6 Degrees of Film: How Two Legal Cases & Two Strong Women paved the way for the Future of Hollywood
In recent months, we have heard quite a lot about a court ruling that uncoupled the major studios from the theater chains. The ruling is known as “The Paramount Decree,’ and it has been in the news of late because the ruling expired in August of 2022. We are now waiting to see what, if any, changes will occur in the film industry that may change or enhance the movie-going habits of Americans. Or perhaps it may affect the films that are released by the major studios. We may not see the changes instantly, but as documented in my book, 6 Degrees of Film, there will probably be some repercussions in the long run.
6 Degrees of Film lays out some of the long-term effects of the court rulings that paved the way for the future of film. One of the court cases was initiated by an unlikely character, Olivia de Havilland. She was known as a sweet ingenue who was famous for playing the long-suffering Melanie in Gone with the Wind. It turns out, her appearance in that film may have been one of the turning points that started to topple the powerful Hollywood studio bosses. The major studios were the ones that controlled much of what was seen and what was allowed to be released in that era.
The De Havilland Ruling and the Antitrust “Paramount Decree’ were two decisions from the courts that paved the way for a new era of television to dominate. And in turn, they weakened the power of the studio bosses who controlled all the strings in Hollywood until mid-century.
Excerpts from “6 Degrees of Film: The Future of Film in the Global Village”
About The de Havilland Decision
“…Olivia de Havilland also fought studio bosses, winning a landmark decision against onerous hiring practices in what became known as the de Havilland Decision. She began her film career at the age of nineteen starring in Captain Blood with Errol Flynn. She was under a seven-year contract with the Warner Brothers film studio, a standard contract for all performers, who signed their lives away when they agreed to the terms. When she was “loaned out” to David O. Selznick for her memorable part in Gone with the Wind, the performance earned her an Oscar nomination in 1939. After that, she demanded better parts beyond the same old sweet-young-thing roles she had been playing. The studio not only refused but slapped her with a six-month suspension, another standard practice of those who wielded absolute control. The last straw came at the end of her seven-year contract, when Warner Brothers informed her that she had to make up the lost six months from her suspension. Adding time to contracts was another standard operating procedure to keep actors in line.
This time, de Havilland sued. The court ruled in de Havilland’s favor, stating that not only did she not have to make up the suspension, but all future seven-year contracts had to hold to the intent and not force extra time from suspensions on the contracted actor. The de Havilland Decision paved the way for better treatment for actors from the omnipotent studio bosses.
Olivia de Havilland was right in her decision to hold out for more quality roles. She won an Oscar for her performance in The Snake Pit, one of Hollywood’s early attempts to portray serious subject matters such as mental health problems. As one of Hollywood’s pioneering women, she has paved the way for all female actors and for all women working in Hollywood
The Decline of the Studio Era
In the end, perhaps David O. Selznick was too independent for his own good. He was the one who planted the seeds of destruction for the studio system with blockbusters such as Gone with the Wind and Duel in the Sun. These films stretched the production and marketing capabilities far beyond the limits of any one studio. But the biggest changes came at the end of World War II. The studio system was marked for destruction with the previously mentioned 1948 Supreme Court ruling that forced the studios to separate from their theater chains. The system had relied on a stable and consistent market for its standardized products, which in turn generated the cash flow that enabled the studios to pay their operating (overhead) costs and maintain their contract personnel. The studios’ collapse was not immediate after the court’s ruling, and 1945 and 1946 were lucrative years. But as quickly as the movie industry had started in the sleepy little farming community of Hollywood, so the studio system faded within a decade. Within ten years, studios such as Warner Brothers had shifted all operations into television. Such is the changing nature of the business.
The Decline of the Studios Continues
The situation is grave but not serious — Billy Wilder
In 1946, ninety million people went to the movies. In less than three years, the number shrank to sixty million. The causes cited have been numerous. The decline of the studio system due to the antitrust ruling, combined with the rise of television and the spate of baby boomers was beginning to make an impact on popular culture. Another factor may have been the European market. There was a quota imposed on the number of Hollywood movies they could legally import. The British and other foreigners were imposing crippling taxes on American film company earnings (and showed signs of preferring their own movies). The 1950s also saw the rise of the points deals, where stars (and directors) demanded part of the gross profits or gross take of their films. In 1951, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin turned United Artists over to lawyers who converted the company to a sort of clearing house for movies. It became a place to make independent productions, to bring the major players together, to get deals made. By 1960, the major studios had all become primarily financing and distribution companies for pictures that were packaged by agents. This deal-making arrangement is still an integral part of Hollywood.
Dorothy & Toto show us the way!
The year was 1956, and the movies had been in a slump for the past decade. Hollywood had hit the skids, beginning in the late 1940s with the Supreme Court antitrust ruling that forced the major studios to sell their theater chains and continuing into the 1950s with the blacklisting of writers and filmmakers. Many studios began to recognize the potential of the television market. But, as with any kind of societal change, the old Hollywood order posed huge resistance.
Many labeled TV a fad, in the same way talkies had been labeled a flash-in-the pan back in the twenties. But by 1956, some of the studios had run out of options. Loews movie chain decided to cut a deal with the Columbia Broadcasting System that would allow the first feature film to be broadcast in prime time on network television. Which film did they choose? The Wizard of Oz, leased to CBS for only four showings. There was an option for seven more films, but neither CBS nor Loews expected to use that option.
On November 3, 1956, The Wizard of Oz was shown, and the ratings sent shock waves throughout the entertainment industry. More than a third of America’s forty million television sets were tuned in to watch the movie. The effect was astounding. Now there was a known product — movies — that was available in mass quantities and ready to be offered to the captive audience in a virtual place now known as TV land. Television quickly became the vehicle that could help generate sizable amounts of cash to the studios through their stockpiles of old movies. The movies had been sitting in vaults with no real resale value until the advent of television. Suddenly the market opened up, and places like RKO, a studio that had been struggling since the days of Howard Hughes, were able to generate revenue through the sale of their films to television. A TV syndication outfit bought the RKO film library for $15 million. The floodgates were open, and soon other major studios were unloading their old films onto the television market.
The Golden Age of Hollywood had come to an end, but now there was hope for a new age of mass marketing — out with the old and in with the new! Suddenly Hollywood’s attitude changed from a deep mistrust of “the idiot box” to one of partnership and comity with the major television networks.
Peter Bogdanovich on the Demise of the Studios
“My feeling is that Hollywood sort of died in 1961, and nobody noticed for about ten years. Now I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the last great American movie of the old, original Hollywood was The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. The fifties, I think, were a terrible transitional period in which you had a kind of breakdown of the family unit in America and a kind of breakdown, in a funny way, of a lot of things in terms of sex on the screen and so on. With Psycho in 1960, Hitchcock killed Mother in the ultimate way, which was happening slowly in the fifties anyway . . . The sixties were pretty bad. There were one or two good pictures but very few. The Power of Hollywood Transferred from Studio to the Stars …”
Two Strong women and two landmark cases
The rulings illustrate the power of the Rule of Law and the strong women who were able to topple the powers that be. One of them was Olivia de Havilland, and the other was Judy Garland. De Havilland was determined to change her image and prove to the world what she already knew. That she was more than just a pretty face, and that she could act and take on issues such as mental health and carry a movie. And it was Judy Garland’s powerful and most memorable performance as Dorothy, that showed the world she was a strong symbol for both children and adults. And people would remember seeing her in The Wizard of Oz.
Of course, Mary Pickford and other strong leading ladies played a role in standing up to powerful studio bosses. But the two who had lasting power were de Havilland and Garland. Exhibiting both the strength of their convictions and their indelible presence on film. they helped to pave the way for a new generation.
The question remains: What will be the effects of overturning The Paramount Decree; and which strong, determined voices will pave the way for another generation of American movie audiences?
- *6 Degrees of Film: The Future of Film in the Global Village is available at Amazon.com. We are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of its release with excerpts and a new addendum on The Future of Film- available this Fall! Please sign up here if you’d like to receive our monthly Newsletter; 6 Degrees of Film Round-up. The Fall Movie News is out in September!