Film Careers Background
In the Woody Allen film Annie Hall, Allen tells Diane Keaton, “A relationship is like a shark . . . if it doesn’t keep swimming, it dies.” This could also serve as a good metaphor for the film industry. For over 100 years, the film industry has avoided many deaths by moving forward. It has adapted to the times, enjoying golden eras and surviving slumps. But such complexities can be expected of an industry driven by both art and commerce. The film industry holds a place in the American imagination like no other, while also maintaining a firm hold on the American pocketbook. The U.S. moviegoing public spends approximately $8 billion annually at the box office. We rent and purchase our favorite films on video and DVD and subscribe to many cable channels devoted to the 24-hour repeat of recent and classic productions. We read magazines and books about filmmaking and visit Web pages devoted to our favorite stars and movies. And thousands of people flock to Hollywood every year to invest in a more glamorous life, with dreams of becoming an actor, screenwriter, or director. What follows are only some of the major developments in the history of this evolving, ever-changing industry.
The desire to create more than static, nonmoving images emerged soon after the development of still photography. If one picture could capture a single moment, inventors realized, then it should be possible to devise a similar technique for capturing a series of moments. Flip cards, the first version of moving pictures, worked on a simple principle. If a series of still pictures can capture the movements of someone running, showing the pictures in rapid succession would give the illusion of the movement of running. In 1877, Eadweard Muybridge successfully captured a horse in motion by using 24 cameras and trip wires that triggered the camera shutters as the horse ran along.
The famous inventor Thomas Edison produced a short movie called The Sneeze in 1894, using film for the first time instead of individual plates. Georges Melies introduced narrative films in 1899 in France, and in 1903 Edwin Porter filmed The Great Train Robbery, the first motion picture that told a story using modern filming techniques. Porter used editing to put together a compelling story that he had filmed out of sequence.
Motion pictures became increasingly popular in the early 1900s, with the advent of the movie house and silent film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. It was not until 1927, when The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson was produced, that talking movies began to be made. In the 1920s the first animated films were released for theater distribution. The 1920s also saw the rise of the studio moguls who built the large production companies such as Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). These companies dominated the industry for years, with tight control of talent, publicity, and film distribution.
The 1930s is often considered the first golden era of filmmaking. It is estimated that 65 percent of the population went to the movies in 1938, accounting for 80 million tickets sold every week. The studios flooded the theaters with films, both good and bad, to keep the public entertained. Though many silent film stars couldn’t find success in the new talkies, others, like Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo, thrived. Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra, and George Cukor are only a few of the great directors who worked during this period.
During World War II, films provided an escape from hardship and tragedy, as well as an aid to the government to educate people about the war effort. Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Huston, and other great filmmakers of the era dedicated themselves to making documentary films for the government. Many feature films were patriotic in nature, or served as portraits of quality American life being protected by the soldiers overseas. A special war tax attached to each theater ticket allowed moviegoers to make a contribution just by being entertained. After the war, however, this close relationship between the film industry and the government soured. The government demanded the big studios give up their theaters, greatly limiting the studios’ control over the features shown across the country. The studios were also hurt by the anti-Communism that swept the nation in the time of Joseph McCarthy. The government formed the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 to sniff out supposed Communist sympathizers in the film industry. A blacklist of actors, screenwriters, and directors believed to be pro-Communist ended the careers of many blacklisted filmmakers. Hollywood received a great deal of negative publicity, and a public backlash of films evolved, including a boycott by the American Legion. Today, the scandal still has an impact, demonstrated by the uproar when Elia Kazan, director of such film classics as Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, who cooperated with the HUAC by naming those in the industry he believed to be Communists and thus effectively ending their careers, was announced as the winner of a special Academy Award in 1999. The Oscars were picketed and Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, and others of the night’s nominees refused to applaud during Kazan’s acceptance.
Also contributing to the demise of the big studios was the rush to the suburbs. Americans were leaving the big cities and, therefore, their proximity to the grand movie houses. They also began to spend their recreational dollars on records for their new hi-fi’s and for tickets for travel on the new airlines. By the late 1940s, the studios had to allow contracts with filmmakers and stars to lapse, ending the studios’ years of complete power over the industry.
Television changed the film industry in a variety of ways, and it continues to do so. With the popularity of TV growing in the early 1950s, movies had competition like nothing before. In 1946, the film industry made more money domestically than at any other time in its history— a gross of $1.7 billion. The early 1950s saw a large drop-off in movie attendance, and by 1962, domestic gross had been cut nearly in half to $900 million. In the 1950s, the movies began to compete by offering elements (and gimmicks) viewers couldn’t find elsewhere. Although the Technicolor process of color film had been perfected in 1933, filmmakers still shot primarily in black and white (B&W). Not only were B&W films less expensive to produce than color films, but filmmakers had honed their skills with B&W, and were more comfortable with it. But B&W TV was growing in popularity and film producers recognized the need to use color more frequently to draw viewers to movie theaters. The industry also tried a few technological stunts, such as 3-D. House of Wax and other horror films were the primary users of 3-D, but other genres dabbled in it as well. The musical Kiss Me, Kate was presented in 3-D. This process, however, was short-lived. And though Cinerama, a film industry gimmick that consisted of films presented on a large, wraparound screen, lasted a bit longer than 3-D, it too sizzled out within 10 years, ending with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. CinemaScope, another big-screen novelty, proved more successful and inspired other wide-screen processes such as VistaVision and Panavision.
Film producers offered something else TV viewers couldn’t get at home: films with controversial subject matter and dialogue. Otto Preminger adapted the play The Moon Is Blue in 1953 and released it without the Movie Production Code’s seal of approval. The code had been in place since the 1930s to essentially censor films on the basis of morality. Preminger sprinkled his film with a few frank discussions of sex and use of such words as “virgin.” Although The Moon Is Blue is tame and coy in contrast to later films, its success led other filmmakers to push at the boundaries of the code more aggressively. The success of foreign films, not subject to the code, also proved the public’s appreciation of more daring films. By the late 1960s, the code had become barely relevant, and it was abandoned in 1967 in favor of the ratings system still used today.
Despite the film industry’s early efforts to separate itself entirely from TV, TV came to have a large impact on the way films were made. Filmmakers and actors cut their teeth with TV projects; films became smaller in scope with lower budgets; and some television screenplays, such as Marty and A Catered Affair, were adapted for the big screen.
The film industry’s survival in the face of great competition was evidenced in the 1970s. In addition to enjoying greater financial success, films also enjoyed another artistic golden era. The late 1960s and early 1970s brought along groundbreaking films that explored, like never before, politics, violence, society, and sexuality. Filmmakers like Robert Altman (Nashville), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), Martin Scorcese (Taxi Driver), Roman Polanski (Chinatown), and Woody Allen (Manhattan), made films that were both critically and financially successful. Though many of these filmmakers still make quality films today, their earlier work stands out. The film sequel also evolved during this period; film series had long been a tradition, but Coppola was the first to label a film Part II when he released his sequel to The Godfather. Horror movies such as Halloween and Friday the 13th capitalized on their formulas well into the 1980s and 1990s, and other genres, such as action films and comedies, followed suit with their own sequels.
The revolutionary period of the 1970s went unmatched in the 1980s. Whereas the 1970s produced a long list of great directors, the 1980s produced relatively few breakout filmmakers. David Lynch (Blue Velvet), Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing), Tim Burton (Beetlejuice), and Barry Levinson (Diner) established careers in the industry, and some female directors, such as Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan) and Joan Micklin-Silver (Crossing Delancey), made films that met with both critical and financial success. But the 1980s are mostly marked by the introduction of VCRs in American homes. By the middle of the decade, even small towns had video rental stores, and filmmakers seemed to make films with an eye toward the video version. Some films even went directly to video, losing little in the translation. But the 1980s also laid the groundwork for the two major developments of the 1990s: the big-budget, special effects spectacle and the independent film. The success of George Lucas (Star Wars) and Steven Spielberg (E.T.) ushered in a new standard of big-budget filmmaking and experimentation with special effects and computer technology. Lucas and Spielberg helped to establish the tradition of the summer blockbuster, as film studios began to compete for younger, primarily male, audiences. With Independence Day, Men in Black, Star Wars I–III, and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest the top moneymakers of the late 1990s and early 2000s, this is a trend that is likely to continue. And industry executives weren’t the only ones tracking weekend grosses. The 1990s and early 2000s also saw the regular publication of the top 10 films for any given week, and the public became more aware of film successes and failures.
At the other end of the spectrum, the inexpensively produced work of independent filmmakers hearkened back to the glory days of the 1970s. The success of the Sundance Film Festival, and the attention given the films it spotlighted, revealed an audience for more personal, artful films. The independently produced Pulp Fiction not only made a lot of money but also won awards and inspired several imitations. Also, many women, minority, and gay filmmakers found their voices in independent cinema.
Today, producers and directors strive for a union of all the different aspects of great filmmaking. They attempt to create work that is artful, technologically enhanced, and financially rewarded.