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How HBO Resurrected the Hollywood Studio System

As with so many aspects of American society, the Studio System broke up in the 1960s.  An anti-monopoly lawsuit by the Truman Justice Department in 1948 began its decline and fall.  By the early Sixties, the loss of massive costumers to television and the refusal of the next generation of stars to sign long-term contracts ended the Studio System. Soon, everyone – producers, writers, directors, actors – was a “free agent,” able to choose whatever projects they liked.

While the new free agent system was fairer to the talent, the problem was getting the creative to work together on good movies.  Ed Mitchell, who worked for nearly a decade at the William Morris Agency, comments that in modern Hollywood, “the deal is more important than the movie….it’s almost a miracle these days when a good film gets made.”

Oscar winning scriptwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men) wrote in his memoirs that most of the time, in looking for the right talent: “Well, you can’t get them… Just as you never get the director you want, you also don’t get the star.”  Both Goldman and Mitchell are highly critical of the marketing departments of the studios that often interfere with film production to change scripts and endings, focusing on a film’s opening weekend box office numbers rather than its quality.  (Did Orson Welles do a focus group on how to end Citizen Kane?  Did the marketing department at MGM demand that Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler live happily after in Gone With the Wind?)

On the other hand, HBO produces its content in a much different manner, a throwback to the old days when story meant more than marketing. HBO doesn’t have to worry about marketing their projects: their audience of paid subscribers is already there, so they can take more creative chances. They can hire a stable of writers whose only job is creating memorable stories and dialogue. The producers, directors, and special effects wizards they hire become cohesive teams that usually stay on for the life of a series. And the actors and actresses they hire -- like James Gandolfini and Edie Falco of The Sopranos -- are regular employees, albeit very well-paid. HBO uses a highly disciplined approach of using the same writers, directors, producers and actors to create consistent, coherent worlds that audiences apparently love.