Studio System

Since the advent of commercial cinema over a century ago, the costs and complexity of filmmaking have encouraged producers to develop a factory-oriented approach to production. The benefits of such an approach include the centralization of both production and management; the division and detailed subdivision of labor; a standardized mode of production, film style, and type of product; cost efficiencies derived from economies of scale; consistent production values; and the cultivation of a brand name in the movie marketplace. This approach coalesced in Hollywood, California in the 1910s, when that locale became the nexus of commercial film production in the United States. The dominant firms referred to their production facilities as "studios," which invoked the more artistic aspects of filmmaking, although operations were modeled on the kind of mass production that Henry Ford (1863–1947) was introducing to the auto industry at the time.

The Hollywood studios that emerged in the 1910s and 1920s—Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros., et al.—complemented their factory-based production operations with common business practices that enabled them to collectively dominate the movie industry in the US and, increasingly, overseas as well. The fact that most of the early studios still dominate the industry on a global scale underscores their capacity to adapt and survive, although they no longer control the industry to anywhere near the extent that they did from the 1920s to through the 1940s, during Hollywood's so-called classical era, when the studio system was at its height, and when the studios' collective dominion at home and abroad established Hollywood as a national cinema with tremendous global currency. Film studios in other countries have enjoyed great success for periods of time, occasionally to the extent that the terms "studio system" and "national cinema" apply to them as well. This success often coincided with the national and international popularity of a particular type of product or film style, as with Ufa and German Expressionism in the 1920s, or the remarkable run of Alfred Hitchcock-directed thrillers from Gaumont British Distributors Ltd. in the 1930s. In some instances, sheer size and volume of output put a studio on the global or regional map, as with Germany's Ufa, Italy's Cinecitta, and a few others. But only India's "Bollywood" has developed a studio system comparable to Hollywood's. Like the US film industry, India's emerged in the 1910s and 1920s in a major west-coast city, Bombay (now Mumbai), and developed a factory-based mode of production dominated by a number of powerful firms. Bollywood, like Hollywood, is a relentlessly market-driven industry geared for stars, genres, and standardized film styles, but it remains far more productive, turning out some eight hundred features per year—although a key distinction from Hollywood has been Bollywood's focus on its domestic and regional markets.

In the larger global context, Hollywood has been the dominant force throughout motion picture history due to the studio's collective control of distribution as well as production. This control diminished considerably in the postwar era due to the rise in independent production and freelance talent, as well as the threat of television and other new media, and it has eroded even further since the 1980s as the studios became subdivisions of global media conglomerates like Sony, Viacom, News Corporation, and General Electric. Still, the Hollywood studios are the strongest shaping forces in the movie industry, and their operations today are a fundamental extension of the system that they established at their inception.

b. Thomas Harper Ince, Newport, Rhode Island, 6 November 1882, d. on or about 19 November 1924

Thomas Ince wielded enormous influence over the Hollywood studio system, particularly the factory-based mode of production that came to characterize it. Ince wrote, directed, and produced scores of top features from 1914 until his untimely death in 1924, but his most important contributions involved not individual films but the filmmaking process. More than any other Hollywood pioneer, Ince anticipated and effectively defined the roles of film producer and production executive during the nascent studio era. And as a one-man writing staff who supervised every stage of production and eventual release, Ince also was a consummate creative producer and innovative entrepreneur who maintained a steady output of high-quality, commercially successful films. In the process, he refined a number of key aspects of the emerging system, from the shooting script as a blueprint for production to the centralized studio system and the assembly-line construction of multiple films.

Born into a show-business family (his parents were stage actors), Ince moved from stage to screen early in his career, and in 1911 moved from New York to Hollywood, where he soon gained a reputation as the director (and frequently the writer) of hundreds of shorts, many of them two-reel westerns starring William S. Hart. He directed his first feature, The Battle of Gettysburg , in 1913, although by then his interests were turning toward producing. In 1915, he joined D. W. Griffith and Mack Sennett to form Triangle Pictures, one of Hollywood's first major independent production companies. Ince enjoyed immediate success with feature-length hits like The Coward (1915) and Civilization (1916), and in 1916 he constructed his own studio in Culver City, California. Known as "Inceville," years later it became the home of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

By then Ince had abandoned directing altogether, concentrating instead on developing the resources and procedures for the systematic production of quality films. He supervised all production at his studio, personally scripting many of the films and insisting on strict adherence to detailed shooting scripts. He built a stable of contract stars and directors and kept a Wild West show on the lot to enhance the production value of his westerns, which were produced on a sprawling back lot that comprised thousands of acres. Willful and often difficult, Ince had a falling out with his Triangle partners, who took with them many of his key filmmaking talent as well, most notably Hart, when the partnership dissolved. He also shifted from Paramount to Metro to First National as his distributor, always looking for ways to optimize both his authority and his income.

Ince's career was cut short by his mysterious death during an outing aboard William Randolph Hearst's private yacht—a now-legendary incident that has overshadowed his accomplishments as one of the chief architects of the Hollywood studio system.


The Battle of Gettysburg (1913), The Coward (1915), Civilization (1916), Hell's Hinges (1916), Anna Christie (1923)


Koszarski, Richard. An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915–1928 . New York: Scribners, 1990.

Pratt, George. Spellbound in Darkness: A History of the Silent Film . Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1973.

Staiger, Janet. "Dividing Labor for Production Control: Thomas Ince and the Rise of the Studio System." In The American Movie Industry , edited by Gorham Kindem, 94–103. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1982.

Thomas Schatz

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