Transformation of the Film Industry

Part three of Tim Wu’s book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, focuses on the fall of information empires, more specifically monopolies on technology, like that of the film industry during the early 1900s. The industry in this time was bound by the Production Code, which bound films to a certain degree of censorship, which led to productions which were eerily similar in its deliverance of “right” messages. As well as this homogeneity of films, the industry owned more than 70 percent of first-run movie theaters in America. These theaters counted as a small portion of all movie theaters, however they created the majority of ticket revenue for the studios. The industry had immense control over their product, its production, as well as its distribution and profits. It was essentially an assembly line for films, which in the eyes of Thurman Arnold, a Yale law professor turned trust-buster, needed to be changed.  

“Control of first run theaters meant, in effect, control of the screen.” Ernest Borneman, regarding the industry’s control over theaters.

Arnold’s aim was to break up big industries via quick and visible lawsuits in order to showcase their evil to American citizens. He went after the car industry as well as Hollywood in 1938. Arnold’s lawsuit against Hollywood, in which he demanded that the industry get rid of its ownership of first run theaters, took awhile to gain traction, however in 1948 the Supreme Court forced the industry to divorce itself from its theaters. Over the next several years, the studios were forced to sell of their theaters, lessening the industry’s power. Hollywood became a hub of chaos afterwards, since they were stripped of their control and lost their guaranteed audiences in their previously owned theaters. As Wu states, “The business as they knew it would have to be entirely rethought.” (Wu 164). This chaos, however, transformed the industry into an open state, which benefited independent filmmakers and made for more interesting and unique films, rather than the films cut from a mold from earlier.


The open state of the film industry led to the changes that Arnold had hoped for; it paved the way for independent producers and foreign filmmakers, who were long excluded from the industry. The state of the industry was slowly changing to become less monopolized, which ultimately led to the creation of the industry we know of today. Now that the studios had lost the majority of its power, a new kind of production, one free from the Production Code, made its way to the surface.

“Nevertheless the freedom to fail and sometimes to offend was extremely salutary for the medium in the era following the age of guaranteed success. What greatness did result came because directors and producers were allowed to experiment and probe the limits of what film could be.” Tim Wu (166)

This new production era lasted well into the 1980’s, however groundbreaking films are still being made today. Instead of being guaranteed success stories, films can succeed at their own rate or plummet into the depths of the unknown or be so bad that people actually end up loving them. For instance, I am a huge fan of most all of Nicolas Cage’s works, simply because for the most part they are the epitome of “Good Bad Movies”, or movies that are so bad they’re actually good. The following is a trailer for Face/Off, in which John Travolta and Nicolas Cage switch bodies in an action thriller movie. 

This widespread freedom and independence in the film industry is a telltale sign of how far the industry has come throughout the years. The changes from the era of the Production Code of censorship to the creative independence and freedom there is now in the industry is remarkable. The industry is forever changing, and it’s exciting to watch it grow and change once more.

I’ve added a scene from the movie as well, to really showcase how this film fits into the “So bad it’s good” category of films.


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