Film industry (United States)

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The American film industry, often referred to as Hollywood (from the place name of its birth), is the industry leader in the form of artistic expression that came to dominate the twentieth century and continues as a popular art form at the beginning of the twenty-first century. While the Lumiere Brothers are generally credited with the birth of modern cinema, it is indisputably American cinema that quickly became the dominant force in the industry.

Prior to the twentieth century, narrative forms were dominated by the oral, then written, and finally printed word. Cinema introduced a new visual culture. The immediacy of the medium created a system of stars with the powerful ability to influence the rest of the culture, for good or for ill. At its best, film creates visual narratives that teach and inspire as they entertain. At its worst, it titillates prurient interests and nudges its viewers to commit acts of evil and stupidity. There is no clearer barometer of cultural values and interests. For that reason, it has also been an arena of ongoing struggle between artistic freedom and artistic responsibility.


The history of American cinema is sometimes separated into four main periods: the silent era, Classical Hollywood cinema, New Hollywood, and the contemporary period (after 1980).

Early development

Justus D. Barnes in Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery

The United States played a significant role in the birth of cinema. The first recorded instance of photographs capturing and reproducing motion was Eadweard Muybridge's series of photographs of a running horse, which he captured in Palo Alto, California, using a set of still cameras placed in a row. Muybridge's accomplishment led inventors everywhere to attempt forming devices that would similarly capture such motion. In the United States, Thomas Edison was among the first to produce such a device, the kinetoscope, whose heavy-handed patent enforcement caused early filmmakers to look for alternatives.

In the United States, the first exhibitions of films for large audiences typically followed the intermissions in vaudeville shows. Entrepreneurs began traveling to exhibit their films, bringing to the world the first forays into dramatic film making. The first huge success of American cinema, as well as the largest experimental achievement to its point, was The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter.

Rise of Hollywood

In early 1910, director D.W. Griffith was sent by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company to the west coast with his acting troop consisting of actors Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and Lionel Barrymore, among others. They started filming on a vacant lot near Georgia Street in downtown Los Angeles. The company decided while there to explore new territories, traveling several miles north to a little village that was friendly and enjoyed the movie company filming there. This place was called "Hollywood." Griffith then filmed the first movie ever shot in Hollywood, In Old California (1910), a melodrama about California in the 1800s, while it was still part of Mexico. Biograph stayed there for months and made several films before returning to New York. After hearing about this wonderful place, in 1913 many movie-makers headed west to avoid the fees imposed by Thomas Edison, who owned patents on the movie-making process. In Los Angeles, California, the studios and Hollywood grew. Before World War I, movies were made in several U.S. cities, but filmmakers gravitated to southern California as the industry developed. They were attracted by the mild climate and reliable sunlight, which made it possible to film movies outdoors year-round, and by the varied scenery available there. Several starting points for American cinema can be distinguished, but it was Griffith's Birth of a Nation that pioneered the filmic vocabulary that still dominates celluloid to this day.

In the early 1900s, when the medium was new, many immigrants, particularly Jews, found employment in the U.S. film industry. Kept out of other occupations by religious prejudice, they were able to make their mark in a brand-new business: the exhibition of short films in storefront theaters called "nickelodeons," named after their admission price of a nickel. Within a few years, ambitious men like Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, and the Warner Brothers (Harry, Albert, Samuel, and Jack) had switched to the production side of the business. Soon they were the heads of a new kind of enterprise: the movie studio. (It is worth noting that the United States had at least one female director, producer, and studio head in these early years, Alice Guy Blaché.) They also set the stage for the industry's internationalism; the industry is often accused of Amero-centric provincialism, but simultaneously has employed a huge number of foreign-born talent: from Swedish actress Greta Garbo to Australian Nicole Kidman, from Hungarian director Michael Curtiz to Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón.

Other film makers arrived from Europe after World War I: directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and Jean Renoir; and actors like Rudolph Valentino, Marlene Dietrich, Ronald Colman, and Charles Boyer. They joined a homegrown supply of actors—lured west from the New York City stage after the introduction of sound films—to form one of the twentieth century's most remarkable growth industries. At the height of motion pictures' popularity in the mid-1940s, the studios were turning out a total of about 400 movies a year, seen by an audience of 90 million Americans per week.

Golden Age of Hollywood

During the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, which lasted from the virtual end of the silent era in the late 1920s to near the end of the 1940s, studios were producing films like they were cars rolling off Henry Ford's assembly lines. A number of different genres emerged: Western, slapstick comedy, film noir, musical, animated cartoon, biopic (biographical picture), and even newsreels, as the same creative teams often worked on films made by the same studio. For instance, Cedric Gibbons and Herbert Stothart always worked on MGM films, Alfred Newman worked at Twentieth Century Fox for twenty years, Cecil B. De Mille's films were almost all made at Paramount Pictures, while director Henry King's films were mostly made for Twentieth Century Fox. And one could usually guess which studio made which film, largely because of the actors who appeared in it. Each studio had its own style and characteristic touches which made it possible for audiences to recognize their films, a trait that does not exist today. Films were able to attract talented artists from early on. For example, Howard Hawkes' To Have and Have Not (1944) is famous not only for the first pairing of actors Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) and Lauren Bacall (1924-2014) but also for the screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's (1899-1961) novel by another future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, William Faulkner (1897-1962).

Film making was still a business, however, and motion picture companies made money by operating under the so-called studio system. The major studios kept thousands of people on salary—actors, producers, directors, writers, stuntmen, craftspersons, and technicians. And they owned hundreds of theaters in cities and towns across the nation—theaters that showed their films and that were always in need of fresh material.

Many great works of cinema emerged from this period of highly regimented film making. One reason was that, with so many movies being made, not every one had to be a big hit. A studio could gamble on a medium-budget feature with a good script and relatively unknown actors: Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles (1915-1985) and widely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time, fits that description. In other cases, strong-willed directors like Howard Hawks (1896-1977) and Frank Capra (1897-1991) battled the studios in order to achieve their artistic visions. The apogee of the studio system may have been the year 1939, which saw the release of such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Only Angels Have Wings, Ninotchka, and Midnight. Among the other films in the Golden Age period that remain classics to the present day: Casablanca, It's a Wonderful Life, the original King Kong, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The studio system and the Golden Age of Hollywood itself succumbed to two forces in the late 1940s: (1) a United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. federal antitrust action that separated the production of films from their exhibition; and (2) the advent of television. As a result of that antitrust act, actors and technical staff were gradually released from their contracts by movie studios. Now, each film made by a studio could have an entirely different cast and creative team, resulting in the gradual loss of all those "characteristics" which made MGM, Paramount, Universal, Columbia, RKO, and Twentieth-Century Fox films immediately identifiable. But certain movie people, such as Cecil B. DeMille, either remained contract artists until the end of their careers or used the same creative teams on their films, so that a DeMille film still looked like one whether it was made in 1932 or 1956, and John Ford's later Westerns were frequently as good as his earlier ones. With the advent of television, the number of movies being made dropped sharply, even as the average budget soared, marking a change in strategy for the industry. Studios aimed to produce entertainment that could not be offered by television: Spectacular, larger-than-life productions. At the same time, other studios lost the rights to their theatrical film libraries to outside companies that sold them to television.

Changing realities and television's rise

Though television broke the movie industry's hegemony in American entertainment, the rise of television would prove advantageous, in its way, to the movies. Public opinion about the quality of television content soon declined, and by contrast, cinema's status began to be regarded more and more as a serious art form worthy of respect and study as a fine art. This was complemented with the Supreme Court's reversal of its earlier position and decision that motion pictures were, in fact, an art form entitled to the protection of the First amendment.

The "New Hollywood" or Post-classical cinema

"The New Hollywood" and "post-classical cinema" are terms used to describe the period following the decline of the studio system in the '50s and '60s and the end of the production code. It is defined by a greater tendency to dramatize such things as sexuality and violence, and by the rising importance of the blockbuster movie.

"Post-classical cinema" is a term used to describe the changing methods of storytelling in the New Hollywood. It has been argued that new approaches to drama and characterization played upon audience expectations acquired in the classical/Golden Age period: chronology may be scrambled, story lines may feature "twist endings," and lines between the antagonist and protagonist may be blurred. The roots of post-classical storytelling may be seen in "film noir," in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean (1955), and in Alfred Hitchcock's storyline-shattering Psycho.


The drive to produce spectacle on the movie screen has largely shaped American cinema since the breakdown of the studio system. Spectacular epics which took advantage of new widescreen processes were increasingly popular from the 1950s onwards. Since then, American films have become increasingly divided into two categories: blockbusters and independent films. Studios rely on a handful of extremely expensive releases every year in order to remain profitable. Such blockbusters emphasize spectacle, star power, and high production value, all of which entail an enormous budget. Blockbusters typically rely upon star power and massive advertising to attract a huge audience. A successful blockbuster will attract an audience large enough to offset production costs and reap considerable profits. Such productions carry a substantial risk of failure, and most studios release blockbusters that both over- and under-perform in a year.

A major change to American filmmaking occurred during the 1970s when a new breed of young directors who had degrees from film schools and who had absorbed the techniques developed in Europe in the 1960s emerged. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian de Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg produced films that paid homage to the history of film, further developing existing genres and techniques. Their movies were often both critically acclaimed and successful at the box office. Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas in particular are credited with shaping the blockbuster model in its current form, with the colossal successes of The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars, respectively. These movies, which each set the all-time box office record during their releases, induced studios to focus even more heavily than before on trying to produce popular hits.

Independent films

Studios supplement the blockbusters with independent productions, made with small budgets and often independently of the studio corporation. Movies made in this manner typically emphasize a high professional quality of acting, directing, screenwriting, and other elements associated with production, and also upon creativity and innovation. These movies usually rely upon critical praise or niche marketing to garner an audience. Because of an independent film's low budgets, a successful independent film can have a high profit-to-cost ratio, while a failure will incur minimal losses, allowing for studios to sponsor dozens of such productions in addition to their high-stakes releases.

American independent cinema was revitalized in the late 1980s and early 1990s when another new generation of filmmakers, including Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, and Quentin Tarantino made movies like, respectively, Do the Right Thing, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Clerks, and Pulp Fiction. These films were innovative and often irreverent, playing with and contradicting the conventions of Hollywood. Their considerable financial successes and crossover into popular culture reestablished the commercial viability of independent film. Since then, the independent film industry has become more clearly defined and more influential in American cinema. Many of the major studios have capitalized on this trend by developing subsidiaries to produce similar films; such as Fox Searchlight Pictures.

To a lesser degree in the 2000s, film types that were previously considered to have only a minor presence in the mainstream movie market began to arise as more potent American box office draws. These include foreign-language films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero and documentary films such as Super Size Me, March of the Penguins, and Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11.

Rise of the home video market

The 1980s and 1990s saw another significant development. The full acceptance of video by studios opened a vast new business to exploit. Films such as The Secret of NIMH and The Shawshank Redemption, which performed poorly in their theatrical runs, were now able to find success in the video market. It also saw the first generation of film makers with access to video tapes emerge. Directors such as Tarantino and P.T. Anderson have been able to view thousands of films, producing works with vast numbers of references and connections to previous works. This, along with the explosion of independent film and ever-decreasing costs for film making, changed the landscape of American movie-making once again, leading a renaissance of film making among Hollywood's lower and middle-classes—those without access to studio financial resources.

The rise of the DVD in the twenty-first century has quickly become even more profitable to studios and has led to an explosion of packaging extra scenes, extended versions, and commentary tracks with the films.

Notable figures in U.S. film

Significant American-born film directors include:

  • Woody Allen
  • Robert Altman
  • Hal Ashby
  • Tim Burton
  • John Cassavetes
  • Francis Ford Coppola
  • Cecil B. DeMille
  • Brian De Palma
  • John Ford
  • Howard Hawks
  • George Roy Hill
  • John Huston
  • Jim Jarmusch
  • Stanley Kubrick
  • Neil LaBute
  • Spike Lee
  • Barry Levinson
  • George Lucas
  • Sidney Lumet
  • David Lynch
  • Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  • Leo McCarey
  • Alan J. Pakula
  • Arthur Penn
  • Sam Peckinpah
  • Sydney Pollack
  • Martin Scorsese
  • Steven Spielberg
  • Oliver Stone
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • Orson Welles
  • Robert Wise

Iconic American actors include:



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American Experimental film

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American Documentary film

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Independent film

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