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Peter Decherney, Hollywood: A Very Short Introduction

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1Peter Decherney, Hollywood: A Very Short Introduction.

2Oxford University Press. 2016. Pp. 160. ISBN-10: 0199943540

3Melenia Arouh, The American College of Greece

4The series Very Short Introductions by Oxford University Press has been a great success since 1995 when it first appeared in bookstores. The purpose of the series has been clear from the start: to provide concise and stimulating introductions to academic subjects, written by experts in their fields. With over 400 volumes, today it stands as one of the most successful efforts by academic publishers to make scholarly work accessible to a wider audience. The topics of the series vary, from the Classics to Heidegger, climate change to chaos, Jesus to coral reefs, and postcolonialism to humor. What is impressive throughout the series is the commitment to use simple language to review and explain difficult subjects without alienating the general public. The scholar is asked to embody the role of the teacher, to educate readers who may not have any previous knowledge or understanding of the topic. Yet, this is done without simplifying the topic or removing its inherent complexities. The reader should emerge enlightened, and hopefully with an interest to pursue further reading or engage otherwise with the subject. In a culture that often aims to simplify and minimize ideas to bits and slogans, this series of books reminds us that topics are worth exploring in an informed manner, and expertise does not necessarily equate to inaccessible language.

5Peter Decherney’s Hollywood: A Very Short Introduction follows the same format, and at 129 pages it manages to introduce the American film industry and review the main events that shaped its history and development. This is a well-written book, with simple and easy to follow language, and a clear structure which divides the history of Hollywood into into different eras of significant historical changes. Impressively, Decherney stays away from film and media theory, avoiding the use of concepts and methodologies that may prove too challenging. Although there are a couple of references to André Bazin and Henry Jenkins, film and media theory is only implicit, underlying his writing. A film or media scholar will certainly be able to trace the revenant literature, from the work of Tino Balio and Douglas Gomery, to the auteur theory and feminist film criticism, as well as various ideological frameworks of analysis. However, none of these scholarly traditions are explicit in the text; they are embedded in the writing and inform the content without becoming the content. Perhaps it is worth asking here whether this is a kind of appropriation of the scholarly work that has been done through to document, examine and debate the history and operations of Hollywood cinema. Even if that may be, there needs to be some consideration of what the purpose here is, what justifies this cause. It is undeniable that the Hollywood industry has dominated the 20thand 21stcenturies in terms of entertainment and leisure. Most audiences around the world today consume a variety of Hollywood products, from films to television shows and the ever-present star system that accompanies them. Hollywood has been a main force of popular culture, shaping not only its domestic market, but the international one as well. The colonial attitude of most studios from the early days of this mass medium ensured that audiences around the world are fed a steady diet of its products, sometimes without awareness of the mechanisms that inform their consumer choices. As such, reviewing in simple terms Hollywood’s history and the industry’s constitution is not an idle activity; it is an imperative of media literacy. Decherney’s contribution to this effort is certainly effective. A lay reader will learn from this book not only trivia facts about the industry and its various advancements, but about the very means that produce the content they choose to consume.

6Decherney’s book aims to cover the history of Hollywood from Thomas Edison and the Nickelodeons to Netflix and data-driven production. His review of this history is centred on the principle that there is no single individual or event that is responsible for the formation and development of this industry. Instead, it is the result of a complex network of historical, cultural, social, political and economic forces. Within this context, he explains the nature of the business as a high-risk enterprise that drives executives to seek means of stability, predictability and consistency in an ever-changing world order. Decherney’s review begins right at the beginning, with Edison’s late 19th century inventions and the building of the first film studio, the Black Maria in New Jersey. In highlighting Edison’s work Decherney establishes the importance of two essential issues: technology and competition. This first period of the American film industry involves a constant technological experimentation and innovation, and fierce business activity of a clearly oligopolistic character; both would become staples of the Hollywood industry. Specifically, Edison was the instigator behind the Motion Picture Patent Company (otherwise known as The Trust) that monopolized film technology. Later on, it was the same company that introduced the National Board of Censorship to monitor and approve film releases. Such moves had a double purpose: to deter competitors from entering the market, and to rebrand cinema as a type of entertainment suitable for the middle classes. This was especially important as the early success of the Nickelodeons, the first movie theaters that were basically saloons with a projector and a screen, mainly catered to the working classes and immigrant communities. If the industry was to profit, it needed to appeal to the whole domestic and international public.

7Although The Trust was eventually dismantled, other companies emerged that continued similar corporate efforts, this time in Los Angeles that would become the center of the world’s film industry. These companies, such as Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros, were vertically integrated aiming to control the market and establish practices that would stifle competition (such as block booking) and widen audience reach (star system, movie palaces). By the end of the first world war, Hollywood had become a global industry heavily invested in international production and distribution; a key force in US media and cultural imperialism. In reviewing the rise and establishment of the industry, Decherney stresses yet again the importance of technology and aggressive competition. Perhaps the biggest disruption of the time came with the introduction of sound, with Warner Bros. and General Electrics (and AT&T and Goldman Sachs) eventually winning an intense format war. This new invention challenged the visual language of films, the established production norms and became the final touch to films becoming a mass-produced product with international characteristics.

8The industry’s desire to monopolize film production, distribution and exhibition was accompanied by an effort to cleanse the industry of any leftover stigma that associated it with more bohemian elements. In 1922 the association of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America was established to ensure that Hollywood products exhibited the appropriate moral identity both domestically and internationally. Run by the conservative Will Hays, the aim of this production code was to monitor both representations and behavior. The many scandals of popular Hollywood players (Mary Pickford, Wallace Reid, Roscoe Arbuckle) had outraged the religious right which was now demanding a moral reckoning. Hollywood, the argument went, had a moral and political obligation to avoid controversy and ensure that its products reflected American mainstream values and mores. As Decherney notes, “It has been said that if you lop off the last twenty minutes of all American movies, Hollywood could have the most transgressive cinema tradition in the world” (47). But that wasn’t to be the case: these twenty minutes were there to restrain narrative and visual design within the confines of mainstream ideology. In many ways it is in this period that Hollywood becomes “Hollywood,” an industry run by vertically integrated “dream factories” that would mass produce branded entertainment: Paramount Pictures epics and exotic melodramas, Warner Bros. gangster films, MGM musicals, and Disney’s Mickey Mouse.

9Apart from establishing technology and competition as the two axes upon which the industry is set, Decherney pays careful attention to the often-tense relations between Hollywood and US politics. This is certainly a fraught issue as Hollywood is frequently accused by both sides of the political aisle, both for being too conservative and for being too liberal. In many ways both sides interpret Hollywood as a key propagator of opposing values. The history that Decherney summarizes provides the reader with a good answer to this. He first notes the close relationship that developed between the industry and president Roosevelt. FDR considered himself a friend to Hollywood, creating the Bureau of Motion Pictures, an office that would enlist Hollywood for political causes and link it to the US military and Department of Justice. Hollywood in this way became a major player in the1940s war effort by creating patriotic content that would shape public opinion. Warner Bros. especially rose to the occasion creating propaganda shorts and features that would convince the US audience of the need to go to war. Their film Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) remains to this day the most effective synthesis of propaganda, romance and entertainment.

10For Decherney it was unavoidable that the close association of the studios with FDR would lead to criticism by the Republican party and the accusation that Hollywood had become a liberal propaganda machine with ties to the Communist party. This accusation lingered on after the second world war had ended and the Cold War begun, culminating in a series of hearings orchestrated by senator Joseph McCarthy that aimed to purge the industry from its communist affiliations. During this dark time for the American democracy, constitutional rights were suspended to assure both audiences and political pundits that Hollywood was communist-free and as American as apple pie. Many big Hollywood names were called to testify, from Jack Warner to Walt Disney and from Lucille Ball to Elia Kazan. A list of alleged communists was created and several were subsequently blacklisted from working in the industry. And even though parts of the public and the Hollywood elite rallied against this communist witch-hunt, the game was lost to the anti-communist hysteria that took hold of the nation. Decherney’s discussion of this bleak chapter does not shy away from noticing the awful acts committed during this time. He pays attention both to how Kazan benefited professionally from naming names, and to how Dalton Trumbo’s highly successful career was ruined because of his refusal. Being in the right or wrong side of history seems to have determined the legacy for both artists. But Decherney has a keen eye for detail and he concludes his summary by noting that the commotion and disruption were not catastrophic to the studios; as with all other major political upheavals, technological innovations and financial ruins the studios survived more or less unscathed: remaining the most popular choice for mainstream entertainment. It was a business that exercised shrewd corporate practices to survive and sustain its operations. When reading this part of the book it should become clear to the reader that Hollywood is above all else a business that seeks to maximize profits and exercise control over the market in any way possible. The rest is context and opportunity.

11By the late 1960s Hollywood studios had become multimedia conglomerates trying to cater to all possible audiences: blockbuster hits, personal films, auteur-driven blockbusters, television – television thought of as a competitor at the start quickly become a profitable ally. For many film historians, however, this is a unique moment in Hollywood history: the Paramount decree forces studios to abandon vertical integration, censorship gives way to counterculture pressure and an atmosphere of artistic freedom and experimentation is established – this is the rise of New Hollywood. Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) proves to be a landmark film, made for 500,000 dollars and earning over 60 million dollars the box office. However, the movie is clearly political, clearly siding with counterculture, clearly sending a violent and anti-establishment message. Red flags that Hollywood studios had learned to avoid by then and knew had the potential to trigger a new round of political and moral attack. By the time the 1960s were over all Hollywood studios were sold to corporate conglomerates that were integrated with other companies: Gulf Western takes over Paramount, Kinney National Services takes over Warner Bros. The end of the short-lived New Hollywood, known for experimentation and daring productions, marks also the beginning of Corporate Hollywood.

12Although corporate stability was achieved, soon enough Hollywood would be disrupted yet again by the introduction of home video. In many ways the fact that Decherney’s has paid so much attention to technological innovation and competitive business practices is particularly effective in this part of his book. He notes again the aggressive attitude of Hollywood studios towards such technological innovations. As he quips, “Sony, as the first manufacturer to release a home video machine, had the privilege of being sued by the Hollywood studios” (102-3). Worried about the impact this technology would have, and the freedoms it would allow the consumer to have, the case landed in the Supreme Court that after deliberation ruled in favor of Sony. Studios asked congress to grant them royalties from blank tapes and VCR sales, but they were once again denied. Eventually, as it happened with all other technological developments, Hollywood found a way to capitalize from this technology and establish a new ancillary market. Especially for studios like Disney home video proved to be a gold mine as parents looked for ways to entertain their children at home. Similarly with the emergence of DVD technology and later on with the Internet. Hollywood first reacts aggressively with a clear intent to ban the innovation, failing this it seeks compensation, and at the end finds ways to strengthen its hold on popular culture by capitalizing on the innovation that it first labelled an insult.

13Decherney applies the same logic in exploring the relationship of Hollywood to independent production. He reviews the work by independent studios such as Carolco, New Line Cinema and Miramax, as well as the success of the Sundance Festival. In many ways it was these studios that inherited the legacy of New Hollywood and stood, for a little bit, opposite Corporate Hollywood. But even that would not last long; soon enough Disney bought Miramax and Turner Warner bought New Line. Hollywood has always found a way to absorb its competition in whatever shape or form. When online communication made possible the formation of fan communities that had a tendency to appropriate studio content through fan videos or fan fiction, Hollywood reacted the same way it always has: through aggressive litigation and state mobilization aiming at stifling anything that threatened to reduce a cent from its profit margin. Fast forward to today and studios have absorbed fan activity through marketing strategies that capitalize on fan participation and fandom building. Following the logic that Decherney successfully establishes in his book, it is natural to expect that the same will continue to happen regardless of the form competition takes (see for example, Netflix or Amazon Video). It is exactly these kinds of insights that will at the end enlighten readers. The operations of Hollywood are dictated by profit seeking and aggressive competition so as to survive in an industry that is technologically driven and highly risky by its own nature; nobody really knows if a film will be profitable and how much. To expect anything else is to disregard a century of history that has seen Hollywood thrive, survive and expand. Decherney’s contribution to this discussion may not engage in a scholarly debate, but it does provide a cogent summary of the nature of the industry as it has evolved; his book proves to be a solid foundation for anyone interested in understanding the mechanisms that sustain their consumer choices.

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“Peter Decherney, Hollywood: A Very Short IntroductionEuropean journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2021-2, Online since 13 July 2021, connection on 22 September 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/17080

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