It’s Golden Again in America: Ronald Reagan and Hollywood

Jennifer Holt’s Empires of Entertainment explores the workings of deregulation and media conglomeration within the media industry during the 1980s and first half of the 1990s.  Her work focuses on a period of time booming with industry-altering mergers and policy changes. Despite its importance to the creation of the industry as we know it today, I was not very knowledgeable on the time period she covered. Rather, I had tended to be more informed on the workings of the industry during the era of studio systems. Holt’s account of the media conglomerates of the 1980s was not without mention of the Studio Era. In fact, she often used this history to elucidate some of the decision-making processes of major players during the period of industry transformation between 1980 and 1996.

“Suddenly, everything old was new again and the theater holdings of the studios were looking strikingly similar to the way they did forty years earlier” (Holt 104).

I found the most interesting example of a connection between the Studio Era and the industry of the 1980s revolved around President Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s economic policy, according to Holt, “was extremely lenient toward mergers, acquisitions, consolidation, and conglomerate growth” (11). This leniency, largely due to his alliance with not only Lew Wasserman, but the industry as a whole, paved the way for what Holt termed the ‘Golden Era Redux’. Essentially, the laissez-faire approach taken by the Reagan administration fostered a similar attitude in the Justice Department allowing for an unprecedented number of theater purchases. Once again studios had control over exhibition.

Young Ronald Reagan

Twenty years prior to his presidency, Ronald Reagan made his name in the entertainment industry. Reagan had a contract with Warner Bros. in the late 1930s. He was an actively employed actor, but also held important roles within the Screen Actors Guild, beginning on the Board of Directors and working his way to presidency. His career in entertainment bled into the 1960s until he successfully ran a campaign for Governor of California in 1966. Reagan’s first impression of the media industry was pre-United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc (1948). He experienced the industry before the government had taken any major antitrust actions against the film studios. This must have made an impression. It was not until after this case, that he became involved in SAG. Reagan was aware of the industry from quite a few perspectives at this point. Yet, one other factor was to pull perhaps even more weight than his own experience.

Lew Wasserman

During Reagan’s time as an actor he befriended Lew Wasserman, his agent for a time, and the two remained close throughout his presidency. Wasserman was a powerful figure in Hollywood long before Reagan took over the White House. He joined MCA (Music Corporation of America) at a young age and was head of the company’s advertising and publicity departments by 1936. He was urged Jules C. Stein, co-founder of the MCA, to pursue growth in Hollywood. His career continued to branch out for decades. By the time the 1980s arrived, Wasserman was head of what had become MCA/Universal. This early media mogul had heavy stakes in the industry and used his connection with Reagan to help protect those assets.

While Reagan’s experience with the film industry may have fostered a hands-off approach toward regulation, there was a definitive moment when Wasserman’s influence was evident. The FFC establish the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules (Fin-Syn) in the 1960s in order to “loosen the grip of network power over the industry and expand the market for independent producers… Fin-syn dictated that the networks could not own the programming that they aired or syndicated, forcing them to look to the Hollywood studios for product” (Holt 59). In the early 1980s, there was talk of deregulating Fin-Syn. Though, eliminating these rules would fit into Reagan’s deregulatory agenda, a day after meeting with Wasserman, Reagan came out for re-regulation. Reagan remained allegiant to the studios, and his friend, even if it meant deviating from his apparent opinion on the subject.

Reagan maintained his laissez-faire practices in regard to the media industry for most of his presidency; finally allowing Hollywood to return to vertical integration, which had been unheard of since the Paramount decrees. In 1980, the Justice Department reviewed all consent decrees that were more than ten years old in order to removes those that were no longer relevant or necessary. Reagan won the election the following year, ensuring the studios’ freedom. Studios quickly re-entered the exhibition market and the ‘”Golden Era Redux” was underway.

Work Cited: Empires of Entertainment: Media Industries and the Politics of Deregulation, 1980–1996. Jennifer Holt . New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

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