February 12, 2016

WATCH ME IF YOU CAN | Hollywood vs. Television: A Brief History

Print More

After World War II, many things changed in American culture. There was a chain reaction, from soldiers returning home to their families, to the baby boomer generation being born. Thanks to the highway systems built in the 1950s under the Eisenhower administration, families were able to move to the suburbs in order to live more comfortably. This suburbanization became the hallmark of the post-World War II period.

On weekends and workweek evenings, families with smaller children would stay home and gather around their television as the primary source of entertainment. The majority of households had them, because once the purchase of one was made, stations and programs were free. As great as free TV sounds, this majorly hurt the film industry since so many people found it more convenient to stay at home.

In the 1920s and 30s, the majority of Americans were going to the movies two or three times a week. For a low price, theatergoers were able to spend an afternoon filled with cartoons, a newsreel and one or two films. Things rapidly changed with television because it became cheaper to stay at home by simply investing in a television set.

After the 1948 Supreme Court case deciding the Paramount Decision, Hollywood studios were ordered to stop their practices of block booking and selling theatres for their movies only. Their only jobs were the production and distribution of films. Their marketing was restricted to a picture-by-picture basis. Thus, ending the practices of the most lucrative entertainment sect of America for the past 40 years.

So, how did film counteract this move towards an easily accessible source of entertainment? Hollywood tried a few different approaches in order to gain their audiences back and dominate television.

One of their approaches was creating gimmicks to get people to go to movie theaters. Vistavision used a 35mm camera to make the onscreen subjects appear larger thanks to widescreen cinematography. Smellevision allowed audiences to smell what was onscreen; if a turkey dinner appeared, the theater began to smell like Thanksgiving. There was even early experimentation to 3D movies with Polaroid. However, this was unsuccessful due to the shooting techniques lack of sophistication. It would not be touched again until 50 years later.

Hollywood also employed the use of the Blockbuster feature film. They were expensive, star-studded, and their special effects wouldn’t work with the small screen television affords. The idea was to get huge numbers of people to come see them, in order to balance out the theater profits and money put into the film’s production. The grandiose nature of these larger-than-life pictures made them seem impossible to fail. However, if they did fail, investors lost lots of time and money on the high budgets necessary.

Finally, Hollywood took on the challenge of creating a niche market for films. Their main target was teenagers. Instead of the homogeneous and family-friendly programming that was offered on the television set at home, which anyone could access at any moment, Hollywood aimed to entertain teenagers. Their films were about teenagers, rebellion and rock ‘n roll, and they proved themselves to be highly attractive for this particular demographic. They wanted to get out of the house and go on dates at drive-in movie theaters. Some of the popular films included Rebel Without a Cause and Beach Blanket Bingo.   

This move eventually spread throughout other areas of consumption in popular culture, aiming for a smaller population than the masses goes in entertainment, advertising, journalism, and many other aspects. In essence, Hollywood’s competition in keeping up with the television industry led to a transformation in how Americans produce, consume and distribute popular culture.

Marina Caitlin Watts is a senior studying Communication. In addition to writing for The Sun, she has also been published on various film websites along with The Daily Beast. She loves Frank Sinatra and hates decaf coffee. If you need her, she is waiting for Godot. Watch Me If You Can appears on Fridays this semester. She can be reached at [email protected]