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How HBO Resurrected the Hollywood Studio System

The triumphant return of HBO’s blockbuster series Game of Thrones has put the cable network back in the spotlight.  As Scott Meslow wrote in The Atlantic,

No network makes bigger gambles than HBO, and Game of Thrones was a high-risk, high-reward gamble that has paid off bigger than anyone could have imagined. The grim, dense HBO fantasy series overcame its not-inconsiderable barriers to entry to become an unexpected phenomenon: In the year since Game of Thrones premiered, it's been referenced in everything from The Simpsons to Major League Baseball, earned Peter Dinklage an Emmy Award, and set HBO records for DVD sales and digital downloads.

The success of HBO over the last two decades reaches back in Hollywood history to when the studios were all-powerful, vertically integrated companies that wrote, financed, produced and released films to theaters they owned.  Known as “the Studio System,” the Big Five companies (MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers & RKO Radio Pictures) signed actors, writers, directors and producers to long-term (usually 7 year) contracts and simply ordered them to work together on various projects. An actor or director “under contract” was basically an indentured servant with little or no choices as to the films they made. The major studios were a monopoly; the talent could either take their contracts or find another profession. Richard Zanuck, the son of legendary 20th Century Fox boss Darryl, described how the old Studio System put together films:

I remember as a kid, under my father’s desk, under the glass on the top of his desk, was a big chart.  And it had everybody that was under contract there.  All the producers, and the directors, and the writers and actors and actresses.  And it was so simple.  I used to sit in on casting meetings, which would take all of about ten minutes.  Not only casting, but putting the whole picture together.

While the Studio System mistreated the talent – major stars like John Wayne and Henry Fonda made millions for the studios, but didn’t share in much of the profits – great films emerged because of the organized production process.  Talented writers were assigned to sit in a room and bounce ideas and dialogue off each other until the script was just right.  Studio heads assigned actors and directors to appropriate material. For example, John Wayne made Westerns and war movies, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart made earnest dramas, and Katharine Hepburn played smart career women, while Marilyn Monroe was the sex symbol, and so on. This was the “Golden Age” of Hollywood that produced such classics as Gone with Wind, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” comedies.