio employees who essentially produced Hollywood-style films. When independent films produced and distributed outside of the Hollywood system gained widespread attention in the early 1990s, the studios formed or acquired their own independent film divisions. Nonetheless, hundreds of films are still distributed independent of Hollywood, albeit in the limited circuit of film festivals. While popular showings at major festivals like Toronto and Sundance can draw studio attention, the majority of independent films circulate through both major and regional film festivals, providing low-budget filmmakers with an opportunity to find audiences for their work. The number of such films has greatly increased due to digital cameras and editing systems that have greatly lowered production costs since the mid-2000s.

Experimental films have fewer venues for exhibition, limited to art galleries, college campuses, and screening rooms in major cities like New York and San Francisco. Experimental filmmaking boomed in these cities during the 1960s as part of the broader countercultural movement, which also provided new venues for projecting experimental work, such as rock concerts and happenings. Educational films remained a staple of public education before and after World War II. Industrial films provided both internal and external information about companies and eventually became the ubiquitous corporate videos available from most employers today. Through the 1970s, a common thread among these forms of filmmaking was the 16-mm format, which was cheaper to purchase and develop, required less light, and fit more portable cameras than Hollywood’s 35-mm and 70-mm stocks. Video largely replaced this format during the 1980s.

Home movies, while providing a rather ubiquitous and denigrated form of filmmaking, nonetheless offer direct insights into everyday American life. Home filmmaking primarily utilized 8mm film, which was inexpensive and light sensitive, but few households owned 8-mm cameras and projectors. The video camcorder of the 1980s gained far wider public acceptance, enough to sustain the series America’s Funniest Home Videos, premiering in 1990. The growing adoption of smartphones with digital video cameras in the 2010s greatly increased the prevalence of amateur filmmaking. Coupled with digital editing software and online distribution platforms like YouTube, amateur films now constitute a major source of viewing content, corporate profits, and occasionally, a path to commercial filmmaking for aspiring talent. The style, accessibility, and affordability of these new technologies has cross-pollinated with independent film, such as Tangerine (2015), a narrative film shot entirely on a cellphone, distributed at film festivals, and now widely available through video-streaming services.

Discussion of the Literature

Post–World War II American film history has been guided in many ways by larger trends in the field of film studies. Auteur studies, dominant in the 1960s, posited the director as the primary creative force behind films worthy of study, driving historical (and ahistorical) inquiries into important directors.31 The 1970s brought a new form of ideological historiography to film studies, pioneered by Jean Luc Comolli, focused on how the commercial technology and industry of film studies promoted bourgeois ideals in film innovations, such as a commitment to greater realism.32 Relatedly, scholars looked at Hollywood’s history of reinforcing dominant gender and racial codes. However, a major turn toward a history of industry norms and forces, supported by archival research, took place in the 1980s and continues to inform most histories of American cinema.33 Ideological concerns remain pertinent to many Hollywood histories, but the historical methodology has coalesced around research into studio archives and trade publications.

One of the fundamental questions that divides film historians is the relative continuity or discontinuity of the Hollywood film industry. Some histories suggest that the classical studio system persisted until 1960, whereas other historians suggest that such a system had already fundamentally changed by the mid-1940s. Changes in film narrative and aesthetics represent another point of contention. Certain scholars see the contemporary blockbuster as a heightened form of classical Hollywood cinema, whereas others point to industrial and stylistic changes that have created a fundamentally different form of cinema and cinema going.34

The rise of media conglomerates raised fundamental questions of how film industry histories should be written within the context of other media industries. Hollywood films continue to play a key role in launching and promoting multimedia content, and the studios often remain some of the more profitable divisions of the “Big Six.”35 Yet these once-autonomous entities now represent only a fraction of their parent companies, raising questions of which industrial scale is appropriate to understand the inner workings of the film industry and changes in film form. For instance, several histories have explored the intertwined history of the film and television industries, rejecting earlier assumptions that Hollywood simply competed against this upstart medium.36 A related question is how we understand the agency available to studios, producers, directors, and actors, within these diversified media conglomerates.

The field’s earlier emphasis on directors also led to a concerted focus on the production side of the film industry, rather than its other pillars of distribution and exhibition. Histories of the myriad new distribution platforms for film since the 1980s, as well as histories of movie theater practices, have broadened the scope of American film history.37 The transition from film to digital cinema broke the material divide between theatrical film and other media, such as home video and cable, which in turn helped expand historical definitions of American film. Growing attention to non-Hollywood filmmaking practices, such as education films and adult films, have similarly broadened this historical framework.38 Regardless of its postwar transformation, American cinema remains a commercial, artistic, and cultural practice, and the question of how these threads influence each other will remain an essential question among film historians.

Primary Sources

The Margaret Herrick Library, part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, houses the most extensive collection of Hollywood film industry documents. These consist of personal collections of actors, producers, directors, and other industry personnel, as well as partial holdings from major American film studios like Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. University of Southern California Special Collections holds one of the most comprehensive studio archives, containing the bulk of Warner Brothers’ corporate files through the year 1968. The USC film library also contains additional personal collections and some studio records. Also in Los Angeles, UCLA Special Collections has major holdings, including detailed records on RKO Pictures, which ceased production in 1957. Other archives with extensive Hollywood collections include the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the Harry Ransom Center at University of Texas Austin, the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research in Madison, and the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center in Boston, Massachusetts. Hollywood studios have shared far less of their materials in the last several decades than they had in the past; thus, post-1960s holdings tend to be less comprehensive. Additionally, the Black Film Archive at University of Indiana has extensive holdings related to African-American filmmakers and performers, both inside and outside of Hollywood. Several film archives also allow researchers to screen archival prints, including the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The types of archival primary documents relevant and available to American film historians are rather diverse. Within a studio collection, a file on an individual production might contain correspondence between key personnel, documents relevant to the legal and research departments, shooting schedules, daily production reports, budgets, and correspondence with the Production Code administration concerning censorship. Press books, the articles, artworks, and promotional campaign plans distributed by studio publicity departments to exhibitors, provide a window into how individual films, filmmakers, and performers were marketed to the public. Production stills, architectural blueprints from art departments, and correspondence with special effects technicians provide additional insights into how films were constructed on set. Personal collections do not often contain as wide a range of documents; nonetheless, they help specify the role of individuals within the industry system. Aids are essential to navigating some of the idiosyncrasies of personal collections, and archive databases often yield relevant information in seemingly unrelated collections.

Historical trade publications, including American Cinematographer, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, are vital sources for American film historiography. They are available through most university libraries. Primary resources on nontheatrical film are also widely available but are scattered across various collections. Some of the digital sources below are extremely useful for finding relevant materials.

Further Reading

Balio, Tino. The American Film Industry. Rev. ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.Find this resource:

    Belton, John. Widescreen Cinema. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

      Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

        Cook, David. Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970–1979. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.Find this resource:

          Hilmes, Michelle. Hollywood and Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.Find this resource:

            Lev, Peter. The Fifties: Transforming the Screen, 1950–1959. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.Find this resource:

              McDonald, Paul and Wasko, Janet, Eds. The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.Find this resource:

                Monaco, Paul. The Sixties, 1960–1969. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.Find this resource:

                  Orgeron, Devin, Orgeron, Marsha and Streible, Dan, Eds. Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                    Prince, Stephen. A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electric Rainbow. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.Find this resource:

                      Rees, A.L. A History of Experimental Film and Video. 2d ed. London: British Film Institute, 2011.Find this resource:

                        Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. New York: Holt, 1988.Find this resource:

                          Schatz, Thomas. Boom and Bust: The American Cinema in the 1940s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.Find this resource:

                            Wasko, Janet. Hollywood in the Information Age. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1994.Find this resource:


                              (1.) Michael Pautz, “The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930–2000,” Issues in Political Economy 11, (2002): 3–6, 14.

                              (2.) Thomas Schatz, “The New Hollywood,” in Julian Stringer, ed., Movie Blockbusters (London: Routledge, 2003), 11–13.

                              (3.) Tino Balio, “Retrenchement, Reappraisal, and Reorganization, 1948-,” The American Film Industry, 2d ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 412–422.

                              (4.) Brad Chisholm, “Red, Blue, and Lots of Green: The Impact of Color Television on Feature Film Production,” in Tino Balio, ed. Hollywood in the Age of Television (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 11–14.

                              (5.) Balio, 425–433.

                              (6.) Thomas Guback, “Hollywood’s International Market,” in Tino Balio, ed., The American Film Industry, 477–480.

                              (7.) Balio, 433–436.

                              (8.) Schatz, 15–16.

                              (9.) David Cook, Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970–1979 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 9–14.

                              (10.) Paul Monaco, The Sixties, 1960–1969 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 61–62.

                              (11.) Thomas Schatz, “The Studio System and Conglomerate Hollywood,” in Paul McDonald and Janet Wasko, eds., The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 19–20.

                              (12.) Cook, 492.

                              (13.) Cook, 349–351.

                              (14.) Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), 113–115.

                              (15.) Cook, 63–65.

                              (16.) Janet Wasko, Hollywood in the Information Age (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1994), 126–137.

                              (17.) Stephen Prince, A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electric Rainbow (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 79; 92.

                              (18.) Prince, 19–20; 42–43.

                              (19.) Schatz, “The Studio System,” 25–27.

                              (20.) Prince, 85–86.

                              (21.) Estimated grosses from Box Office Mojo.

                              (22.) Prince, 367.

                              (23.) Estimated grosses from Box Office Mojo.

                              (24.) Schatz, “The Studio System,” 29–31.

                              (25.) Schatz, 26–29.

                              (26.) Francis Lee, “Hollywood Movies in East Asia: Examining Cultural Discount and Performance Predictability at the Box Office,” Asian Journal of Communication 18.2, June 2008, 117–136.

                              (27.) “15 Years Later, Lessons from the Failed AOL-Time Warner Merger,” Rita Gunther McGrath, Fortune, January 10, 2015.

                              (28.) Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery, Film History: Theory and Practice (New York: Knopf, 1985), 223–229.

                              (29.) Eric Schaefer, “Plain Brown Wrapper: Adult Films for the Home Market, 1930-1969,” in Jon Lewis and Eric Smoodin, eds., Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History and Method (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 206–207.

                              (30.) Cook, 275–276.

                              (31.) See Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, 1929–1968 (New York: De Capo Press, 1996), for the most influential auteur history of cinema directors.

                              (32.) Jean-Luc Comolli and Paul Narboni, “Cinema/ldeology/Criticism,” Screen 12.1 (1971): 27–38.

                              (33.) See David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985); see also Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (New York: Holt, 1988).

                              (34.) See David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). See also Geoff King, “Spectacle, Narrative, and the Spectacular Hollywood Blockbuster,” in Julian Stringer, ed., Movie Blockbusters (London: Routledge, 2003), 114–127.

                              (35.) Schatz, “The Studio System,” 37.

                              (36.) See Michelle Hilmes, Hollywood and Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).

                              (37.) For example, see Philip Napoli, “The Changing Face of Media Distribution and the Decline of Windowing,” Media Industries Project, Carsey-Wolf Center, March 16, 2001. See also Charles Acland, Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 2005.

                              (38.) See Peter Alilunas, Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016. See also Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron and Dan Streible, eds. Learning With the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).