By Subir Ghosh
The rise of the Hollywood system started with companies which developed a way of manufacturing films on a large scale. It went on to be so successful that European companies sent over people to study and, if possible copy, it. Among these American companies was Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, created in 1916 after the merger of Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company — originally formed by Zukor as Famous Players in Famous Plays — and Jesse L Lasky’s Feature Play Company.
Eventually eight production companies were incorporated into this giant, which went on to become one of the biggest players of the silent film era. Famous Players-Lasky is best remembered for its vertical integration of the film industry and illegal block booking practices. Famous Players-Lasky reoriented itself as Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation in 1927, later becoming the Paramount Pictures Corporation (now a division of Viacom).
Zukor, who was born to a Jewish family in Ricse, Hungary, and migrated to the United States at the age of 16, was not satisfied with consolidation. The cost of producing films was rising – screenplays cost more to purchase and the rise of the star system meant that celebrities were demanding higher salaries. Zukor needed to increase revenue, and he would do so over the next ten years by integrating film production, distribution and exhibition into one corporation.
The Famous Players-Lasky Corporation defined the system. At the centre of the product package was the featue film – usually about 90 minutes long. Ten-minute newsrools or animated subjects would often complement the feature film, which in turn had to be a story of unusual interest, produced at an average cost of $ 100,000. The success of Italian blockbusters like Dante’s Inferno (1911) in the US market had proved that longer films drew audiences.
This film enlarged the audience: while the average two-reel Motion Pictures Patent Company films would be played for two days, Dante’s Inferno ran for two weeks. The former would be shown in 200-seater Odeons for 10 cents, but the Italian hit was screen to audiences for $1 in a 1000-seat rented theatres. The rules of the game had changed, the industry gave in.
If the length of the film increased, you also needed someone to hold the audience. The Hollywood producers understood this well, and the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation better than anyone else. In fact, to quite an extent the success of the corporation went to Zukor’s deft handling of the star system. Stars like Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, and Gloria Swanson, among others, helped define the Famous Player-Lasky brand.
All promotional efforts of the Hollywood producers centred around the star cast. Publicists had to acquire the art of manipulating the new techniques of mass advertising and mass communication to create a recall value in the minds of the audiences. Stars were also the differentiating factor between one feature film and another. Zukor integrated the star system into his vertical integration plans. He not only bought off stars from other corporations, he also put in place a system to develop his own stars. The plan worked and the salaries of stars rose too. Pickford, who earned $100 a week in 1909 went on to command $ 10,000.
The vertical intergration system had come with its share of problems. In 1919, Famous Players-Lasky faced a boycott from the First National Exhibitions Circuit, a group that controlled 600 theatres in the US. At the core of the Corporation’s bullying tactics was the distribution policy, which required theatres to purchase large blocks of feature films. they were also offered options such as “program distribution”, in which the exhibitor booked a single evening’s worth of entertainment, and “star series” in which the exhibitor signed up for a given number of pictures per year featuring a particular star. This made Famous Players-Lasky go in for its own theatres. By the mid-1920s, it was one of the largest theatre owning concerns in the world.
Most actors, however, remained chained to the big film corporations. The first to break away from the Hollywood system were big names, legends by any standards: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford joined hands with filmmaker DW Griffith to form United Artists in 1919. UA had it successes but could not match up to the demand. Theatre owners wanted three Chaplin, Fairbanks and Pickford films in a year, but the group was able to deliver only one every two years. UA provided refuge to filmmakers and actors fleeing from the clutches of their Hollywood bosses, but could not provide assembly-line products.
Within the system producers realised that shooting a story out of order rather than chronologically record it was less expensive. Planned scenes would be filmed, an editor would reassemble them, following the dictates of the script. This pre-arranged plan came to be known as the shooting script. The shooting script would soon become the paper based on which everything would be decided – from whether it would be filmed at all, to how the producer would eventually plan the promotion, based on the stars who would be cast.