Hollywood Cinema

The dawn of the cinema came at the end of the 19th century in the USA, when Thomas A Edison patented the crude Kinetoscope movie projector – a contraption that involved running a photographic film past a light source, giving the illusion of movement, and in the beginning this was viewed in a ‘peepshow box’ mainly at fairgrounds. Since this invention, great advances have been made in technology, and cinema plays a role in peoples lives globally.

However, whilst many countries compete with filmmaking, undisputedly it seems that America dominates world cinema with film production and distribution that are the envy of every other movie-producing nation. The birth of the feature film was essentially linked to the birth of Hollywood, and Hollywood’s success has led the world audience to now equate American cinema with film itself. Nowadays, the mass audience has become the market place for American mass production of consumer goods, and this audience are seen to consume media and mass communication as a staple of their daily lives.

America is known as being one of, if not the, most powerful countries in the world, and everything in American cinema seems to be done to meet the needs of the ‘corporate culture’ which has emerged throughout this time. ‘American movies have provided audiences with some of the most compelling, most abiding representations of the mental and physical conditions of our lives’1 The advent of Edison’s kinetoscope in 1893, was seen more as a working class pleasure and middle class audiences were not impressed with this.

Projections began to be shown in music halls, and it was the working class audiences in both Britain and in the USA that responded most to these. In 1905, the craze of Nickelodeon theatres began; the name Nickelodeon referring to the nickel that patrons paid to see short films and newsreels. These Nickelodeons became very popular with workers and immigrants, because of the cheap ticket price, and for many it offered a form of escapism. That American domestic life requires periodic relief and escape is a consistent theme associated with movie attendance’2 Carl Laemmle, who was soon to become the founder of the Hollywood star system and the original movie mogul, spent his savings on one of these Nickelodeon theatres that had become so popular within the working class, and this was the beginning of his movie career. Similarly, William Fox (later the founder of 20th Century Fox) began his life as a film pioneer whilst the owner of a small Nickelodeon theatre in New York.

In years to come, Fox would maintain one of the most prolific and successful studios in Hollywood. Around the same time as this, a businessmen, Adolph Zukor recognised the fortune that could be made from upper and middle class cinema audiences who refused to go to little theatres and arcades to see them – so came the advent of the Picture palace, designed to attract these audiences. These offered a total entertainment environment for the patron, and put moviegoers into as many exotic worlds as the films themselves. During the age of the movie palace in the 1910s and 1920s, the screening of the actual film was almost an after thought for exhibitors intent on overwhelming their customers with elaborate architecture, interior furnishings, armies of attendants, and mighty organs’3 At this stage, some still thought movies would be a passing fad, but in 1915, D. W. Griffith causes with the first lengthy feature film, The Birth of a Nation. This propelled peoples interests in feature films, and stimulated even more theatre building.

Adolph Zukor realised that audiences would be more interested in longer feature films with star attractions in the leading roles. It was then, that immigrants like Zukor, Laemmle, and Fox decided to move West to a district in Los Angeles that would become Hollywood. It is important to remember though, that the term ‘Hollywood’, most often describes an industry, as opposed to a place. The word Hollywood itself evokes extremely glamorous connotations, and by moving here from a very industrialised New York, film makers were provided with many advantages.

It offered a vast scope of landscapes, and the excellent all year round weather made it a very suitable environment for filming. Also, the West Coast was not as expensive as New York, meaning that huge costs could be saved on both land and labour. The use of star personalities in films, such as Charlie Chaplin, now attracted large audiences, and by 1918 Hollywood films became split into different genres such as action, western, romance etc, and every studio in Hollywood intended to cover all genres. Film studios had now became very large enterprises, and these became ‘dream factories’ in a sense – a place where fantasies were created. Movies based their appeal on the promise of transporting their audience beyond the here and now of their daily lives’4 So during the Golden age of the movies, moviegoers sat transfixed watching early films that were shown in lavish movie palaces, which were probably more spell binding than anything they could have watched on celluloid. On the eve of World war one, the American movie business was characterised by hundreds of independent film-making groups; whilst the white house, recognising the propagandistic value of the movies, made sure they had an easy ride as they entered into the foreign market, where they were happily consumed.

By 1920s, however, a movie seemed defined as an expensively produced film, using recognizable stars that lasted ninety minutes. So why has Hollywood come to dominate our world cinema screens? If Hollywood movies are now getting worse, as many claim, then why has no other country managed to overtake them? Year after year, the USA churns out blockbusters (usually written according to the same basic formula, appealing to the lowest common denominator), yet audiences worldwide buy into this, hugely boosting box office ratings and adding this idea of American ascendancy.

The truth is, the majority of the world love Hollywood. There seem to be different factors that may have led to this. Firstly, America has such a vast home market, Hollywood could more than likely still dominate if it didn’t have such a vast worldwide market as well, which unfortunately, it does! Being one of the richest countries in the world, Hollywood can easily produce blockbusters that smaller countries could only dream of, as they would simply not have the budget to do so. America now has a studio system that other countries seem unable to compete with.

Hollywood has gotten the formula correct, right from the very beginning, where everything was done to pre-sell to the audience – a particular star in a film attracted people that may not normally go to the movies; the use of genres ensured that whatever type of person you were, there would be a film to suit; and the advent of Nickelodeons and Picture Palaces which guaranteed that no social group, no matter what class, would be alienated from the enjoyment of film. Another factor may be the way in which people seem to be able to relate to Hollywood movies.

Some argue that American filmmaking has avoided commitment in both technique and plot. Instead of choosing left or right wing views, American cinema often plays it safe and tries to have it both ways so that no one is offended. It is also thought to be clever in the way that it often conveys feelings that the audience has through its films, in order to please the masses. ‘ Hollywood film-making is a particular strategy designed to respond to specific historical situations….. the American cinema has never reflected real events, but at most, it’s audience’s relation to those events’5

So perhaps the fact that American films often convey the ‘people’s voice’ is central to their success. It is also believed that Hollywood in the past, and also still nowadays, has a better relationship with British audiences than British films did. They seem to be more in tune with what the public want, and this idea is further examined in Williams – ‘For the urban working class, American films offered a breath of fresh air from the rigid hierarchy of the British system…… By 1923, Hollywood controlled between 85 to 90% of the British market, making almost a third of its total foreign earnings from this country’6

A factor which attracted audiences worldwide, and still does is the glamour, style, and exclusiveness associated with Hollywood. Ina Rae Hark discusses the idea of exhibition sites, and the pivotal role that they play in the economic success of Hollywood in her book Exhibition- The Film Reader. In this, she raises the question of ‘going to the movies as opposed to going to a movie’7, and whether in fact it is more the social experience of going to see a film that attracts people to it rather than the film itself.

Linked with the very origins of cinema, with the kinetoscope showings at amusement parks, the amusement park-movie connection moved into a different phase in 1955 of Disneyland, whose rides are based on film narratives, and this may have helped to ensure the success of the Hollywood film. Many other amusement parks with this film connection have been opened in America since then, such as MGM and Universal Studios, and these phenomenon’s have proved to be hugely successful, not just in USA, but worldwide with similar parks in France and Hong Kong.

These parks help to reinforce the excitement of Hollywood and its cinema on a worldwide basis, and again have led to this idea of American superiority, as this is where the original parks were. Parents all over the world, are pestered by their children to go to Disneyland, and the original idea of the film studios being ‘dream factories’ has now became a reality in such parks. However, it can be questioned as to whether or not Hollywood still has its glamour, and a hold over the general public.

One such person who disputes this is the film critic, Michael Medved in ‘Hollywood vs America’. He states that ‘the dream factory has now become the poison factory’8, with entertainment attacking religion, glorifying brutality, undermining the family, and deriding patriotism. In 1991, a survey was carried out by the Motion pictures Association. This showed that 27% of college graduated attended the cinema frequently, whereas only 11% of non-college graduates attended frequently.

These results led people to wonder whether Hollywood was alienating certain groups. Another factor which Medved explores in his book, is that only one of the ten major movie production companies, Paramount, is still actually located within the geographic boundaries of the district in LA known as Hollywood. The rest are scattered throughout Southern California, and the majority now hold their main offices in New York – ironically, the place they were lured away from by the glamour of Hollywood.