The Hollywood Antagonist: How the Studio System is Reshaping the Movie Industry in the 21st Century

By Blake Kennedy

 By the beginning of the twenty-first century, creative filmmaking was reaching a new pivotal point in expressionism. Independent filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarentino, Steven Soderbergh, and Robert Rodriguez (to name a few) had changed the approach to expressionism in Hollywood, and paved the way for a new batch of Hollywood filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Darren Aronofsky, and Christopher Nolan. The auteurs had broken through the barriers of the monotonous Hollywood routine within the film industry, making artistically enticing masterpieces. Lost in Translation (Coppola, 2003) represents two central characters that are displaced by their atmosphere, Tokyo, and how they both become lost within each other. Being John Malkovich (Jonze, 1999) is a twisted feature about the downward path of an obsessed man whose main objective is to live the life of a celebrated figure. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004) takes the audience on a journey into the psyche of a man trying to stop the woman of his dreams from being erased forever. Each film represented the style of the director and gave hope to the possibilities of an existing cinematic transition into future of filmmaking. The sky was the limit when it came to originality and experimentation; however, somewhere along the way, the massive power of the Hollywood system regained its stronghold over the industry, beating the independents to a bloody pulp. This system made it seem as if the stylish films that personified the era were simply a fad.

Throughout the noughts, Hollywood fought back against the expressionistic new ideas floating around the West coast, with the rise of the franchise film and the rebirth of the horror genre. The idea of mass-producing trendy money-makers is the key to the modern Hollywood era, but it is not all fun and games. The emergence of online piracy has made it hard for the distributors to profit from their films, forcing some to speculate if the industry is on a downward spiral. The lack of originality in current cinema is present for the most part because the franchise code is forcing some stars to make long-term contracts with studios. In turn, the actors have a very limited range with the characters they portray, which allows them no room to shine. With the release of these large blockbusters, the younger generation no longer frequent to the movies to see their favorite stars perform, they now go for the vast array of special effects. Distributors such as Warner Bros. and Paramount are re-emerging as the entity in charge, not the actors and their agents. The same could be said during Hollywood’s “silent” and “golden” eras when they controlled the lives of their stars. In order to understand the full spectrum of this problem, one needs to begin with the recent trend of pirated media and updated technology.

Since the early twenty-first century, piracy of films has been an ongoing struggle that has yet to be conquered. Jack Valenti, former president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), saw the growing trend of illegally downloaded pictures as an unlawful act against the industry. He believed that if movies continued to be recorded in theaters and downloaded off the Internet, the industry would lose profitable earnings.[1] Over the duration of 2011, the number of times the ten most downloaded films were transferred reached almost 80 million, turning out to be about 219,000 times a day that a movie was illegally pirated.[2] With digital media technology on the rise, one can only speculate the numbers for 2012 will be much higher.

With technology allowing audiences to view their favorite films and television shows on computers, iPads, and iPhones, there is no longer a need to drive to the local movie theater and spend the money on a ticket. Theaters, in competition with alternative media outlets, are losing money. This is forcing them to release more films in three-dimension, or on an IMAX screen, to attract audiences, while raising the price of tickets and concessions. Digital media has also given audiences the opportunity to view films in their homes whenever they want, using such services as Netflix and Video on Demand. This has hurt the local video store to a point that most do not exist anymore, and within the next few years they may all be obsolete.

So how is Hollywood still grossing billions at the box office annually? The industry has regenerated the Hollywood studio system, pumping it full of metaphorical steroids. They have figured out what makes a hit in today’s world, and are pouring out action-packed franchise films each year, keeping up with the currents trends. Additionally, the box-office numbers of smash hits continue to rise higher. James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) peaked at over 2.5 billion dollars worldwide; while Marvel’s The Avengers reached just over 1.5 billion worldwide. These comic book films became the recent trend-setters due to their attachment to special effects. Comic book films have been around for decades, but only recently they have been given the green screen affect, which added significantly to their target audiences. No longer are the guys who grew up reading the comics the only ones seeing these films. The trend changed with Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000). In 2000, X-Men grossed over 150 million dollars in the United States, and gave birth to the modern franchise era. Big-budget box-office films, which usually are released in the summer months, have become the backbone of the industry, making it apparent that these flicks are not going away anytime soon. Now, with franchises grossing hundreds of millions of dollars, the idea is to reboot – a reset, if you will, of the idea. When a studio has come to a point where it cannot make another sequel, it simply waits a few years, then remake the original with a new cast and crew. In 2002, Columbia Pictures released Spider-Man, with Tobey Maguire. The franchise made two more films, turning it into a trilogy. Earlier in 2012, an updated version was made with a young Andrew Garfield in the lead role.

What is even worse, the franchise idea no longer sticks strictly with action blockbusters. The horror genre has been revamped to lure young moviegoers to see chilling and demented unrealistic depictions of life. The best examples of this are the current Paranormal Activity films and the Saw torture-porn flicks. The producers of the latter made six sequels before calling it quits. The first installment of the Paranormal Activity franchise became such a sensation because of its over-the-top shock, playing on the fears of the human mind. Shot in the style of a 35mm, it shows the weeks leading up to a couples’ demise as they are plagued by the hauntings of a demon. Katie, the female lead, is visited by a presence that has been with her since childhood. Micah, her boyfriend, is fascinated by the idea of documenting the unknown and taunts the demon. They are told by a psychic that this will lead to harm, but Micah proceeds. In the end Katie is fully possessed and takes the life of Micah. The film was originally released in 2007 with lackluster results. Then, two years later, with a new amped-up ending, the film broke barriers of shock value and set the bar for amateur-looking Hollywood home movies. What these films really do is heighten the viewer’s sensibility, making it quite easy to jump at the most simple fright. The viewer forgets they are watching a movie and becomes entranced in an altered reality where anything is possible.

Fear is an emotion easy to be tapped into. Horror films have been on the rise during this transitional period in Hollywood because people love to be scared. What people do not realize is that there is a connection with this obsession of fear and the War on Terrorism. The era after the September 11th attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the media, have put the entire country in a constant state of fear. Images of terrorism and “what if” scenarios are shown on television with shows like 24 and Homeland, the Internet, where anyone can add content to scare someone, described on the radio by “shockjocks” whose primal reason is to ensure fear into their audience for ratings. The horror of life is all around us, yet instead of Hollywood making patriotic films like it did after Pearl Harbor, it has chosen the opposite path in order to publicize and promote cultural fears and anxieties with movies like Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), and The Devil’s Rejects (2005), where perverted people capture and torture helpless victims for their own pleasure. This is not the first time this motive has been used by Hollywood. In the 1970s, civil unrest and an ongoing war in Vietnam, caused a change in the style of the horror film.[3] The monster from outer space had been replaced by an actual human being, attacking and murdering their prey in such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Halloween.[4] One can argue this reverberating effect is the acceptance of a harsher, more realistic society, which has transcended into today’s world.

The concept of being attacked in a horror movie may only be a fear that lives in the mind of the paranoid and disillusioned, but there is a real fear, in the identity of the studio system. The franchise films are the perfect genre to battle the fears of society as the plot revolves around terrorism. The studios are revolving their movies around the young talented actors in a way that makes them less appealing to audiences that enjoy great performances. By paying actors large sums of money, they are contractually binding these actors and directors to a franchise, and limiting the options that each particular person might have. If a star like Shia LaBeouf plays a clean-cut kid from the suburbs in the Transformers films, Paramount will do what it takes to keep him from making an experimental film that may jeopardize the image he has as the face of the franchise, and potentially single out viewers, bringing in less revenue than expected. Recently, LaBeouf attacked Paramount, the franchise marketing tool, and even Steven Spielberg, whom he worked with on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), because he feels there is no room for an actor to shine and must be used only as a seller of the product.[5]

All major stars in Hollywood seem to be attached to large franchises. Daniel Radcliffe is example of an actor not showing his potential throughout his career. After playing Harry Potter in eight films, Radcliffe has become the face of the franchise, not being able to let go of his type-case image. Radcliffe has done a few projects since, but has not received the accreditations like before. He seems to be the type of actor that will live on only as Harry Potter.  Elijah Wood is another example of this. In this case, he will forever be remembered as Frodo in the Lord of the Rings films. His work, too, has suffered in the past decade due to his large presence in the reprising role. These actors seem to be doomed to never live down, or move past their presence in the franchise system.

The studio system is clearly in control as power seems to be shifting away from the talent agencies. When the industry began around the turn of the twentieth century, the studios produced their films, using a stock company of actors. For fifty years these studios chose prominent roles for their leading players based on their popularity and image. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, Twentieth-Century Fox, Universal, and others dominated during the golden age of cinema, but that all changed after a decisive blow by the Supreme Court. In 1948, the courts decided that studios could no longer hold a monopoly over theater chains, and from there actors and crew members became independent of the system.[6] From that moment, people in the industry needed a form of representation, which brought about talent agencies. Today, there are many agencies around the world, involving some extremely large companies in Hollywood. The four companies that seem to have a hold on Hollywood are Creative Artists Agency (CAA), William Morris Endeavor (WME), ICM Partners, and United Talent Agency (UTA). These companies represent some the most popular actors, directors, producers, and writers in the industry and have some free reign dealing negotiations and projects for their clients. These companies could be seen as a threat to the film industry because, in a way, they monopolize the greater half of Hollywood. However, with the studios gaining more ground, the power may be shifting again.

In the wake of the independent revolution of the 1990s and early-2000s, filmmaking has gone back into the hands of the studio. Small films still exist, but on a lesser scale; the impact they have on the industry and the audience is long gone. Steven Soderbergh said it best: “…I think the movie business in the next five years will change a lot… On the independent side, something is going to have to change… the independent as we knew it ten years ago has disappeared… and they’re going to have to do something to survive.”[7] Soderbergh knew this was a problem that needed to be fixed, but was unable to make an impact. In 2005, he released Bubble, the first movie that went to theaters and straight to DVD on the same day, trying to revolutionize the business. It was a failure because his new idea to stay on top of the crisis within the industry was not embraced by anyone else with such an impactful presence. His latest release, Magic Mike, tells exactly where he is among the business–working for the system he once fought against. From a visionary who made a name for himself among the independent prestige with sex, lies, and videotape, to now making Hollywood eye-candy. He has become one the best examples of an auteur crumbling to the system. Some of the iconic auteurs are still out there, making the films they love to make. Some are still receiving credibility, like Alexander Payne and his successful The Descendants, that went on to win the Oscar for Best Screenwriting, and multiple other nominations. For the most part, Hollywood has struck back against the creative ones, with the insulting “franchise” and the horror flicks. It is now common to see the largest stars in these types of pictures, ultimately taking away their ability to branch out as a visionary actor. The piracy issue may never be conquered, but Hollywood is using it to their advantage. So in the end, the industry looks gloom for the talented few, as they watch their dreams and aspirations fade away due to the massive corporation that is the Hollywood system.

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Blake Kennedy is a recent graduate of Aurora University, with a B.A. in History. His writing explores 21st Century cinema and the independent film industry. His essays have appeared widely.


[1] Jon Lewis. ““If You Can’t Protect What You Own, You Don’t Own Anything”: Piracy, Privacy, and Public Relations in 21st Century Hollywood.” Cinema Journal, vol. 46, no. 2, Winter 2007, pg. 145.

[2] TorrentFreak, “Top Ten Most Pirated Films of 2011,” http://torrentfreak.com/top-10-most-pirated-movies-of-2011-111223/ (accessed October 28, 2012).

[3] Thomas Riegler. JGCinema.com: Cinema and Globalization. “The Connection Between Real and Reel Horror.” http://jgcinema.com/single.php?sl=real-horror (accessed October 29, 2012).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Arienne Thompson. USA Today, “Shia LaBeouf Blasts Hollywood Studios.” http://content.usatoday.com/communities/entertainment/post/2012/08/labeouf-blasts-hollywood-studios-/1 (accessed October 29, 2012).

[6] Hollywood Renegades Archive. “The Independent Producers and the ParamountCase, 1938-1949: Part 6: The Supreme Court Verdict That Brought an End to the Hollywood Studio System, 1948. http://www.cobbles.com/simpp_archive/paramountcase_6supreme1948.htm (accessed October 29, 2012).

[7] James Mottram. The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood. (New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2006), 438.

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