The Film Industry in the Late 1950s

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The Film Industry in the Late 1950s

Decline of the Majors
Smaller Studios
Independent Producers
Crisis in Exhibition
A Changing Workplace: Musicians and Actors
Finding Audiences

By 1955 the film industry's attempt to overcome the challenge of television and re-establish its dominance in audio-visual entertainment had clearly failed. Many excellent films had been made in the first half of the decade, but the downward trend of cinema admissions continued. Technological innovation had lifted the fortunes of a few companies, with Twentieth Century-Fox's CinemaScope providing the broadest stimulus. However, even the "CinemaScope rebound" lasted only a year or two. New film content might have enticed spectators back into the theaters, but the conservative political mood plus the various censoring groups such as the PCA and the Legion of Decency limited the possibilities for change. Pay-TV experiments featuring movies and other content had failed, at least for the moment (they would be revived, with great success, in the 1980s). Though filmmakers satirized and scolded commercial TV in such films as It's Always Fair Weather (1955), The Girl Can't Help It (1956), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), and A Face in the Crowd this adversary would not go away.

There were a few positive signs for the film industry at mid-decade. Films from the 1930s and 1940s, probably considered worthless in the studio account books, suddenly had value as programming for television. Recent pictures had greater value, though the film companies were reluctant to sell them. Sales or leases to television would help most of the studios survive the hard times of the late 1950s. The film companies were also beginning to produce original programming for TV—this was a lower budget, lower profit margin business than film, but at least it did keep people and facilities working. In feature film production, the foreign market was still welcoming American films; foreign sales became increasingly important as U.S. sales declined. And there were opportunities to make profitable films for the more segmented audiences that were still going to the movies.

Decline of the Majors

The five "major" Hollywood studios (MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warners, and RKO) went through a difficult period in the late 1950s (1955 to 1959). These were large, well-established organizations with traditions of success. It was hard for them to change, but the new conditions of the period made change imperative. Some of the studios were sold; others changed management; a few went through proxy fights. All of the large studios survived, except for Howard Hughes's RKO.

MGM went through four years of management turmoil between 1955 and 1959, with the board of directors constantly fighting over who would control the company and what direction it would take. Nicholas Schenck, longtime president of Loew's Inc. (MGM's parent company) resigned under pressure in December 1955 and was replaced by Arthur Loew, son of the company's founder. Arthur Loew in turn resigned in late 1956, and was replaced by Loew's Inc. career employee Joseph Vogel. Vogel struggled to cut costs at MGM and started making deals to finance independent productions (MGM was far behind its competitors in courting the top independents). Meanwhile, some members of the Loew's board were promoting a number of aggressive initiatives: outright sale of MGM's film library to television; liquidation of all highly valued Loew's assets; replacement of the current management team (one scenario had Louis B. Mayer returning to power); divestiture of the film production/distribution business, with retention of the theater chain and the music, radio, and TV businesses; even a possible merger with United Artists.1

Vogel managed to survive all threats to his authority. He pushed through a plan to divest the theater chain, not the film business, which was probably the right decision. With a shrinking motion-picture audience the theater chains, which had large, under-performing real estate holdings, were more at risk than the production companies. When MGM finally did split off from the Loew's exhibition chain on 12 March 1959 (Loew's had delayed this for several years based on the difficulty of getting fair value for the theaters), Vogel became the president of MGM, Inc.

MGM production head Dore Schary had been hired in 1949 to solve all the problems of the postwar era and restore the studio to commercial and artistic pre-eminence. However, Schary was not given the authority to clean house and restructure, and he was always resented by the studio old guard. Further, Schary was a liberal, and MGM was the most politically conservative of studios—many of its employees belonged to the Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Schary did sponsor a few social problem films at MGM in the mid-1950s, including Bad Day at Black Rock, Blackboard Jungle, and Trial (all 1955). These films were more successful than MGM's traditional offerings, indeed Blackboard Jungle was a box-office hit. Nevertheless, when Schary was fired (by Vogel) in 1957 his adversaries joked that he had "sold the studio for a pot of message."2 Schary was replaced as production head by Benny Thau, an MGM executive since the 1920s.

Though it survived threats of takeover and dismemberment, MGM's film business was in poor shape from 1956 through 1958. Joseph Vogel labeled MGM's 1957 releases (all inherited from Schary's management) "the worst collection of pictures in its history,"3 and the figures bear him out. According to the Eddie Mannix Ledger, of MGM's twenty in-house productions in the 1956-1957 season, an astonishing nineteen took losses. Only The Teahouse of the August Moon earned a profit, and the overall loss of this group of films was $15,775,000. Earnings from MGM's other businesses (including sales to television) cut this loss to an acceptable $455,000 in 1957.4 By 1957-1958, MGM's slate of ten in-house productions and twenty-four films by outside producers recorded a profit of almost $5 million; "outside producers" included MGM veterans such as Pandro Berman and Arthur Freed, who were being financed as independents (or "semi-independents") by the studio.5

Emmet John Hughes's 1957 Fortune article on MGM twice mentions a planned production of Ben-Hur as the great hope of the company.6 This was a remake of MGM's 1925 silent epic set in Judea and Rome during the time of Christ. It was also a shrewd attempt to reprise the enormous success of The Ten Commandments: like Cecil B. DeMille's Paramount hit, Ben-Hur would combine religion, spectacle, and melodrama in a superproduction starring Charlton Heston. William Wyler, one of Hollywood's top producer-directors, was put in charge. Location shooting was set for Rome (where Wyler had previously made Roman Holiday), and Ben-Hur's budget of $10 million eventually grew to $15 million. The film was an enormous success upon its release in 1959. It won Best Picture and numerous other Academy Awards, and its substantial earnings put MGM firmly in the black for the next couple of years (for critical discussion of Benhur, see Chapter 10).

RKO, the weakest of the Hollywood majors, experienced a series of dramatic changes in the late 1950s, and eventually went out of business. Howard Hughes had unsuccessfully tried to sell the studio in 1952 (see Chapter 1). On 31 March 1954 he bought up all outstanding shares of stock in the studio for $23.5 million; this was a prelude to selling RKO to General Tire and Rubber Company for $25 million on 18 July 1955. General Tire's successful broadcasting subsidiary, General Teleradio, owned five television stations, six radio stations, and three radio networks. Thomas F. O'Neil, president of General Teleradio, admitted that he was mainly interested in RKO's film library, which would have considerable value when sold or leased to television. However, O'Neil added that his company intended to operate RKO as a film production and distribution company, and that neither he nor Hughes wanted to see the company liquidated.7

O'Neil followed through on his promises for RKO. The film library of 740 pictures and 1,000 shorts was sold to C & C Super Corporation for $15.2 million on 26 December 1955. General Teleradio retained the right to package 150 of the films for a one-time national TV showing before they went into C & C Supers hands. General Teleradio also retained the right to show RKO Pictures on its own TV stations—there were now six of them, in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Memphis, Hartford, and Palm Beach.8 And the "new" companv, RKO Teleradio, with O'Neil as president, moved quickly into film production.

RKO had been a skeleton operation during Hughes's last few years, with only a few in-house productions and distribution limited mainly to low-budget independents. To get some high-quality films into the distribution pipeline, O'Neil made a deal with David O. Selznick for re-release of several films (Rebecca, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Third Man, Spellbound, and The Paradine Case) plus financing for an unspecified number of new Selznick-produced films. By 1956, RKO was busy with new productions and had even signed several promising actors, including Anita Ekberg and Rod Steiger, to appear in RKO films. However, it was difficult to attract the best producing, directing, and acting talent, especially since O'Neil preferred the no-frills production model of the television industry, and so the RKO pictures were at a competitive disadvantage. RKO ceased production in January 1957 and agreed to have some of its pending releases distributed by Universal. RKO's studio facilities were sold to Desilu Productions later in the year, suggesting in microcosm the problems of film and the triumph of television. By October 1958 all that was left of RKO was a small international sales operation, plus two made-for-television films in production in Cuba.9

At Twentieth Century-Fox, Darryl Zanuck abruptly resigned as head of production in 1956. Zanuck became an independent producer with a contract to deliver one to four films per year for Fox release. Management of Fox was to be shared by New York-based president Spyros Skouras and head of production Buddy Adler (Zanuck's replacement). Skouras was an excellent businessman whose most notable recent achievement had been the successful introduction of CinemaScope. However, he was not skilled or experienced in the supervision of individual productions, and Zanuck had consistently kept him away from this part of Fox's operations. Buddy Adler was an experienced producer who was hired away from Columbia by Fox in 1954. Adler's reputation as a first-rank producer rested primarily on one film, From Here to Eternity (1953). That film was very much a team effort, with Adler as producer relying heavily on a strong writer (Daniel Taradash), a strong director (Fred Zinnemann), and a studio head who made many production decisions (Harry Cohn). Adler at Fox turned out to be cautious and uncommunicative, which disturbed such veteran Fox producers as Nunnally Johnson and Philip Dunne.10 Skouras filled some of the resulting power vacuum, sending long memos to Adler about Fox's production program.

In 1956 Fox released a number of successful films, including The King and I, Bus Stop, and Love Me Tender (the first Elvis Presley film), and recorded a profit of $6.2 million. Profits stayed at approximately the same level for the next two years, with the studio's biggest successes being Peyton Place (1957) and South Pacific (1958). However, the studio balance sheet is deceiving, because it depends on the sale or lease of pre-1948 films to television. In 1956, Fox leased fifty of its films to N.T.A. (a television distributor) for between $2 and $3 million. Fox then extended this deal so that fifty to sixty-eight pre-1948 films would be leased to N.T.A. annually, for a return of $75,000 per film, or $3.75 to $5.1 million annually.11 Fox also became a producer of original material for television, with its first successes being My Friend Flicka and The Twentieth Century—Fox Hour.

By 1959, despite the new streams of income from television, Fox was in trouble. Buddy Adler's production program of bland and glossy pictures, many of them shot on the studio lot, resulted in a year when only two of twenty major releases earned significant profits.12 These were Journey to the Center of the Earth (big-budget science fiction) and Blue Denim (medium-budget teen film), both aimed at younger audiences. Fox had also been successful with films starring Pat Boone (Bernardine, 1957; April Love, 1957), so the studio seemed to be edging into pictures for the teenage market. Darryl Zanuck as independent producer was a surprising disappointment in the late 1950s. Deluxe Tour, after a very expensive pre-production, never became a feature film; The Roots of Heaven (1958) was a huge failure. Only Island in the Sun (1957) was a successful Zanuck production. Twentieth Century-Fox sold off a portion of its back lot in 1959 in a highly profitable transaction, but nevertheless the studio earned only $4.9 million in 1959. This was followed by a modest loss ($2.9 million) in 1960 and more substantial losses in 1961 and 1962.

Unlike Fox, which maintained a good deal of in-house production in the late 1950s, Warner Bros. had transformed itself into a company that financed and distributed independent productions. Some of the best Warner films of the period, including Giant (produced and directed by George Stevens, 1956) and The Searchers (produced by Merian C. Cooper, directed by John Ford, 1956), were controlled by the filmmakers with little oversight by the studio. Jack Warner's only response to the cost overruns on Giant was to plead with George Stevens to be more careful. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. had established a very successful lineup of television series, including the Western hits Cheyenne, Maverick, and Lawman, the youth-oriented 77 Sunset Strip.

Warners film releases of the period included a mix of big-budget epics (Helen of Troy, 1956), musicals (Auntie Mame, 1958; Damn Yankees, 1958) and dramas (Marjorie Morningstar, 1958; The Nun's Story, 1959), with lower budget war films, science fiction and suspense films, and even a few British imports. Warners did invest in contracts with young talent, including James Dean, Tab Hunter, and Natalie Wood, but most of the studio's attention went to pre-sold properties (films based on best-selling novels or popular plays) and short-term deals with independent producers. In addition to George Stevens and John Ford/Merian C. Cooper, Warners worked with producer/directors Elia Kazan (A Face in the Crowd, 1957), Laurence Olivier (The Prince and the Showgirl, 1957, co-produced by Marilyn Monroe), Billy Wilder (The Spirit of St. louis, 1957), Stanley Donen (The Pajama Game, 1957 and Damn Yankees, 1958) and Howard Hawks (Land of the Pharaohs, 1955, Rio Bravo, 1959).

Warner Bros.' change of ownership in 1956 involved a bizarre family drama. Studio president Harry Warner and treasurer Albert Warner, both based in New York, had been trying to sell the studio since 1951. However, Harry Warner had feuded with Los Angeles-based Jack Warner for decades, and he was unwilling to leave Warner Bros. in his younger brother's hands. In mid-May 1956, the press announced that all three of the surviving Warner brothers would sell their stock to a syndicate headed by Serge Semenenko of First National Bank of Boston. The new studio president would most likely be Sy Fabian, a veteran film exhibitor. However, Fabian would have to either leave his current job as head of Stanley-Warner Theatres or obtain an anti-trust exemption. A few weeks later, it became clear that Fabian would not be moving to Warner Bros., and that Jack Warner (who bought back a substantial portion of stock) would be taking over leadership of the company. The transaction had been a ruse to get Harry Warner to sell out.13 Jack Warner became president and remained in that post for eleven more years.

The participation of banker Semenenko suggests that, aside from family politics, Warner Bros. was a sound investment in 1956, and financial results bear this out. Warner Bros. was modestly profitable from 1955 to 1957. It took a loss of $1 million in 1958, when other studios were also struggling, and rebounded to an impressive $9.4 million profit in 1959.

Paramount Pictures pursued a "semi-independent production" strategy through the 1950s. Top producers paid an overhead charge to the studio in return for financing, technical support, distribution, and publicity. Producers were linked to Paramount by contract, but they were partners—with profit participation—rather than simply employees. The leading producers at Paramount under this arrangement in the late 1950s were Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, and Hal Wallis. Some of Paramount's top stars of the period, like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, also took a share of film profits.

Paramount was consistently profitable in the late 1950s, thanks to a strong group of feature releases plus a favorable sale of older films to television. Profits ranged between $9.4 million in 1955 and $4.4 million in 1959. In 1958, Paramount sold its pre-1948 film library to MCA for $50 million, including a $10 million down payment, $25 million in installments, and $15 million to be paid from future grosses. As Dennis McDougal commented, "the terms were by far the richest that any studio had yet been able to get from a TV syndicator."14

Cecil B. DeMille completed only two films as producer-director in the 1950s, yet he was tremendously important to Paramount's success during this period. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) recorded North American rentals of $12.8 million, making it the studio's number two box-office attraction of the decade. Number one was DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), with $34.2 million in North American rentals and a larger figure earned abroad. DeMille had begun another production in 1958, The Buccaneer, starring Yul Brynner as the pirate Jean Lafitte. However, since his health was failing, DeMille made Henry Wilcoxon producer and Anthony Quinn (DeMille's son-in-law) director. Quinn turned out to be an inadequate director, and the film was a failure. DeMille died on 21 January 1959, as The Ten Commandments was still setting box-office records around the world. One wonders if a healthy DeMille could have made The Buccaneer a blockbuster as well.

Alfred Hitchcock made several films for Paramount between 1954 and 1960, including Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and Psycho. The first four are high-budget films benefiting from the surprising complementarity of clear, crisp color photography and Hitchcock's dark, psychological themes. Rear Window (1954) was an excellent commercial success, with a cost of $1 million and North American rentals of $5.3 million. Vertigo (1958), on the other hand, was a break-even film, but it is now regarded by many as Hitchcock's masterpiece. Psycho (1960) was a black and white, modestly budgeted film which turned out to be Hitchcock's biggest success of all time. Beginning in 1955, Hitchcock was also the producer (and occasional director) of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a hit television series produced by MCA, not Paramount.

Hal Wallis produced a few dozen films for Paramount in the 1950s and introduced an amazing roster of new talent. Among his discoveries of the late 1940s and the 1950s were Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Lizabeth Scott, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, and Elvis Presley. The consistently popular Martin and Lewis made twelve films for Wallis and Paramount in the 1950s, after which Lewis made four additional Wallis films. Like many of Wallis's stars, Martin and Lewis had non-exclusive contracts—they were required to make a certain number of films per year for Wallis at Paramount, but had the option to do outside productions (usually one per year) as well. Wallis's autobiography, written with Charles Higham, is aptly titled Starmaker.

In addition to the Wallis stars, Paramount introduced Grace Kelly and Audrey Hep-burn in the 1950s, and presented multiple films starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, James Stewart, William Holden, and Sophia Loren. Perhaps more than any other studio, Paramount managed to sustain an atmosphere of continuity and glamour in the tumultuous 1950s.

Smaller Studios

The 1948 Paramount anti-trust decision created new opportunities for smaller studios to compete with the five majors. By the late 1950s, the theater chains that had made Fox, MGM, Paramount, RKO, and Warners such dominant powers in the North American marketplace had all been divested (except for straggler MGM). The large, well-equipped studio lots of the majors often became a drag on profits because fewer films were being made. Also, exhibitors were looking for new sources of product, because the majors were naturally interested in their own profits and therefore wanted a larger share of receipts. Columbia, Universal, and United Artists all moved aggressively into "A" pictures to exploit this new opportunity.

Meanwhile, the market for low-budget or "B" pictures was troubled. Prime-time television was by 1955 competing successfully with theatrical motion pictures by supplying filmed series for home viewing. This was particularly true of Westerns, which had made up much of the output of Columbia and of the Poverty Row studios Republic and Monogram. Original, one-hour Western dramas were now plentifully available in prime time, and pre-1948 feature-length Westerns were also appearing on TV. With so much Western drama on television, the demand for "B" Westerns in the theaters quickly dried up. Other "B" movie genres, such as horror, science fiction, and teen films, still had a theatrical audience, but this segment of the film market was now changeable and uncertain.

Columbia had always made a few prestigious, high-budget movies to go along with its more modest "programmers." In the mid- to late 1950s, this part of the business expanded. Three films distributed by Columbia won Academy Awards for Best Picture in the 1950s—From Here to Eternity (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). However, only From Here to Eternity was an in-house production; the latter two were produced by independent producer Sam Spiegel and had little artistic input from Columbia Pictures. Columbia's president, Harry Cohn, did make the decision to finance and release On the Waterfront after Darryl Zanuck of Fox had turned it down. Columbia also made a number of in-house "A" pictures between 1955 and 1958. For example, Picnic (1955) and Pal Joey (1957) both featured Columbia contract star Kim Novak, as well as William Holden in Picnic and Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth in Pal Joey. After Harry Cohn's death in 1958, Columbia moved quickly to an emphasis on independent productions. According to Variety, Columbia had deals with twenty-eight independents in early 1959, while only three staff producers remained under contract.15 Anatomy of a Murder (produced and directed by Otto Preminger) and Suddenly, Last Summer (produced and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz) were two of the top quality independent films released by Columbia in 1959.

Columbia was expanding in a number of different directions in the late 1950s. "B" movie producer Sam Katzman (an independent producer with long-term ties to Columbia) was one of the first to specialize in the teen market. He made Rock Around the Clock (1956) to exploit the success of MGM's Blackboard Jungle (1955), and followed up with Don't Knock the Rock (also 1956). Columbia's television subsidiary Screen Gems, headed by Harry Cohn's nephew Ralph Cohn, was involved in everything from TV commercials to series production to the syndication of features and shorts. And Columbia had aggressively moved into production in England and France, financing films for local distribution (via a Columbia subsidiary) as well as the occasional high-budget international film. Columbia also acquired an art-house distributor, Kingsley Productions, which it used for U.S. distribution of the sexy and wildly popular films of Brigitte Bardot.

Universal Pictures, owned by Decca Records since 1953, struggled to find an identity in the 1950s. Universal had stuck with its "B" movie series in the early 1950s, including Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Francis the Talking Mule. The studio also made "A" pictures, notably the Westerns of Anthony Mann (often starring James Stewart) and the glossy melodramas and comedies of staff producer Ross Hunter. Hunter-produced melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk and starring Rock Hudson, like Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955), were known in the 1950s as superior "women's pictures"; they are now valued for the stylistic depth and social criticism of director Sirk. The Ross Hunter-produced Pillow Talk (1959) has no such depth; it is a glamorous and glossy comedy directed by Michael Gordon and starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day.

United Artists (UA) is a great success story of the 1950s. Almost bankrupt in 1950, UA prospered under the new management team of Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin, who took over in 1951. Company profits increased from $314,000 in 1951 to $4,111,000 in 1959. United Artists had always been a company that distributed independent productions, so the company's turnaround is linked to the increasing clout of the independents in the 1950s. However, Krim and Benjamin deserve credit for creating a strategy that would attract and retain some of the leading independents, despite competition from the majors. Unlike Paramount or MGM, UA charged independents little or no production overhead, because it did not have sound stages, post-production facilities, or a large permanent staff. Also, UA gave its producers a great deal of freedom after creative ingredients and budget were approved.16 United Artists provided production financing and was repaid from a film's earnings. For successful films, the studio and the producer would divide the profits, with the exact shares varying from contract to contract. United Artists did not need to earn a profit on every film because the studio made most of its money on distribution fees, which ranged from 30 percent in the domestic market to 45 percent overseas.

For this strategy to work, it was essential to run a high volume of pictures through the company's distribution network. United Artists released an average of forty-two films per year between 1951 and 1960, with a high of fifty-four in 1957. Many of these were low-budget films (including some British imports), but the company did finance and release several big-budget spectaculars between 1955 and 1959. UA also became known for the quality of its releases, in all budget categories. MARTY (1955), for example, won the Oscar for Best Picture despite a modest $300,000 budget. UA followed up with a number of low-budget prestige pictures, including The Bachelor Party (1957), Twelve Angry Men (1957), and Paths of Glory (1957). In 1956, United Artists won another Best Picture Oscar, but this time for a widescreen extravaganza, Around the World in Eighty Days.

Another indication of United Artists' success was its contracts with leading stars. The United Artists of 1952 was fortunate to have High Noon, with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, on its release schedule; otherwise the company was presenting low-budget movies with second- or third-rank stars. However, by 1958, with its newfound prestige plus the lure of shared profits, United Artists had non-exclusive contracts with Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Henry Fonda, Rita Hayworth, Bob Hope, Yul Brynner, Susan Hayward, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, and Tony Curtis, among others. These were independent producer contracts which could include 30-75 percent of a film's net profit for an individual star. Of course, many films never made a profit.17

United Artists was slow to diversify. Its emphasis in the late 1950s was building up its film business rather than moving into television production. UA did not produce a network series until 1959-1960, and did not have a significant presence in series TV until 1963-1964. Also, unlike the majors, United Artists had the rights to only a small group of pre-1948 pictures. These were sold to a TV syndicator in 1951, when the company was desperate for operating money.18 In the absence of television revenues, UA's success was entirely dependent on film production and distribution.

The traditional Poverty Row studios did not fare well in the late 1950s. Republic Pictures, traditionally associated with Westerns, was badly hurt by the competition of Western series on TV. Republic halted production temporarily in 1956, and then announced in 1958 that it was getting out of the film business.19 The Republic Corporation (the name was changed in 1960) continued to exist in the 1960s and 1970s, but at this point its primary film-related business was a film-processing laboratory. Monogram, a studio quite similar to Republic, changed its name to Allied Artists in 1953 and tried to move into medium-budget pictures. The company made modest profits from 1951 to 1956 but took losses from 1957 to 1959. In these later years, Allied Artists cut expenses by returning to more low-budget films, this time aimed at the drive-in market.

The most important development in low-budget pictures was the birth of a new company, American International Pictures (AIP). This production and distribution company was formed by lawyer Samuel Z. Arkoff and sales manager James H. Nicholson as American Releasing Corporation in 1954; the name was changed to AIP in 1956. The idea was to make a series of extremely low-budget pictures and release them as double-bills to sub-distributors in the United States, Canada, and England. Even if the films played for only a week or two, AIP would make money. Special attention was paid to advertising and to the changing tastes of the teenage audience. Sometimes the advertising was created before the picture; if the ad looked strong, a picture would be made (note that this approach anticipates the "high concept" "A" movies of later years).20 Sometimes the advertising and the title were downright misleading. The Beast With a Million Eyes (1955), for example, turned out to be a small alien creature with perhaps three eyes.

Nicholson, Arkoff, and their most prolific producer-director, Roger Corman, had a very good sense of what the teenage audience wanted. They quickly abandoned the Western and concentrated on science fiction, horror, juvenile delinquency, and rock movies. By 1957-1958, AIP was releasing about twenty films per year, and Arkoff could boast that thirty-nine of his last forty-one pictures had been profitable.21 However, in 1958 and 1959 there was a great deal of competition for low-budget exploitation movies from Allied Artists and other low budget specialists plus Columbia, United Artists, and Universal. Even Corman was competing with AIP—he also worked for Allied Artists and for his own company, Filmgroup. AIP responded by raising the budgets on its movies and by launching a "prestige" series of horror pictures, beginning with the Corman-directed House of Usher in 1960.

Independent Producers

The preceding discussion of major and minor studios gives a good overview of industry conditions in the late 1950s: all the studios were struggling with important industry changes, and some were adapting more quickly than others. An alternate way to survey this same period would be to discuss the leading independents, because independent production was gradually becoming the standard way of making Hollywood films. According to Tino Balio, about 20 percent of films released by the eight top studios in 1949 were independent productions; this had risen to 58 percent in 1957.22 Also, the Best Picture Academy Award winners for 1954 through 1957 were all independent productions: On the Waterfront, Marty, Around the World in Eighty Days, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. The Best Picture Oscar reverted to MGM and Arthur Freed for Gigi in 1958, but by this time even Arthur Freed was an independent producer!

Of course, "independent producer" could mean many things in Hollywood. An independent producer could be an actor (John Wayne), a director (Alfred Hitchcock), a packager (Charles Feldman), a wealthy investor (C. V. Whitney), a former studio executive (Darryl Zanuck), or even someone whose background was in producing (Sam Spiegel). In some cases, the "independent" label was primarily a way to share profits and risks with talent; in other situations, the producer ran the show with minimal oversight by the studio. United Artists offered a range of options for its independents, from leaving the producer alone to providing extensive management services. Those UA-affiliated producers needing help with the business side of filmmaking were encouraged to work with the three Mirisch brothers, who charged a weekly production fee plus a percentage of the profits and/or the distribution earnings.23 The Mirisch Brothers company became a partner as well as a service provider to producers—it thus provided yet another model of "the independent producer."

The actors who tried their hand at independent production had very different experiences. John Wayne produced a number of films (primarily Westerns) for Warner Bros. with a partner, Robert Fellows. Wayne did not star in all of them, yet undoubtedly Waynes agreement to act in several Warner releases was a vital part of the arrangement. Wayne also had a production deal at United Artists, where his first film was China Doll (1958). Bing Crosby Productions was originally a way to give Crosby better financial terms at Paramount, where he had been a fixture for many years. Crosby's company eventually made films at other studios, such as High Society (1956) at MGM and Say One for Me (1959) at Fox, and also expanded into television. Kirk Douglas started Bryna Productions in association with United Artists, but he moved on to make Spartacus (1960) at Universal and Strangers When We Meet (1960) at Columbia. Marilyn Monroe Productions was formed for two purposes—to leverage a better contract from Fox, and to give the star greater control over the choice of subject. Monroe's one independent project, The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), co-produced with Laurence Olivier Productions, largely accomplished both of these aims. Even though Monroe was legally bound by a long-term Fox contract, her popularity led the studio to allow the independent film (which was distributed by Warners) and to renegotiate salary.

Frank Sinatra used his Academy Award of 1953 (for Best Supporting Actor in From Here to Eternity) to revive a movie career that had been lagging. Instead of affiliating with one studio, he worked in the 1950s for Columbia, Goldwyn, MGM, RKO, Para-mount, Warner Bros., United Artists, and Universal. Sinatra's contracts generally involved a salary plus either partial ownership of the picture or a percentage of the profits. Like other independents, he was willing to negotiate on salary in order to enhance his profit participation. Although Sinatra rarely took a "producer" credit in the 1950s, he sometimes originated and packaged a film via his own Kent Productions. For example, for The Joker Is Wild (1957) he bought the property, recruited the director, and sold the project to Paramount.24 Sinatra is remembered today primarily as a singer and a recording artist, but most of his income in the late 1950s came from film and television.

Burt Lancaster's production company, first called Norma Productions, then Hecht-Lancaster and then Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, went through an astonishing rise and fall. Lancaster's deal at United Artists, signed in 1953, was an important step for both the studio and the actor. UA needed the prestige of a major star on its release schedule, and Lancaster wanted more control over the films in which he appeared. Lancaster soon expanded his activities as a producer. In 1955 Lancaster and Harold Hecht convinced UA to put $300,000 into Marty, based on a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky (this film does not feature Burt Lancaster the actor). Both the subject matter (working-class Brooklyn) and the source (television) were highly unusual for a Hollywood film, yet Marty won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Hecht-Lancaster followed it with the European-made Trapeze (1956), which cost $4 million and earned $20 million, thanks in large part to its foreign popularity.

Lancaster, Hecht, and new partner James Hill (a former story editor) then launched into a frenzied period of developing new properties, charging millions of dollars in expenses to UA. One of their films from this period was Sweet Smell of Success (1957), a dark film about a New York gossip columnist (loosely based on Walter Winchell), which was a box-office disaster but has since become a cult favorite. Lancaster and his partners were by this time spending wildly on their Beverly Hills office and going over budget on every film. By late 1959, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster owed UA almost $3 million. The once-proud independent dissolved in February 1960, and Lancaster agreed to partially compensate UA by acting in four future films at a relatively low salary ($150,000 per picture).25

There is a little-known coda to the last few years of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, told by Lancaster biographer Kate Buford. In 1957 and 1958, at the very moment that Hecht-Hill-Lancaster was foundering, Loew's head Joseph Vogel was seriously negotiating for the three partners to take over management of MGM. Vogel, faced with a poor slate of pictures and a rebellious board of directors, wanted the cachet of hiring the producers of Marty. Part of the deal was that Lancaster would play the title role of Ben-Hur, for the princely sum of $1 million. Hecht, Hill, and Lancaster were not enthusiastic about the proposed deal, and neither was the MGM board. Still, Vogel's proposition is an indication of how far power in Hollywood had shifted—a few years earlier, it would have been inconceivable to offer management positions at MGM to young independent producers.26

Many of the producers and directors who became independent producers have already been mentioned in this chapter, via their affiliations with specific studios. One group not sufficiently discussed is the array of producers and directors who worked with United Artists. This distinguished group included Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Stanley Kramer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Edward Small, and the partnership of James B. Harris-Stanley Kubrick. Preminger was a producer-director who prided him-self on taking complete charge of his films. He even orchestrated publicity, for example when he challenged the Production Code (The Moon Is Blue, 1953; The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955) or when he launched a talent search for the title role in Saint Joan, 1957 (Jean Seberg won the part). Billy Wilder, one of Hollywood's leading writerdirectors, preferred not to handle production chores himself; he used Edward Small and Arthur Hornblow as producers on his first film at UA (Witness for the Prosecution, 1957) and the Mirisch brothers thereafter. William Wyler and Joseph Mankiewicz were much-in-demand filmmakers who moved from studio to studio, depending on the project; Wyler made one film for UA in the 1950s (The Big Country, 1958), and Mankiewicz made two (The Barefoot Contessa, 1954, and The Quiet American, 1958). Stanley Kramer became a director as well as a producer in 1958. Responding to a gradual easing of the Cold War and the blacklist, he made such controversial films as The Defiant Ones (1958) and On the Beach (1959). Edward Small generated a great number of low-budget productions for UA, and thus kept the distribution business working. Like other low-budget producers, Small moved gradually from Westerns to horror and science fiction in the late 1950s. He also produced a few higher budget productions: Witness for the Prosecution (directed by Billy Wilder, 1957) and Solomon and Sheba (directed by King Vidor, 1959). The young director Stanley Kubrick and his co-producer James Harris were making inexpensive but stylistically distinctive films for UA release. The Killing (1956) lost money but impressed the Hollywood community. The anti-war Paths of Glory (1957) might be considered a "Hollywood art film."

Crisis in Exhibition

The Paramount decision of 1948 produced a number of unexpected consequences for the exhibition end of the film industry. Exhibitors had hoped to gain better terms and a more competitive working environment by breaking the dominance of the major studios. Instead they found themselves in a business that was unstable and at risk. Declining attendance caused by television and other factors hurt the exhibitors most. Production companies could adjust their yearly output, but theater owners (both large chains and smaller companies) had fixed investments that were often heavily mortgaged. Any down-turn in business would result in theater closings. Also, with the required split between studios and theater chains, producers no longer had a strong incentive to make enough product for a full year's schedule. Indeed, by limiting production the major studios could force up the rental terms for their films. In 1956, Leonard Goldenson of ABC-Paramount Theatres summarized the effects of the Paramount consent decrees as follows:

The decree placed the balance of power in the hands of the producers. It brought about the product shortage, the multiple runs, the exorbitant film rentals, over-extended playing times and competitive bidding.27

Another serious problem was that the production companies no longer had a strong incentive to withhold their film libraries from television. When production companies and theater chains formed integrated companies, it was self-evident that the studios would protect the interests of their exhibitor-partners. But in the late 1950s, after divestment, production companies began to view television companies differently, as another set of potential customers rather than enemies of the film business.28 Production companies still had to consider the needs of exhibitors, who were their primary source of income, but they could begin to supplement theatrical income with an incremental release of films to television. The federal government was actually pushing the studios in this direction, via a claim that withholding films from television constituted restraint of trade.

To some extent, the problems of smaller audiences and reduced Hollywood output were self-correcting. As audiences declined, unprofitable theaters would go out of business, and the remaining theaters would have a better chance to survive. Diminished output from the main Hollywood studios might hasten this process along. But if Hollywood's reduced output was an artificial limitation (aimed at forcing better terms), then other producers could step in to fill the need for product. In the late 1950s this did happen as AIP and Allied Artists provided low-budget films and foreign producers found a variety of American markets. Many urban theaters turned to European "art cinema," often with a strong erotic content, as an alternative to going out of business. For example, in Minneapolis, Brigitte Bardots breakout hit And God Crkated Woman (1956) played at five theaters in the summer of 1958, while two other Bardot pictures, La Parisienne (1957) and Mam'zelle Pigalle (1956), were doing good business at one theater each.29 Another type of import, the sword and sandals "epic," was pioneered by Boston exhibitor Joseph L. Levine. The Italian-made and English-dubbed Hercules, promoted by Levine and distributed by Warner Bros., was a huge hit in 1959, earning $5 million. According to Balio, Levine's promotional campaign cost $1 million and "combined a media blitz and saturation booking,"30 tactics that were then innovative and are now taken for granted.

Yet another set of problems stemmed from the locations of theaters. Americans were deserting the cities and moving to the suburbs, but first-run theaters were in big-city downtowns and second-run theaters were mostly in urban neighborhoods. As Richard Brandt, president of a small theater chain, said in 1958: "The trouble today is that so many houses are in the wrong places. This country is mis-seated, not over-seated."31 Brandt's remarks were prescient, but since theater owners were strapped for capital it took many years to develop the suburban multiplexes that would serve middle-class viewers. In the meantime, the number of traditional, "hardtop" theaters in the United States declined from 16,904 in 1950 to 12,291 in 1960. Some of this decline was counteracted by an increase in the number of drive-in theaters, which rose from 2,202 to 4,700 in the same ten years.32 Drive-ins required less investment than hardtops and were well suited to newly developed suburban areas where open land was still available.

The changing technologies of cinema, such as 3-D, widescreen, and stereo sound, were a mixed blessing to exhibitors. On the one hand, these new approaches to spectacle were a way to get viewers back into the theaters. On the other hand, each of the competing technologies required new equipment, and few exhibitors had money to spend. The great attraction of CinemaScope was that it required only add-on lenses and a new screen, not new projectors. Stereo sound was originally required for CinemaScope exhi bition, but this requirement was quickly dropped because of complaints from exhibitors.33 Cinerama was expensive to install and expensive to operate, and so it never reached more than a few dozen theaters. Other systems such as 3-D, VistaVision, and Todd-AO had their own pluses and minuses. Given the several choices, it is not surprising that in 1952 theater owners talked about forming a research consortium to evaluate and perhaps even standardize new technologies.34 This attempt at collective action did not get very far, and the various technologies were left to compete for exhibitor adherence in the marketplace.

A Changing Workplace: Musicians and Actors

Though Hollywood motion-picture production declined in the late 1950s, the employment picture was surprisingly positive. Television production was more and more based in Los Angeles, rather than New York, and TV was making up for a shortfall in film production. In mid-1959, for example, the New York Times reported that all of Warner Bros.' twenty-three sound stages were busy, even though only one feature film was being shot. Television work, including commercials as well as series, was generating thousands of hours of filmed material. June 1959 employment in the film-TV industry was up 12 percent over June 1958.35 However, the employment situation varied according to how closely a job category was linked to theatrical film. For example, employment was booming for editors, makeup artists, and costumers (all skills which could transfer from film to television), but studio publicists were being laid off.36 The decline in feature film production also created interesting recruitment problems—with so few films being made, it was hard to hire and train new actors, directors, and technicians. Therefore, film industry personnel were getting older even as the audience was getting younger.

The move away from the studio system entailed a more uncertain employment situation. In the 1930s and 1940s, both creative personnel and technicians had been linked to the studios via long-term contracts. But in the 1950s, with independent production and a new emphasis on shooting films abroad, neither studios nor employees could count on a steady flow of production work. Long-term contracts were much less common and Hollywood employment, while still lucrative, was far from guaranteed. Also, the studios and the Hollywood unions had different positions on how personnel should be compensated when their work appeared on television. These issues will be explored via consideration of two groups of studio employees: the musicians and the actors.

At the height of the studio system, the major Hollywood companies had needed large and stable music departments to service thirty to fifty productions per year. Composers, arrangers, copyists, musicians, sound recordists, and sound editors were all required, sometimes at short notice—the studios had a habit of rushing post-production (including music) to get films into release. Some music supervisors were management employees, but the musicians in the studio orchestras belonged to a union, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). By the early 1950s Hollywood musicians had a favorable and secure contract, ensuring that they would be available when needed for recording. When a new employment contract came up for negotiation in 1958, the musicians naturally wanted to extend their job security, whereas the studios (who had slashed employees in other areas) wanted to hire musicians on a free-lance basis. The union and the studios were also far apart on television issues. The union wanted its members guaranteed employment on all studio television productions, and it also demanded residuals whenever films were played on TV. The studios flatly rejected both demands. Since the two sides were so far apart, the union went out on strike on 20 February 1958.

It quickly became evident that the studios had the upper hand in this dispute. Activity on the studio lots was not disrupted, because the musicians did not picket and other Hollywood unions did not join a work stoppage. Films needing music were inconvenienced, but studios found they could hire competent orchestras in Mexico or Europe to record movie soundtracks. In one famous case, the score for Vertigo was recorded for two days in England and then stopped, because the British union had a reciprocal agreement with the American Federation of Musicians. Paramount simply moved the recording process to Vienna, where the music for Vertigo was completed. The studios also considered using pre-recorded "track music" as an alternative to live recordings. The Screen Composers Association (not part of AFM) took no position on the use of foreign orchestras, but it did come out strongly against track music, which would hurt the job security of composers as well as musicians.37

The union was further weakened by an internal conflict stemming from disputed trust funds. Under long-standing contracts, the AFM was being paid a small royalty for all music (not just music for films) recorded in the United States; this was to compensate musicians who had lost income when recordings replaced live performances. Hollywood musicians resented the fact that 53 percent of these royalties came from their recordings, but they received only 4 percent of the payouts. Additionally, between 1952 and 1955 film companies had paid a small royalty to individual musicians when pre-1948 films they had worked on appeared on television; in June 1955 the AFM's international board decided that these royalties should go into the general trust fund.38 Many Hollywood musicians also felt that the AFM's position on a new studio contract was unrealistic, and that it was important to get back to work.

Based on these grievances, a new locally based union, the Musicians Guild of America, won the right to represent film studio musicians in a National Labor Relations Board election held on 10-11 July 1958. Cecil Read, president of the new union, quickly negotiated a settlement with the Hollywood studios. Union members were able to return to work after twenty weeks, but they lost most of their demands. The union conceded that film work would henceforth "be on an individual freelance basis operating within the economic-reality window of supply and demand."39 This meant the end of studio orchestras. The union also lost its bid for royalties when films were released on television. The union did win a raise in the minimum salary for a three-hour recording session, and a concession that there would be at least one recording session per thirteen episodes of a TV series.40

The Screen Actors Guild had closely watched the musicians' strike, because actors (as well as other Hollywood employees) were enormously concerned with TV residuals. Actors, like musicians, felt that the recycling of old movies on TV was taking work away from current film industry employees; in essence, they were competing with themselves, and without compensation.41 However, actors had much more power in Hollywood than musicians: stars were crucial to both feature film and series television production, and on-camera actors could not readily be replaced.

The Screen Actors Guild began contract negotiations with the studios in late 1959 with two primary issues: residuals for films appearing on TV, and health and pension plans for SAG members. The studios threatened to counteract a strike by moving all productions abroad, an extension of the tactic that had worked in the musicians' strike. The shift to production abroad—which was instituted to some degree by Twentieth Century-Fox and other studios—also shows how comfortable the studios were with run-away production.42 Early discussions with the studios were not productive, so on 7 March 1960 the actors went out on strike. Unlike the musicians, the actors did succeed in shutting down several feature film productions, thus putting pressure on the studios to settle. The actors and the production companies eventually agreed on a compromise: no royalties would be paid on pre-1960 movies, but royalties for actors would commence with films released in 1960. The actors also won health and pension plan coverage. The compromise established the principle that film producers would share income from television screenings with creative personnel, and it was therefore an important moment in the history of Hollywood labor relations.43

Finding Audiences

At the height of the studio period, producers and studio executives assumed that a broad general audience would support Hollywood's menu of genres. Women might prefer musicals and men Westerns, but either genre could attract a large and dependable audience. In the 1950s this comfortable relationship among studio, exhibitor, and audience broke down, and therefore producers and exhibitors needed to look much more closely at who was going to the movies. Market research and film industry experience suggested two vitally important facts about the late 1950s audience. First, the film audience was now primarily young people: a 1957 survey showed that 72 percent of the audience was under the age of thirty.44 Second, according to film historian John Izod, "the better educated and paid went to the movies more than others, paying more for their tickets."45

The practical world of film production and exhibition translated this simple profile of movie audiences into a more complex set of movie types and moviegoing experiences. By the late 1950s, there were at least four distinctive (though at times overlapping) film audiences in the United States. "Road show attractions" played in elaborate downtown theaters to an audience of affluent viewers, tourists, and families or couples who rarely went to the movies. These were generally visual spectaculars, elaborate epics, or adaptations of Broadway shows. They were shown at twice-daily screenings with advance tickets—the idea was that viewers would pay handsomely for the very best and most lavish films. The term "road show" is borrowed from theater, and this type of exhibition tried to reproduce the special event quality of going to live theater. In mid-1958, five "road show" attractions were playing in first-run Broadway cinemas: Windjammer (the first film made in Cinemiracle, a widescreen process similar to Cinerama); South Pacific; This Is Cinerama (a revival of the 1952 film); and The Bridge on the River Kwai; Around the World in Eighty Days.46

The traditional first-run/second-run audience for Hollywood pictures had been diminished by television, but it was still the crucial support for a nationwide network of theaters. This group of spectators was attracted by popular stars, high production values, and often a well-known source (novel, play, or historical event). The first-run/second-run audience had become more selective in its tastes. Veteran producer Jerry Wald, writing in 1959, declared that only a dozen stars (all of them male) influenced the box office. Wald suggested "superior film making" as a complement or an alternative to the star system.47 Beyond such traditional strategies as the star system, adaptations of novels and plays, and Wald's "superior film making," high- and medium-budget Hollywood films reached out to younger audiences with intergenerational stories, like the love stories of adults and teens in Imitation of Life and A Summer Place (both 1959), and some stories that privileged the teen point of view, such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Blue Denim (1959). Late 1950s Hollywood films also reached out to well-educated viewers via stories that explored controversial topics, including infidelity, abortion, drug addiction, race relations, and nuclear war.

A third distinctive audience was the big city and university town spectators who favored art movies. A few art theaters had existed since the 1920s, but by the 1950s there were hundreds in the United States. One of the reasons (as mentioned above) was a lack of Hollywood product to support small urban theaters. But there were other reasons as well: a frustration with Hollywood's simplistic themes; a strong interest in films with a frank and adult sexual content; a curiosity and sophistication about other cultures.48 The art film is usually assumed to be foreign (and often subtitled) in the United States, and indeed the new art film audience supported films from Great Britain, France, Italy, Scandinavia, and Japan. However, art theaters often played American films as well, as long as there was some kind of adult or artistic theme. For example, on 1 October 1958, some of midtown Manhattans art theaters were playing French imports, including La Parisienne and Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black), but the Little Carnegie was screening The Matchmaker (Paramount), and the Fine Arts was showing Me and the Colonel (Columbia). In other cities these American films probably would have played in traditional first-run theaters, so there was some overlap between first-run and art house exhibition.49

A fourth type of audience was the working class, small town, and teenage spectators who had traditionally supported action films and low-budget comedies. Many small-town theaters closed, so demand for this kind of product declined. A new market for low-budget pictures was the drive-in, but the spectators here were interestingly split. Drive-ins attracted the family trade (because of convenience and price), but were even more attractive to teenage audiences.50 So drive-in programming ranged from Westerns and comedies to the more youth-oriented horror, science fiction, and teen films.


The American film industry experienced wrenching changes in the late 1950s. Two studios, RKO and Republic, went out of business; most of the others suffered through management changes or proxy fights. Independent production became more and more the norm, which diminished the power of the major studios (now reduced to four, with the demise of RKO). Employment in Hollywood motion pictures continued to shrink, which affected the studios' ability to find and prepare new talent. Overall employment in the Hollywood entertainment business was up, however, thanks to the rapid growth of filmed television. This mixed employment picture meant that those professions closely tied to film experienced job losses and/or worsening employment conditions, whereas professions that were needed for film and TV enjoyed booming employment. Film exhibition suffered even more than production, as thousands of traditional theaters closed. The loss of traditional theaters was partially balanced by an increase in the number of drive-ins.

One encouraging sign was that producers and exhibitors were beginning to make films and design theatergoing experiences for the spectators who were still coming to the movies. By 1958 and 1959, at least four important strategies for attracting and sustaining audiences had been developed: the road show, the traditional first-run, the art movie, and the drive-in movie (which might also attract small town and working class viewers). Much more remained to be done: for example, Hollywood's aging personnel needed a better understanding of the rapidly changing teenage culture. But at least the American feature film industry had moved on from the strategies of the mid-1940s.

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The Film Industry in the Late 1950s

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