Movies' Impact on Popular Leisure

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The movies came to America at the beginning of the twentieth century, a time of immense social and technological change. They were part of a bubbling cultural stew that also included the introduction of radio, national magazines, advertising, automobiles, paved roads, prohibition, and enfranchised women. As the country entered two decades of prosperity, and middle- and working-class Americans found that they had money, mobility, and spare time, they began going to the movies. In the years since, the fortunes of studios and producers have varied with the national economy, but audiences have consistently seen feature films as one of their favorite leisure activities. In the first years of the twenty-first century, more Americans were watching more movies in theaters, on video monitors, and on home computers than at any time in the history of the medium.

On the most basic level, moving images fascinate the eye. Early nineteenth-century experiments with various toys and devices created the illusion of motion. Soon after still photography was perfected in the nineteenth century, inventors capitalized on the human eye's "persistence of vision" to recreate fully animate, lifelike motion with a series of still images. The development of celluloid film by George Eastman in 1888 made it possible for Thomas Edison's assistant, William Dickson, to invent the movie camera in 1893.

Movies proved to be so popular that, particularly in America, they evolved quickly, becoming more sophisticated in their efforts to attract more viewers. In those formative decades, Europe and Russia created vibrant motion picture communities, but during World War I many of the chemicals used for photography were also needed for explosives. Movie production suffered, giving American filmmakers an advantage they never surrendered. Lack of governmental control, an abundant source of natural light in Southern California, and political and economic stability were also important factors. The American movie industry developed on two tracks. First, millions of people went to local movie theaters at least once per week; second, much larger audiences attended heavily promoted epics, such as Ben-Hur (1925 and 1959). The most successful of those became cultural milestones.

That extraordinary popularity did not arrive without controversy and economic setbacks, but throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the movies were the dominant form of visual entertainment and a major element in American life.

Vaudeville, Peep Shows, and Nickelodeons

Vaudeville variety shows had prepared Americans for movies. At the beginning of the twentieth century, most towns and cities had at least one vaudeville theater that presented two to six shows every day. They were meant to appeal to the largest possible audience; not only men, but also middle-class women and families. Movie theaters would do the same in later decades.

In America, Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope, or peepshow, was the first method of distribution for movies. Instead of projecting a film onto a screen, these hand-crank devices showed a short movie to one viewer at a time. They became popular in arcades and amusement halls, but, when the film projector was introduced in 1895, exhibitors quickly realized that projecting films on a screen to large audiences was more profitable. Vaudeville halls and other theaters were the first to add movies to their programs.

When vaudeville performers went on strike in 1901, the theater owners filled their schedules with films and bought projectors in record numbers. Equipment manufacturers ramped up production and cranked out as many machines as they could. Then when the strike ended, the manufacturers had to cut their prices drastically to sell the equipment they had on hand. That discount made it economically feasible for ambitious entrepreneurs to rent storefronts; install projectors, screens, and seats; and show nothing but short films. Eventually, the movies eclipsed vaudeville; the last vaudeville palace (the New York Palace) closed in 1932. Many of its stars—Buster Keaton, W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers—found greater fame on screen.

In 1902, Thomas Talley's Electric Theater became the first permanent movie house in America. Three years later, a Pittsburgh theater opened with a more luxurious interior and a piano to provide musical accompaniment for the films. Admission was five cents; the nickelodeon was born.

In those first years, the motion picture business was an example of unfettered free enterprise. There were virtually no laws governing the production or distribution of movies. Thomas Edison had patented his equipment, but he'd neglected to secure European protection, and so other companies used imported cameras and projectors. Initially, his two biggest competitors were the Biograph and Vitagraph studios, which had set up business in New York. All three companies made films in New York and New Jersey. Edison's gangs intimidated other production crews both legally and physically, though none of them were averse to rough-and-tumble methods when needed. (See Jeffries-Sharkey Championship sidebar.)

Some of the short one-reel films they made were nothing more than shots taken from trains rolling slowly through cities, or subway cars rattling through tunnels, but people were fascinated by any moving image. The nickelodeons flourished. Before the decade was over, there were more than 5,000 of them in operation in America, and 80 percent of the population went to the movies every week. Though European filmmakers had been telling stories in films for years, the first American film to use "creative geography" (editing shots filmed at different places to create a unified scene) was Edwin S. Porter's 1903 Life of an American Fireman, a rescue story that combined footage of real fire fighters with fictional characters. It was an immediate success with audiences, as was Porter's next film, The Great Train Robbery. In 1908, the movie business made two significant evolutionary leaps. First, The Motion Picture Patents Co., commonly called "The Trust," was formed when Biograph, Edison, Vitagraph, and six other companies merged. They created the basic economic structure of the industry: the producer who created the film; the distributor who arranged the rental agreements; the exhibitor who showed it. The Trust also had an exclusive contract with the Eastman Company for raw film stock. It forced distributors to consolidate as the General Film Company, which would rent only to exhibitors who agreed to handle nothing but Trust films and to pay a $2 weekly licensing fee. The arrangement did not last. Almost immediately, two distributors—William Swanson in Chicago, and Carl Laemmle, who would go on to found Universal Pictures—objected and urged other "Independents" to join them against The Trust. For the next decade, they fought in the courts and sometimes in the streets, until the companies that had formed The Trust died out, and the Independents became the Hollywood studios.

D. W. Griffith and The Birth of a nation

For the decade or so following Life of an American Fireman, moviegoers were satisfied with short films. But cinematic storytelling developed steadily during those years, and David Wark Griffith emerged as the pre-eminent director. A failed actor and writer, he found his medium working behind the camera for Biograph. His first one-reel movie was The Adventures of Dollie, about a baby kidnapped by gypsies. Griffith took to the job immediately and worked steadily at a rate of about one movie per week. He made more than 400 films during the next six years.

Some have given Griffith credit for inventing many of the basic techniques of narrative filmmaking in those years, including the close up, the fade out, the long shot, and the cross cut. It is wrong to give him sole credit; examples of their use elsewhere are numerous, either earlier or at the same time. But he used those devices so well and he perfected them in so many films that it is not an exaggeration to say that he invented the feature film as audiences came to know it—an extended well-made story that makes use of the malleability of film in editing and camerawork, and is told with attractive actors, easily recognizable characters, and familiar plots. He developed a stock company of actors and technicians who remained loyal to him. He was also one of the first filmmakers to go to California in search of good lighting and authentic Western locations.

The Jeffries-Sharkey Fight

On the night of 3 November 1899, James J. Jeffries, "the Boilermaker," defended his heavyweight championship against challenger "Sailor" Tom Sharkey at Coney Island. It was, Jeffries later modestly claimed, "perhaps the greatest combat ever waged in a ring between two human beings." Public interest was intense and so the Biograph company arranged to set up special lights to film the fight.

The Biograph camera crew was positioned at ringside. While the bout was going on, they learned that a group from their rivals at Vitagraph had set up a camera several rows farther back. The Biograph crew immediately dispatched Pinkerton detectives to seize the unauthorized camera and film, but the rowdy crowd got into the action and prevented the enforcers from getting to the other crew. The Vitagraph poachers actually managed to capture the fight on film, and hurried away to develop the reels at one of their labs. That night, though, their film stolen from the lab, presumably by someone from the Edison company.

Eventually, both Vitagraph and Edison released movies of the fight while Biograph never made any money from their film. Jeffries retained his title.

Griffith had an excellent eye for casting, particularly for younger actresses who could express the emotion and sentimentality that were central to his work; he discovered and nurtured the talents of Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters. He rehearsed seriously and thoroughly with his cast before the cameras rolled. He created new lighting techniques and helped actors to develop a new more natural, less exaggerated style specifically for film. He was one of the first to realize that an audience's conception of time is changed by the pace of editing, and a moment can be manipulated—either compressed or elongated to fit the needs of the film. Just as importantly, he used the camera to tell the story, not simply to record the story. He was able to combine quiet intimate interiors with large-scale action scenes involving thousands of extras so that each reinforced the other.

Griffith had already been working with ambitious two-reel (twenty- to forty-minute) projects in 1913 when the full-length (two-hour) Quo Vadis? was imported from Italy. Because of its length, the film played only in the larger "legitimate" theaters, and not the nickelodeons. American producers and executives doubted the economic viability of such a long feature, but the film became a commercial success, and it inspired Griffith to strike out on his own to create the epic The Birth of a Nation.

Originally titled The Clansman, The Birth of a Nation was the first "event" movie. The melodrama revolves around two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and ends with the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue. The NAACP and other progressive organizations protested the film's most egregious racist elements, but it was embraced by a segregated society and became an unprecedented popular hit. Despite a ticket price of $2, when the standard price was less than 25 cents, the crowds were enormous.

The American movie as an art form was born with Griffith's masterpiece. Before The Birth of a Nation, the movies were a diversion, a form of entertainment not really worthy of consideration by serious people. After it, the movies could claim at least a degree of artistic legitimacy. Griffith's success motivated other filmmakers to undertake similarly gargantuan projects. (See Most Expensive Movies sidebar.)

Then, as now, such productions represented a huge financial risk for an industry that depended on a steady stream of more modest but reliably profitable works. For that, Griffith's one-time partner Thomas Ince paved the way.

Thomas Ince and the Studio System

In many ways, Ince was the opposite of Griffith. While Griffith filmed The Birth of a Nation without a written outline or script, Ince believed in managing production costs with careful preparation. At his Culver City studio, called "Inceville," he worked with writers to create solid, fast-moving stories. Those were translated into scripts complete with dialog and directions for action and camera work. That was the beginning of the studio system, essentially a motion picture assembly line that would create a large number of features at a predictable rate to play at a growing number of theaters and to satisfy an everincreasing public appetite for movies.

For many years, the studios and producers tried to focus audiences' attention on the films themselves, not the actors who were given no credit. But moviegoers came to care for individual actors and wanted to know who they were. Carl Laemmle of Universal argued that by promoting his stars, he could charge higher rates for his films. The others followed suit, and by the end of World War I, Hollywood was producing the most polished movies in the world, familiar melodramas and comedies that were experienced by audiences in the dreamlike setting of a darkened movie theater.

Ince's mass production system worked. The studios were able to create a large number of technically sophisticated films and still charge a relatively modest admission. Moviegoing became an important social activity. By the 1920s, 500-700 features were produced every year and they brought in $2 billion in ticket sales. By the end of the decade, more growth occurred; America had more than 22,500 theaters, half of those in towns with populations of less than 5,000. Seating capacity was 18 million. The motion picture industry was making films that were designed to appeal to audiences of every age and socioeconomic level.

The Most Expensive Movies Ever Made

When D. W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation in 1915, nothing approaching that scale or expense had been attempted in the United States. Knowledgeable people within the film business predicted that no matter how popular the picture was, it could never make a profit. They were wrong. It was such a commercial success that, at regular intervals in the years since, ambitious filmmakers have attempted epic productions that cost more than any previous film. These are the 21 most expensive movies ever made and their budgets:

Birth of a Nation (1915) $110,000

Intolerance (1916) $385,906.77

Thief of Baghdad (1924) $2m

Ben-Hur (1925) $3.9m

Hell's Angels (1930-31) $3.95m

Gone With the Wind (1939) $4.25m

Wilson (1944) $5.2m

Duel in the Sun (1946) $8m

Joan of Arc (1948) $8.7m

Ten Commandments (1956) $13.5m

Ben-Hur (1959) $15m

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) $19m

Cleopatra (1963) $44m

Superman (1978) $55m

Rambo III (1988) $63m

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) $70m

The Abyss (1989) $69.5m

Terminator 2 (1991) $100m

True Lies (1994) $100m

Waterworld (1995) $175m

Titanic (1997) $200m

It is impossible to separate the importance of movies as a leisure activity from the other social changes that were going on in those years. The "Roaring Twenties" was also a decade obsessed with youthful beauty and that stemmed, at least in part, from Hollywood stars—both the characters they played on screen and the carefully crafted fictions that the studio publicity departments and fan magazines passed off as their real lives. Movies became a common cultural force that cut across all economic divisions. People in every part of the country watched the same films, were attracted to the same actors and, to varying degrees, shared the same fantasies. As Cary Grant so aptly put it, "Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant."

As the country became more prosperous, the idea that people could spend time and money on pleasurable leisure activities filtered down to the middle and working classes. Movie theaters became places for young people to congregate in couples and groups, away from adult supervision, at least for a few hours in the darkness. Some social critics and reformers were outraged. An early study of children in Portland, Oregon, found that 90 percent went to the movies regularly, and of those, 30 percent went at least twice per week. A 1909 Chicago Vice Commission report decried the sexual activity that went on between young people and adults in movie theaters.

Decades later, from the 1930s to the 1950s, when the movies were more respectable, theaters would provide special weekend matinee programs for children. For less than a dollar, a boy or girl could spend an entire afternoon with multiple features, cartoons, serials, and lots of popcorn

Sound and Color

Successful technological advances in American movies have been driven by audiences. Some changes are immediately embraced; others, like 3-D, never become anything more than curiosities.

One of the first major developments was the change from orthochromatic black and white film to panchromatic black and white. "Ortho" film was sensitive to blue and green areas of the spectrum, but did not record reds. Because of that, early silent films lacked gradations of gray, and had a high contrast look that has been called "soot and whitewash." Panchromatic film, developed in 1926, was sensitive to the entire spectrum and so captured a much more detailed image, particularly in the recreation of flesh tones.

That same year, sound was introduced. The Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison had been experimenting with the synchronization of sound and moving images since the 1890s, but difficulties in their coordination stood in the way until the development of the sound track and efficient amplification by 1926. Radio provided the first real competition to movies as a leisure activity, and made audiences more disposed to the idea of "talking pictures." The first commercial radio broadcast was made by Frank Conrad from his barn in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1920. By 1925 there were 571 radio stations in America and 5 million homes had receivers. As radio became more popular, movie attendance declined, and Warner Bros. was the studio that suffered the most.

Unlike the other major studios, Warner did not own theaters. Brothers Sam, Harry, Albert, and Jack knew they had to do something dramatic. They decided to buy the Vitagraph company, which owned thirty-four theaters in America and Canada, and then to convert them to sound. Their first release was a collection of short films featuring the New York Metropolitan Opera Company and the feature Don Juan. In all of them, the use of sound was limited to music. The films were well-received critically, but were only modestly successful at the box office. That was enough, though. The studio took the next step and put The Jazz Singer into production in 1927.

It contained only four talking segments, including the famous line, "Wait a minute, you ain't heard nothing yet!" The film was an immediate hit and despite the fact that it could cost as much as $25,000 to retrofit a silent theater for sound, the other studios realized that they had no choice but to follow the Warners' lead. In the years following the introduction of sound, weekly attendance doubled from 50 to 100 million.

The third major change was three-color Technicolor. Limited use of color had been part of films for decades. Griffith and others routinely tinted scenes with primary colors for effect, and a few films contained hand-painted scenes and stenciled effects. The Technicolor company was founded in 1915. It developed several processes for adding selected colors to film, but it did not achieve commercially viable full color until 1932. Disney's animated short Flowers and Trees was the first to use the process. The first feature to employ it was 1935's Becky Sharp. The Technicolor equipment was expensive: a three-color camera cost $30,000. The company retained control of the equipment and personnel, and charged top dollar for their rental. The studios reserved the process for their most ambitious projects—Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Fantasia, and the like. Until the 1950s, most studio films were made in black and white, and the big full-color picture was relatively rare.

The studio system depended on a large number of films being cycled through a large number of theaters. The huge, ornate movie palaces that were built in the largest cities were really an aberration. Almost all theaters built in the suburbs and small towns were on a more modest scale that was appropriate to the presentation of smaller films. Construction of theaters increased steadily from 19,409 in 1926 to 20,457 in 1946. It was not unusual for a theater to change programs twice per week. They usually ran double features with short films, newsreels, and trailers along with the main attraction, or an "A" picture and the shorter "B" picture. (Though the term "B-picture" has come to mean any low-budget film, the original B-pictures were made by divisions within the larger studios and by such companies as Monogram and Republic. John Wayne and many other stars learned their craft working in these swiftly-made genre pieces.)

Ticket prices remained less than 25 cents until the beginning of World War II. Attendance declined during the Great Depression, but even in the darkest years, 60 million people went to the movies at least once per week. By then, movies had become an accepted part of American culture.

Hollywood movies were aimed at a broad general audience, though the individual studios established reputations for different types of pictures. MGM had the most famous stars and made polished films with the most lavish production values. Warner Bros. became known for crime films and more socially relevant dramas. Paramount specialized in sophisticated fare, lighter entertainment, and comedy. Universal was the home of horror and Deanna Durbin musicals. Twentieth Century Fox made period pieces and adventures. Columbia had director Frank Capra, B-pictures, and later, more ambitious serious films. Disney made the most advanced animation.

Sex, Scandal and Censorship

Mainstream movies have always traded on a carefully calculated amount of controversy and the perception of their product as something exotic and glamorous with a strong hint of the forbidden. Promotional material for 1924's Alimony promised "brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrific smashing climax that makes you gasp." Even though films almost never lived up to such hyperbole, various groups objected and worked to prevent their distribution, or to edit their content. Over the decades, the industry has responded with conciliatory words, the appearance of concession, and self-regulation, either lax or strict.

In 1907, the New York clergy complained that movies were promoting immorality and that they were being screened on Sundays. Mayor George B. McClelland then revoked the licenses of 600 theaters. The production companies answered with the creation of the National Board of Review (NBR) of Motion Pictures. Their efforts came at a time when vaudeville houses were being transformed into movie theaters, and they helped to make movies and moviegoing more acceptable to new audiences. Theaters were cleaned up and made more respectable with ushers who actually enforced standards of behavior. Women became more comfortable in theaters and movies gradually came to be perceived as middle class entertainment.

Then in 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that movies were a business, not an art form, and therefore were not protected by the First Amendment. That decision opened the door to government censors and to more protests against movies from such organizations as the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Legion of Decency. Despite the best efforts of the studio publicity departments to present their stars as upstanding model citizens, tales of alcohol and drug abuse and sexual excess in Hollywood led to more protests. In the early 1920s, those protests found focus with two highly-publicized scandals. The first was the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor, who had been linked romantically to two young actresses, one a teen-ager. The second was the death of actress Virginia Rappe following a wild party and the trial of comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle for her murder. Arbuckle was eventually acquitted (she died after a botched abortion), but the damage had been done.

In 1922, the industry responded with the creation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which would become the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). At its creation, it was more commonly known as the Hays Office after its leader Will Hays. He had been Chairman of the Republican National Committee and Postmaster General in the Harding administration. Given his political connections and reputation for strict morality, Hays was able to hold off censorship on a national level and in all but six states. The studios agreed to submit scripts to his office for editing and films were given a seal of approval before they were released. Hays also demanded that the studios insert a "morals clause" in all contracts with actors, and he was instrumental in the creation of the famous Production Code in 1930. This remarkable document (See Hays Code sidebar) is a lengthy list of forbidden subjects and acts, statements of principle, and guidelines for the treatment of "difficult" stories.

The forces of moral rectitude were particularly strong then. Mae West was a favorite target. Her film She Done Him Wrong is said to have caused the creation of the League of Decency, and she was banned from NBC radio after she participated in a skit about Adam and Eve on the Edgar Bergen Show. Her name was not to be spoken on the network.

As long as movies lacked serious competition and remained profitable, studios—if not filmmakers—were happy enough to abide by the Hays Code. Creativity and experimentation were sacrificed; direct governmental regulation had been prevented, though during World War II, scripts and films were cleared with the War Department. While critics and intellectuals decried the blandness of Hollywood studio productions in those years, movies rose to their highest levels of popularity.

Weekly attendance ranged between 85 and 90 million throughout the 1930s and 1940s. During those same years, movies accounted for about 20 percent of America's total recreational spending, and more than 80 percent of spectator recreational spending. Though it is impossible to quantify precisely, the social aspect of moviegoing was part of the entertainment value for most audiences. Particularly during the war years, the shared experience of escapist musicals, comedies and unashamed propaganda drew people to theaters.

The Paramount Decision and the Arrival of Television

After World War II, the Hollywood studios were at the peak of their power and profitability. That happy state ended abruptly in 1948 when the Supreme Court decided U.S. v. Paramount et al. The matter had been brewing since 1921 when the Federal Trade Commission investigated block booking, an arrangement that forced an exhibitor to accept several films in a single package, often sight unseen, from a studio or distributor. In 1930, the major studios were found guilty of monopoly practices. They owned chains of theaters and effectively controlled production, distribution, and exhibition of all films. But the Roosevelt administration worked out a controversial deal with the studios to prevent the ruling from going into effect during the darkest days of the Great Depression.

By 1938, the economy was doing better, and Roosevelt then ordered the Justice Department to take another look at the issue. Again, circumstances (such as World War II) prevented a quick resolution. But in 1948, the Court ordered the studios to eliminate block booking and to sell their theaters. The studio system was over, and independent producers assumed a more important creative role.

The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930

"The Hays Code" explicitly stated that it was the duty of motion pictures to promote morality. "No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence, the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin."

Here are some examples of how those high standards were to be met:

"Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail."

"Revenge in modern times shall not be justified."

"The use of firearms should be restricted to the essentials."

"Illegal drug traffic must never be presented."

"In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element."

"Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden."

"Scenes of passion must be treated with an honest acknowledgement of human nature and its normal reactions. Many scenes cannot be presented without arousing dangerous emotions on the part of the immature, the young or the criminal classes."

"Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience) is forbidden."

Through all of this, people still went to movies. Drive-in theaters, which had been invented in 1931, flourished in the 1950s, which was a decade of relatively inexpensive suburban real estate and large cars with comfortable seats. Drive-in double features appealed primarily to two audiences. One was families with young children who would be entertained by the first movie and would fall asleep before the next (presumably more mature) feature. The second audience was teenagers who found other uses for the partial privacy afforded by a darkened automobile at night.

But neither conventional theaters nor drive-ins could compete with television. Movie ticket sales plummeted as TV set sales rose after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, the major networks took over the role that the studios had played, providing different types of low-cost entertainment—primarily comedies and melodramas—to an audience of all ages and economic levels.

The movies tried to compete by becoming bigger with widescreen image formats. Such processes as CinemaScope, VistaVision and Todd-AO were used for biblical epics, period pieces, and westerns. The single-screen theater became a rarity as older movie houses were divided and new theaters were constructed with multiple screens surrounding a concession stand that became an increasingly significant source of revenue. Though moviegoing continued to be a popular leisure activity, the studios never regained their power. Television fundamentally changed the structure of American recreational viewing as a social activity. The audience no longer had to go to the theater to find movies: the movies came to the audience. It took the Hollywood studios about thirtyfive years to adapt to the new reality.

In 1953, the RKO studio was bought by the Desilu company. It ceased making movies and started producing TV shows. The others sold off their back lots also, and one by one, the studios themselves were purchased by larger corporations.

The MPAA Ratings System

The Hays Code remained unchallenged until 1952 when the Supreme Court reversed its ruling that movies were a business. It stated that Roberto Rossellini's Il Miracolo, in one segment of the film L'Amore, could not be censored on religious grounds, and that all films are protected by the First Amendment.

Rossellini's work was part of a wave of European imports that were dealing with more mature subject matter and more explicit content. Those films were competing with studios' productions for the adult marketplace at the same time that television was providing free family entertainment. Movie attendance continued to decline throughout the 1960s, and the studios struggled to regain their audience with more challenging and controversial films. The matter was partially resolved in 1968 when Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA, came up with the ratings system.

In that year of political and social upheaval, he realized that the Hays Code was no longer viable. Valenti's immediate concerns were the language in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the nudity in Blow Up. In April, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional power of cities and states to prevent children from being exposed to books and films that could not be denied to adults. On 1 November, Valenti introduced the G-M-R-X ratings system, and said that the MPAA would no longer attempt to forbid the depiction and description of specific acts in films; instead the studios' films would come with a classification letter so that parents could decide whether children should attend.

The system, still in effect in the early 2000s (with the subdivision of M to PG and PG-13 and the addition of NC-17), recognized the fact that Hollywood movies were no longer meant for a universal audience. The MPAA ratings system effectively made theater operators responsible for policing the audience, and after almost forty years under the Hays Code, the movie industry decided that the marketplace, not a governing body, would determine content. Since the mid-1970s, the business has been dependent on escapism—mostly science fiction, fantasy, and adventure—aimed at teen-aged audiences for its biggest profits.

The Home Video Revolution

Industry changes since the 1970s have had little to do with movies themselves and more to do with the medium where they are displayed. As television expanded with the growth of cable broadcasting, and as videocassette recorders became widely popular in the 1980s, people watched films in record numbers. They just didn't go to theaters to see them and the social aspect of movies continued to decline. At first, the studio heads and producers regarded these "secondary markets" as an afterthought, but home video grew quickly. In the 1980s, mom-and-pop video stores appeared in every neighborhood and small town. By the mid 1990s, they faced competition from larger chains, and the video market was earning more money than theatrical releases.

That trend accelerated sharply with the introduction of the DVD (Digital Versatile Disk) in 1997. While the videotape market was primarily a rental medium, with cassettes typically priced at $80-90, DVD was developed as a sales market, with discs at $20. At about the same time that DVD was introduced, the prices of widescreen video monitors and surround-sound systems were lowered dramatically, and even modest home theater systems were able to create a visual and auditory experience comparable to the multiplex.

The massive advertising and promotional campaigns that Hollywood mounts for its most expensive releases continue to be the engine that drives the industry, but the home market is much more important economically. In 2003, the theatrical box office was $9.16 billion, a slight drop from 2002. Home video sales and rentals were $22.2 billion, a 9.3 percent increase from 2002. As ticket prices increase, and as alternate methods of distribution (such as Internet, cable, and satellite) proliferate, home viewing will become even more significant.

See also: Commercialization of Leisure; Expansion of Leisure Time; Media, Technology, and Leisure; Postwar to 1980 Leisure and Recreation; Television's Impact on Popular Leisure; Urbanization of Leisure


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Mike Mayo