Bear with us for a minute or two as we note without (we hope) too much folderol an interesting new twist on how studios show movies.
QUESTION: Do you get goosebumps at the prospect of patronizing today’s local multiplex?
No? We thought not.
This may come as a surprise to our younger readers but local movie theaters in the classic Hollywood period did NOT operate like a dentist’s office — that is, customers showing up an an appointed time, paying a fee, and then leaving just as soon as the service purchased (watching the movie in this case) was over.
The opposite reflects the movie-going experience of, say, the mid 1940’s. Back then it didn’t matter when you entered the theater: You could come in at the beginning, middle or end of the main feature — or anything else on the bill, including a low-budget secondary movie, a newsreel, a cartoon or two and clips of coming attractions — and leave at at the point you entered.
Moviegoers could arrive and depart theaters as they pleased. Since the showing were continuous — think of one giant loop — a patron would nudge his or her companion and signal it was time to leave by announcing, THIS IS WHERE WE CAME IN!
Hollywood understood this, and orchestrated certain bits of plot recapitulation to be periodically spoken by cast members to clue in patrons arriving in the middle of the main feature.
This was done so blatantly that the movies even satirized the practice. In The Road to Morocco Bob Hope tells Bing Crosby what the duo has endured for the first 45 minutes. ” I know all that,” snaps Crosby. “Yes, ” says Hope breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience, “but the people who came in in the middle of the picture don’t.”
Moviegoers also had the option of remaining past the point of “this is where we came in,” and viewing the whole show over and over again until theater closing. And unlike today when theater owners are primarily in the real estate business, owners back then thought of themselves as “showmen.”
Anyway, this comprehensive system of exhibition was made possible largely by one thing — THE BIG PRODUCTION STUDIOS OWNED THEIR OWN THEATERS.
So studio bosses, not theater owners, controlled what was shown and when. The studios were the factories that churned out the product to fill the vacuum in company showrooms (such as New York’s Paramount Theater below). The studios also did not have to split box office proceeds with a landlord.
In other words, the studios controlled the movie business from start to finish.
This arrangement so displeased the anti-trust mavens of the Federal Government that a lawsuit charging oligopolistic practises was filed in the Forties to force studios to divest or sell off their theaters (U.S. vs. Paramount). The studios fought back but eventually buckled and settled — an arrangement known famously as the 1948 Paramount Consent Decree.
Some date the end of the classic Hollywood movie period to business aftermath ensuing from the provisions of this Consent Decree. Anyway, the current system of movie exhibition — non-studio owners of theaters competing for movie product — was for better or worse introduced.
Interestingly, the U.S. Justice Dept. has just determined that Consent Decree rules limiting studio’s influence over movie theaters are now outdated.
As the movie industry goes through more changes with technological innovation, with new streaming businesses and business models, it is our hope that the termination of the Paramount decrees clears the way for consumer-friendly innovation, said the Justice Department’s anti-trust chief in November.
A two-year sunset for the Consent Decree rules is being sought. The conspiracy among movie industry giants from the 1940’s no longer exists, said the Justice Dept official Makan Delrahim.
Final words: Just after this announcement came news that Netflix is taking a lease on the 581-seat, single screen Paris Theater, near New York’s Central Park. The Paris, opened in September 1948 and originally specializing in showing French films, had been threatened with closure. Netflix will use the venue for special events, screenings and theatrical releases.