I’ve been reading a book, Film Music: A Neglected Art by Roy M. Prendergast. Aside from the historical discussion of some great film music, and many of those wonderful cartoons of the past, there were a few other points that caught my attention.
According to Prendergrast’s research, the American film business grossed $1.7 billion in 1946. By 1962, those numbers had dropped to $900 million and the production costs of films had gone up. He noted two main issues for the cause of that decline; first, the studio-owned chains of theaters lost their monopolistic control of the film distributions and showings, basically due to antitrust laws going into effect. The second reason for the loss of revenue was the new ‘electronic toy’, which was being developed in the 1930’s. This toy combined picture and sound and at first, he noted, Hollywood laughed at this new invention. But by the late 1940’s and early 1950’s Hollywood was forced to deal with this new technology: television.
So, as time progressed, more and more Americans bought these new TVs and stayed home to watch shows instead of going out to the movies. Prendergrast noted “at this point, Hollywood declared an all-out war on this new invention. No Hollywood film could appear on television, nor could a film star appear on television. American audiences countered by staying home and watching British movies on television as well as the new stars that television itself developed.”
He goes on to discuss that by 1952, Hollywood realized this strategy wasn’t working. They had to create a product that would give audiences something TV couldn’t. So the first major unique factor was the size of the screen, and the fact that Hollywood had fifty years of research in color under its belt. TV was black and white and at that point, couldn’t be recorded for personal playback. At this point, Hollywood tried 3D, Cinerama, Widescreen and finally, the use of stereo sound, which eventually evolved into various forms of surround sound.
Many interesting points caught my attention in his book. With the changing of the American film studio structure and lack of dictatorial production, the independent producer came to power. The independent producer “selected the property, the stars, the director, as well as raised the money for the production and supervised the selling of the finished film. The producer usually owned no lot, no long-term contract with the stars, no staff of writers and technicians. He assembled a company for a particular film, disbanded it when the film was finished and assembled another company for his next film.”
After reading through these points and more, I couldn’t help but think “what’s old is new again.” All the format-based issues we’ve been through—with surround sound, SACD, DVD-A, MP3, the demise of the record companies, production budgets being slashed, and now the push for high-res audio—have a historical precedent. Can we learn from the past? Maybe. I certainly hope so. Television and movies seem to be doing quite well right along side each other, aren’t they?