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. movie-going 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.
Working in film can be an exciting career. This is a crew at work on an outdoor shoot. (Corbis.)
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.
Audiences have long had an impact on filmmaking, regularly expressing their opinions and concerns, even before the regular use of focus groups by the industry:
■ In silent films, actors didn’t always recite the lines that appeared on the title cards. By the end of the silent era, filmgoers became so good at reading lips, that many wrote letters of complaint to the makers of What Price Glory? (1926). The actors Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen used profanity in many of the scenes, offending hundreds of lip readers.
■ Parents complained to the makers of Elmer the Great in 1933 because of its influence on their children. A scene featured Joe E. Brown attempting to drink from a coffee cup with the spoon still in it. After poking himself in the eye repeatedly, Brown finally bent the spoon out of the way. Children across America, after seeing the film, bent all the family spoons.
■ By 1947, Shirley Temple, America’s sweetheart and the most successful child star of all time, was a young adult of 19. That Hagen Girl gave Temple the opportunity to play an adult role, and featured a scene where 36-yearold Ronald Reagan tells her he’s in love with her. When the film was previewed, audiences were so disturbed by the scene, that the scene was ultimately cut.
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.
Words to Know
Agent: A business manager who uses industry connections to find film work for actors, screenwriters, and other professionals; negotiates contracts and receives a percentage of a client’s fee.
Art department: A collection of professionals (art director, set director, and others) who work with the visual aspects and designs of a film.
Boom mike: A microphone attached to the end of a long pole and kept above the heads of actors out of view of the camera.
Box office: The office from which theater tickets are sold; also refers to the commercial success of a film.
Casting: Placing actors in roles for a film.
Continuity: Maintaining the consistency of details (costumes, actor positions, etc.) from scene to scene.
Documentary: A nonfiction, journalistic film composed of interviews, historical background, and other factual reports surrounding a specific subject.
Focus group: A small group of unbiased viewers who preview a film for a production company and offer their opinions.
Foley artist: A professional who recreates sound effects for a film, matching the sounds with images.
Indie: A film produced independently, outside of the major studio system.
Matte shot: A shot incorporating an artist-created backdrop.
Post-production: Editing, effects, and other work done on a film after primary filming is completed.
Print: Developed film that can be projected onto a screen for viewing.
Soundstage: An area within a studio comprised of large sets.
Steadicam: A special camera that allows scenes to be shot smoothly as a Steadicam operator moves across a set or location.
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. Structure Most movie productions begin with the selection of the story to be told. The movie may be based on a novel, a play, or an original script. With documentaries, the movie focuses on a nonfiction subject.
The second most important step after developing the storyline or subject is to acquire funding. With commercial films, the company sponsoring the production pays the production costs and approves the steps in the process of making the film.
In the days of the studio contracts, the conception, production, and financing of films was all done within one studio. For example, 20th Century Fox would have producers, staff writers, directors, and actors and actresses, from whom they would choose for a particular film. Today’s system is different. Although there are people who will sign contracts to do several films for one studio for a prearranged salary, most people work on a project-by-project basis. Producers now bring a project to a studio with an estimated cost of production and perhaps the main actors and actresses already cast, and a studio may agree to back the production. The studio will pay for the costs of producing the film and for the salaries of the crew and cast in exchange for the film’s profits when it is released.
If the movie is successful, it will bring in more money from ticket sales than the film cost to produce. Movies have become very expensive projects, with some films costing many millions of dollars to produce. These films require a huge turnout in the theaters to make any money for the company sponsoring the film. Small productions need not sell as many tickets, but frequently the actors and actresses are not well known, and selling tickets becomes more difficult.
With the increased cost of film production, the independent producer has to be a good salesperson to be able to persuade a studio of the marketability of a film idea. If there are popular actors and actresses involved in the film, or a particular storyline has done well before, the producer is more likely to find financing than if a new idea or unknown actors are involved. Some studios are more willing to take the risk of a lesser-known cast and story if the cost of production is not too high.
Occasionally, a producer will go to a studio with just the idea for a film. With studio backing, he or she may be able to attract bigger names to work on the film. Studios have developed a “step deal” for this and other arrangements. With a step deal, the studio can withdraw funding from a project if the producer cannot get an adequate script or staff together.
Documentary filmmakers usually have more difficulty securing financing than a mass-market motion picture. If the funding is sought through endowments, government agencies, or broadcasting stations, the producer and director should anticipate putting together a fairly lengthy proposal with extensive research on the selected topic. For example, the length of the documentary needs to be planned out and explained. A timetable for the research, filming, and editing has to be calculated. The potential investors also need biographical information on the more important staff members of the documentary so they know the background of the people with whom they are entrusting their money. The producer may have to produce a shortened version of the film (a pilot) to show what the full-length project will look like. It can take from six months to 10 years to secure financing for a documentary.
Once funding has been found for a project, a payment schedule is worked out with the producer of the documentary. Some funds are usually supplied up front, with various amounts distributed along the way and the remaining money delivered after the completion of the project.
A film crew on a documentary can be as small as four people - a producer-director, a camera operator, a sound technician, and a lighting technician - although some documentaries require a large staff. As with other forms of film production, the lower the costs, the easier it is to find funding.
After funding has been arranged, the filmmakers prepare to film. Whether you’re making a documentary or a feature film, you’ll need a script. In the case of a feature film, screenwriters write and rewrite the script to develop characters, tighten the plot, and keep within time limitations. The action must be planned carefully. Timing, continuation of narrative, camera angles, and the many other details that go into making a cohesive piece of work need to be worked out as thoroughly as possible before the filming begins. If the producer waits until the actual production to decide on major aspects of the project, the costs increase dramatically.
Decisions about where the filming is to be done, whether in a studio or on location, go into the cost analysis of the project. Casting of the actors, actresses, narrators, and other talent that will be in the project affect the budget. How long the filming will take, the special effects required, and the overall size of the staff and production all determine the final budget for a film. The studio production department needs all this information before final approval of the contract can be made.
For animated features, the methods of funding can be either like that of the documentary or that of a mass market motion picture. Animated features continue to have great appeal to the public and continue to be produced, despite the incredible time and detailed work that must go into the manufacturing of an animated film. Each image to be captured in a film of live action needs to be drawn onto a clear plastic sheet. Simple movements, like saying hello, require at least eight different drawings shown in sequence to recreate actions of the body and mouth. A full-length feature takes at least two years to complete and may use more than one million different drawings. As computer animation is more widely used, however, the amount of painstaking work done by hand and the time it takes to produce an animated film have been greatly reduced. Although computers have automated some aspects of animation, the creation of three-dimensional animation (such as that of Pixar) on computers still requires incredible amounts of labor.
Depending on the size of the project, live-action filming can take several days to several months. The picture is normally filmed out of sequence. The film can be shot in a studio on a soundstage, where everything is recreated to look like an actual location. The film can also be produced on location, in the actual setting where the story takes place.
Once the filming is done, the film is reassembled in a studio. Special effects, music tracks, and any conversation that may have been muffled by other noises during the filming is added at this point. This type of work requires both precision and split-second timing to assure that the on-screen action matches the sound heard.
Once the project is completed, the film is reviewed by the people in charge of the production. If the final product is acceptable, the film is released. This means that the film is distributed to the theaters.
Now it is up to the marketing and distributing staff to build an audience for the film. Their job is to encourage the public to watch the production and to make the public aware of where the film is playing. Without an audience, even the best motion pictures will have little impact.
Most work in the motion picture industry revolves around Hollywood and New York City. Actors, however, can get their start in smaller productions in any number of cities around the country. Chicago’s Second City Theatre, for instance, has been a training ground for such actors as Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd, who became regulars on TV’s Saturday Night Live for several years and then embarked on profitable film careers.
The film industry is greatly ruled by trends. Though filmmakers and industry executives attempt to carefully analyze the success and failures of films, it is nearly impossible to predict which films will capture the public’s imagination and attract them to the theaters. So many different elements play parts in a film’s success. How a film is promoted and distributed, the other films out at the time, and societal attitudes toward the subject matter are just a few of the factors that determine success. Studios are constantly on the lookout for the next big picture but are also anxious to play it safe and follow the formulas of reliable film product. Some industry experts fear that in the future studio executives will rely even more on focus groups and other audience screenings when releasing a picture, thereby limiting the original and creative efforts of the filmmakers. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that the motion picture and video industries will grow 17 percent from 2004 through 2014.
Big-budget films will likely continue to rule the industry. Production companies will hire the most popular big-name actors and directors to draw huge profits. Special effects and animation will continue to create new jobs for those talented with computers. Computer-generated imagery is being used increasingly on all films, not just science-fiction and horror projects; filmmakers use computers to create crowd scenes, detailed backdrops, and other elements common in all films.
Special effects and popular stars don’t guarantee success, however, so film executives will continue to look to the independent filmmakers and festivals for original talent. Also, the unexpected success of such small movies as The Blair Witch Project and You Can Count on Me has proven that movies without stars, special effects, and big budgets can sometimes make more money than many high-profile projects.
The digital revolution also is affecting the film industry. High-definition television (HDTV) now offers the public nearly theater-quality presentation in their own homes. Theaters also are competing with the Internet and personal computers for the public’s recreational dollar. Theaters are working to attract more people to the movies by providing enhanced stereo systems, comfortable seating, restaurants, food delivered to viewers’ seats, and other frills. The digital revolution is also enabling PC owners to photograph, edit, and graphically enhance their own films, and to present them on the Internet. As more people across the country put together their own films, you may see studio executives looking to the Internet for new talent.
Today, movie production is inseparable from the TV and video industries. Companies make films to be released in theaters, but also plan for future video rentals and sales and TV showings. Feature films are more frequently produced specifically for release on TV, both network and cable, and then are produced on video.
Constantly changing TV and video technologies both challenge and feed the film industry. DVD, for example, offers viewers much more than a theater experience with the inclusion of director’s cuts, outtakes, and commentary on the making of the film. Viewers can skip to their favorite parts of a movie, watch it in a different language, or choose from various formats. HDTV offers such high quality pictures that some people say it is better than seeing a movie in a theater. Although HDTV proponents predict that the new TVs will have a serious effect on box office receipts, the technology is still cost-prohibitive for most Americans. As it becomes more affordable, there may be a change in the habits of moviegoers similar to what happened in the 1950s with the introduction of black-and-white TV, but it is likely that the television and film industries will continue to challenge each other and enjoy a competitive coexistence.
For More Information
For information about colleges with film and television programs of study, and to read interviews with filmmakers, visit the AFI Web site.
American Film Institute (AFI)
2021 North Western Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027-1657
Visit the ASC Web site for a great deal of valuable insight into the industry, including interviews with award-winning cinematographers, information about film schools, multimedia presentations, and the American Cinematographer online magazine.
American Society of Cinematographers (ASC)
PO Box 2230
Hollywood, CA 90078-2230
To learn about women in the film industry, visit the WIF Web site to read articles, interviews, and job listings.
Women in Film (WIF)
8857 West Olympic Boulevard, Suite 201
Beverly Hills, CA 90211-3605
Email: [email protected]
Advertising and Marketing; Broadcasting; Television; Visual Art; Actor; Advertising Account Executive; Art Director; Audio Recording Engineer; Camera Operator; Cartoonist and Animator; Cinematographer and Director of Photography; Composer and Arranger; Costume Designer; Dancer and Choreographer; Producer and Director; Film and Television Director; Film and Television Editor; Film and Television Extras; Fund-Raiser; Graphic Designer; Lighting Technician; Marketing Research Analyst; Media Planner and Buyer; Music Conductor and Director; Music Producer; Musician; Photographer; Producer; Production Assistant; Real-Time Captioner; Screenwriter; Singer; Special Effects Technician; Stage Production Worker; Stunt Performer; Writer