Hollywood Is Going Back to the Assembly Line

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Hollywood Is Going Back to the Assembly Line

The year is 2023 and you want to watch a specific movie. You check all the streaming services you have, a number that has steadily grown over the years. You remember seeing it on HBO Maxsorry, Maxbut it’s not there anymore. After scrolling through miles of titles on Netflix you can’t find it there either, although you do learn that there is now an Extraction 2. No luck on Prime Video, nothing on Peacock, and you don’t even bother checking Disney+. But every search just churns up more posters and titles and movies you know you’ll never have time to see. Sequels and remakes and cheap genre fodder briefly stapled to the home screen. Some of these titles might disappear tomorrow. That creeping thought comes into your mind: “It wasn’t always like this.”

You’re right. But you’re also wrong. The film landscape we’re trapped in now is filled with old tricks dressed up with new technology. Before there was streaming, before there was even sound in films, we went through all this before.

Early silent film was a wild land. The new medium was wavering between being the next new art form or a temporary technological novelty. Films were made en masse and shipped out to theaters frequently. The prevailing idea was once you saw a film, you probably wouldn’t want to see it again. The emphasis was on quantity from a variety of sources. Whoever could make and ship the most movies controlled the industry.

In 1908, the film industry was controlled by a powerful cartel called The Trust, led by Thomas Edison. The Trust was made up of 10 of the largest film producers, manufacturers and patent holders who decided what could and couldn’t be seen. They controlled everything from the cost of film to what pictures theater owners could show. The film industry had just gotten started and already Edison and his patent-hungry friends had a monopoly on a new art form.

The first major corporate battle in the film industry commenced when a group dubbed “The Independents,” led by Carl Laemmle, decided to take on The Trust to ensure that film would have a future. He had an ally in William Fox, a decade before he started the Fox Film Corporation (later named 20th Century Fox). The Independents’ other key ally was Paramount founder W.W. Hodkinson, who distributed their films. Laemmle founded a production company that would later become Universal Pictures and began building a film ecosystem outside the boundaries of The Trust. In the ensuing years, Laemmle would be sued 289 times by The Trust. He won every suit. Laemmle led The Independents out of New York and took refuge in Los Angeles, building a new base for their own future of film. They knew what movies people wanted, innovated faster than Edison could and, by 1915, The Independents held more control than The Trust.

Enter Adolph Zukor, an early film producer ready to jump on the new frontier of film. Partnering with Hodkinson, Zukor combined his production company, The Famous Players Film Company, with the Paramount distribution system. Zukor took inspiration from Henry Ford’s model of efficiency and the design of his assembly lines. Zukor wanted the film industry to run in the same manner. In his book A Million and One Nights, historian Terry Ramsaye describes Zukor as “the most significant single figure in the field of picture production. He was inwardly driven by Napoleonic ambition.” Time would soon show that Zukor’s problem with The Trust was that he wasn’t the one in control.

Zukor’s design for Paramount was to build the first movie studio in the way we think of them today: One company made the movies and sent them to theaters. Zukor further innovated by believing a studio should own all the theater chains as well. He bought up smaller theater companies and soon had a line of Paramount Theaters across the U.S. Fox and Laemmle soon followed suit, restructuring their companies to model Paramount. They wanted to be independent from Edison’s control, but gladly jumped at becoming the new business barons of film.

Zukor is the architect of Hollywood. He is the one who turned film into an industry. His love of Ford’s assembly lines soon applied to the production of film as well. The tagline at Famous Players was “famous players in famous plays.” The underlying philosophy that found Zukor such success is that people wanted to see big actors in reproductions of classic stories. He pioneered the “star system” model of film, and took what he learned to Paramount. Zukor quickly had early film sensations like Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino signed to Paramount. He churned out over 100 movies a year. The star system was the first major marketing technique studios developed and led Paramount to monumental success.

But Zukor’s philosophy was contrary to Hodkinson’s. Zukor believed in the “central producer” model of film. This gave most of the control in production to producers rather than directors, writers or any other artistic figure. Hodkinson disagreed. He believed in the value of the artist. He was quoted by the New York Telegraph in 1923 saying “the history of the business has shown that the most successful pictures have been developed by individual efforts rather than mass production.” Hodkinson called this stance his “Paramount ideals.” This is the man who named Paramount on a whim off an apartment building he drove by, who designed its iconic mountain logo after his childhood memories at Ben Lomond Mountain in Utah. He wanted to be in the business of making art.

Zukor saw Hodkinson as a threat to his vertical integration domination. In his book A History of the Movies, producer Benjamin Hampton recounts the story of his role as the intermediary between the two men destined for collision. He begged Hodkinson to stand down—to back away from his Paramount ideals or else be fired by Zukor. Hampton writes after warning Hodkinson: “‘I am right,’ [Hodkinson] replied, ‘and if I’m put out of Paramount for being right, there will be another place for me in the industry. If necessary, I’ll start again at the bottom and work my way up…’ Silence settled on the room. He could not change his point of view.”

Hodkinson would soon be fired and replaced by Zukor as President of Paramount. Hodkinson’s attempts to rejoin the industry failed. By the 1920s, he had left film entirely.

In the corpse of Hodkinson’s Paramount, Zukor built the ultimate film machine, setting the status quo for how Hollywood would be run. The decided upon emphasis would be on quantity, turning out disposable films with big stars faster than anyone else. Producers, not artists, were in control. The assembly line would be the great creator of artno, content.

When you see the pure amount of stuff on streaming services, there are echoes of Zukor’s assembly line. The mass creation and distribution of content is the main goal of the current entertainment industry. They treat film and television in the same disposable manner as early film producers. Just as silent film reels were left to wither and burn, studios now choose to dump their own works without a moment’s notice. Warner Bros. Discovery’s decision to start pulling their works off their streaming service last year caused a massive chain reaction. Now everyone, from Disney to Paramount, is deleting streaming exclusive shows and films. There is no sense of preservation, of trying to maintain film history. Content is once again a disposable novelty.

The de-emphasis on the role of artists in Hollywood is also reminiscent of Zukor’s philosophy. When Max debuted, replacing proper film credits with a “creators” tab, it was a blow to directors and writers—one that credited producers before them. While Max did walk back its decision, the choice was absolutely purposeful. When you devalue artistic contributions, you get to remake the perception of film in your own image. You demystify art in favor of streamers as all-powerful technological creators of movies and shows. 

These are the actions of companies who are currently responsible for one of the most prolonged labor fights in film history. With the WGA and SAG-AFTRA both on strike, companies decreasing the visibility of artists’ contributions is a clear tactic to undermine their cause. Mass-produced art in the 1910s was partially enabled by the lack of union protection for artists (the WGA and SAG would not be founded until 1933). It was a system designed to exploit, using artists as assembly line workers beholden to unfair contracts while under the control of all-powerful studio producers. 

One of the most offensive proposals denied by the AMPTP in the WGA and SAG-AFTRA discussions was on the unrestricted use of AI. The AMPTP was unwilling to discuss any kind of sensible parameters for using AI to churn out more and more content. Offering an actor one day’s pay to scan their digital likeness for use in perpetuity is not just insulting. It’s the idea of someone who fundamentally hates the humanity of art and has become blinded by the bottom line—someone who sees actors merely as faces they can use to make money. It’s something Adolph Zukor would’ve jumped at if he was still in charge today.

The early controllers of the film industry took what they learned from industrial magnates and innovated to suit their new needs. The current CEOs of Hollywood are doing the same, inspired by the likes of Zukor and the Big Tech businessmen, who devised a deceptive formula for infinite money in venture capital and the promise of exponential returns. The current strategy of constant content slop bears a resemblance to putting “famous players in famous plays,” re-formatted as putting big stars in remakes, sequels or generic film fodder reminiscent of dozens that came before. What’s so horrible about David Zaslav, Bob Iger and all the other studio heads is that they’re not even innovating. Their current designs are zombie creations of every business technique developed to exploit workers in exchange for substantial profits shared with a meager few. They have turned their studios back into soulless factories without learning from history’s mistakes.

Zukor’s assembly line did not reign supreme. His innovative idea for studios to own production, distribution and exhibition was (surprise!) found to be a violation of monopoly law. The 1948 Paramount Decrees broke up Zukor’s system and forced studios to sell off their theaters. The star system he helped pioneer was slowly broken up during the 1960s through a series of legal battles that revealed extensive contract abuses. Bette Davis, Shirley MacLaine and Olivia de Havilland all initiated massive lawsuits that tarnished the reputation of the studios and empowered actors to become independent agents. This opened the doors for the New Hollywood movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s that saw a rise in popular, innovative, artistic films that would have never been made in the previous era. Hodkinson was right in the end: Independent artists make successful, lasting pictures.

The current studios are making content in an era with much weaker government control over monopolies. The Paramount Decrees were terminated in 2020. Soon after, mega-mergers like Disney/20th Century Fox and Amazon/MGM have consolidated the industry. Part of the necessity of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes is that there are no other avenues to institute change in the film industry. It’s been 100 days for the WGA, and Zaslav is bragging about saving money during the strike. No studio head has artistic ideals. How do you fight for individuality with people so corrupted by expense sheets?

And so we find ourselves trapped once again in the gears of a rusty assembly line model. The technology has changed, yet the depreciation for film as an art form has remained the same. But some things are different now. Those assembly line workers are louder. People are listening. We are not accepting the mass production model, and the fight for a better design for Hollywood rages on. The best comfort we can find as the content wave tries to swallow us whole is that we’re right. It wasn’t always like this. And it doesn’t have to be forever.

Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. Her work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Gold Derby, TheWrap, FOX Digital, The Spool, and Awards Radar. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila.

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