Thursday, February 14, 2013

Blog post (from readings) #10: (Due Monday, Feb 25)
Ch. 6 and 8 in The Master Switch. Post thoughts or questions about the reading to the class blog for discussion. What struck you as interesting? What did you learn that you think you might remember five years from now?


  1. From the readings, I was especially interested in Adolph Zukor's idea of making theaters buy films from the studios in bulk. Instead of the theaters getting a chance to preview the films, which was common practice, the theaters would have to buy all of the films from a studio for the upcoming year in advance. This system was organized around stars like Paramount's Mary Pickford - because Zukor knew the theaters wanted her films (and because the theaters knew the audience wanted to see them), he figured he could do this.

    Even as a Lord of the Rings fan, I also found it extremely humorous to include Peter Jackson with the Coen Brothers, Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola on a list of auteurs.

  2. It was naïve for the Reverend Daniel Lord to believe that any cultural production of entertainment could consistently educate as well as entertain. Lord, along with Martin Quigley and Joseph Breen, thought that censorship could be achieved through church support, rather than governmental support. I was surprised to read that Lord’s production codes were at first somewhat successful, or at least that movie companies tried to abide by them. Breen boldly declared that he could “cram decent ethics down the throat of the Jews,” a quote that will stick with me.
    But what would these men think of entertainment today? There is far less educational value in movies today. The movie industry primarily generates money and directors and writers will make whatever film they think will make them the most money. I couldn’t imagine someone trying to clean up movies today. The industry is so money driven that almost nothing will get in the way from generating revenue.

  3. I found the contrast between Hodkinson and Zukor's visions for the film industry to be very noteworthy; it seemed similar to the modern notion of independent films as more "artsy" and the true creative vision of one individual, whereas films produced by major studios are less about the true art and more about the bottom line. For two important visionaries of the developing film industry, it is interesting that their ideas lay in stark contrast to each other.

    From the anecdotes and ideas put forth by Wu, Zukor reminds me of the robber baron turn-of-the-century industrialists, which is likely why he was so successful. From owning the talent (actors, directors, etc.), to the distribution means and even theaters, it seems pretty clear that Zukor's vision for the future of the industry was more about the bottom line and corporatism than about the art itself. I also found it interesting that, like Pete mentioned in the comment above me, that Zukor organized a distribution system that required theaters to buy all of a studio's films for a given year.

  4. In these chapters, Wu really stresses how Adolph Zukor, like David Sarnoff, embraced the business concept of the “Kronos Effect.” Zukor was visionary in the film industry, and he managed to corner every aspect of the entertainment business. His movie theatre chains allowed and essentially called for more studios and projection companies to arise to make films. But in a business nature, Zukor gained much more control in the film distribution process, as well as the overall filmmaking industry. I would argue that Zukor could be labeled as the “father” of Hollywood.

    It’s interesting how Zukor himself was not a proponent of “cleaning up” the “filth” in motion pictures. When the industry began to boom, the outrage poured in from activist groups to the congress itself, which called for prominent changes to permanently ban obscenities and any sign of sexual tendencies in all scenes. Zukor didn’t seem to be concern with this heightened explosion. He instead focused on producing an efficient product that was worth the consumer’s money. He was never satisfied with simply becoming successful. He wanted to expand the industry as large as it could stretch. In my opinion, the controversy with editing films only enticed more people to go see movies, open up new theaters, and essentially buy into this entirely new craze.

  5. Chapter 6 gives an interesting account of how the movie industry became a closed system. what Zukor did was pretty remarkable. There was already this vertical system where every step in the movie industry was done by someone different (director, distributor, etc) and in essentially buying out Paramount Pictures he was able to achieve vertical integration. Even when the independent theater owners joined together and had a victory in getting Pickford and Chaplin and in stopping block booking (for the time being), he found a way to divide them.

    In Chapter 8 we learned about the trio Reverend Daniel Lord- Martin Quigley- Joseph Breen. I thought it was interesting how they made it their goal to clean up movies. It was even more interesting how early on they figured that public policy wouldn't do them any good and instead used private intimidation. Lord was so influential in the censoring of Hollywood and it was he who wrote the Production Code. I found this very interesting because when I learned about the Production Code I had also heard it referred to as the "Hays Code". I had never even heard of Lord.

    In reading both chapters it almost felt like because the movie industry became a closed system dominated by few it was a lot easier to attack and censor (as Lord, Quigley, and Breen did). I kept wondering if their strategy would have worked if they're fight was against various independent theaters, distributors, and studios.

  6. Chapter 8 was very interesting because I never knew how censorship originated in films. Today there is virtually no censorship in the movies we watch. I didn't find it surprising that the church had such strong views and such a heavy influence. What was very interesting was the connection to prior restraint. The way they enforced censorship - by nipping it in the bud before it was even made - was a definite form of prior restraint.

    It was not surprising that in that time sexual freedom in film was frowned upon, but I was surprised to read about how much freedom there was before the censorship. Comparing someone in the 1930's to Samantha Jones was a little shocking. I didn't expect quite that much freedom on screen during that time.

    I couldn't believe the Legion of Decency collected 11 million members. While members of the Church do tend to be very passionate about their causes, I was still impressed with the number of people they managed to get. It also helped, I'm sure, that Roosevelt's administration and academic studies were backing up the Church's claims. Though the censorship was rather extreme in some cases, I think it was probably for the best during that time if it helped shape the film industry into what it is today.

  7. The development of Hollywood from an open industry to a closed one in little more than a decade is remarkable. Zukor’s manipulation of the industry, his chain and block system and eventual destruction of movie distributors demonstrates the power one individual can have of an industry. I found Wu’s insight that one highly organized, vertically oriented firm can prevail over an entire industry so long as it’s loosely allied especially interesting and a little unnerving. It’s frightening to imagine a sole, napoleon-like figure gaining control of an entire trade singlehandedly, unbeknownst to the masses. I’m left wondering about the internal workings of the web elite today.

    I was also interested to learn more about the division between independent and mainstream theaters. I know of only a handful of independent theaters, many of which still show popular films. It’s sad to think that the ability to create a unique movie-going experience was lost when Zukor and his fellow studio executives took control of the distribution process.

    Wu’s focus on Breen and Lord’s censorship of the movie industry in chapter eight further highlights the power a highly organized entity can have over an industry. I’ve never heard of The Legion of Decency, but am amazed at its lobbying power. A membership of eleven million is huge in today’s terms. To put it in perspective, that’s roughly three times the size of the current NRA. Even with the help of the Catholic Church, the Legion’s ability to garner enough support to single-handedly define what was taboo in Hollywood is impressive (and scary.) While the Legion’s push to have married couples sleep in twin beds and re-write Scarlett O’Hara’s famous kicker quote is humorous, one can’t help but wonder what the movie industry (and American culture today) would be like had it not been restricted for the better part of 30 years.

  8. Both these chapters focus on how the film industry was controlled by one or two people. In chapter 6, we are introduced to Adolph Zukor, an independent filmmaker who beats the trust in New York, then takes control of Paramount and re-institutes monopolistic business models. I think Wu makes a great analogy when he compares Hodkinson and Zukor to Trotsky and Stalin respectively.

    I had never previously questioned how movie theater chains began, so it was interesting to read of Zukors take over of the First Exhibitors National independent cinemas. However, I question now why certain movie theater chains have different movie selections than others. Are there still remnants of block buying and selling in today’s film industry? All together, I think this chapter was very informative. It makes me wonder whether the American film industry would have been so productive internationally had it remained independent.

    In chapter 8, we are introduced to Daniel Lord and Joseph Breen, who drastically changed the style of film with the Legion of Decency and its code. This chapter makes me want to go back and watch films from the beginning of 1934 and the end of 1934 to see if I can distinguish a difference in decency. It is interesting how this type of censorship has faded out. It seems movies and tv series, particularly those on HBO have become entirely focused on sex and corruption. Though a return to the days of decency codes would be unheard of and a step in the wrong direction for film and television, I think it’s important to note that more provocative the plots do not always mean better or more realistic films. I’d be interested in learning more about the current day censorship codes and regulations.

  9. The part of the reading that most stood out to me was the part about Adolph Zukor trying to take over the film industry. Zukor understood the idea that theaters may not want to buy films without big stars, so he had the idea to make theaters buy a year's worth of films. The part about how the manager of the largest theater in the country wanted to take control away from Zukor was also interesting. The whole story was about a power struggle in the film industry. One person took power wanted to take all the power and maximize his profits, while other people in the film industry needed to make sure he would not be able to control everything from the distribution of films to the pricing of them.

  10. In chapter six, it became clear that Adolph Zukor was emblematic of many other individuals who altered the course of broadcasting history, because he was able to do so through a series of unique and personal character traits. Tim Wu writes that Zukor was "an orphaned immigrant Jew of small stature but pugnacious, who spent his teenage years boxing larger foes" (91). This tenacity later proved useful when he began to assume more and more power in the film industry. This, along with his myriad other character traits (including displaying a particular "adroitness at placating and befriending his enemies") highlighted just how tenuous the course of history is (94).

    Chapter eight interested me because of the relationship the film industry had (and I would argue, still has) to Catholicism. I grew up with several Catholic family members and while the Church certainly has a strict doctrine, it also doesn't yield the same power today as it did then. While I recognize that the circumstances were different, and now power is less centralized in the industry, it still struck me as fascinating that the Legion of Decency claimed so many members and had such a loud voice.

  11. I had no idea that the precursor of audio cassettes and hard drives came about from the first answering machine — which is actually kind of a strange name, itself. It's something I would wonder about sometimes, because pressing a button and catching sound inside a machine, and then playing it back, just seems impossible, even compared to a lot of the technology we have today.
    And then I would wonder how recording was possible without tape. I was surprised to learn digital recordings are just combining the technology of magnetic tape with the silicon chip.

  12. I didn’t know a lot of the information presented in Chapter 6 regarding the evolution of the film industry. What was particularly interesting were the two concepts that evolved—the separation of the three levels of filmmaking and the Film Trust cartel’s “vertical trust”. It was fascinating to read about the duel between theater owners and large studios; I’ve never even thought of chain theaters and ‘block booking’ as a product of this duel. It makes me genuinely sad that the film industry used to be so much more open than it is today.

    As for Chapter 8, I was blown away by the whole idea of The Legion of Decency, and the fact that the studios were actually impacted by their presence. It’s hard to imagine a world where big studio heads would adhere to one Catholic’s review of scripts before and during movie production.

  13. I thought it was interesting in chapter 6 when Tim Wu talks about how the motion picture industry was evolving in the early 1900’s. Some things have stayed true today like building films and franchises around a certain star, other things have changed like traveling exhibitions of film, and some things have escalated over the last one hundred years; the power that heads of studios hold. I also thought it was interesting how bullish Adolph Zukor was on such a small level. He literally travelled to individual towns to threaten theatre owners to either join him or be crushed, I just though how absurd that would be today.

    I was not surprised by the content of chapter 8. Hollywood is controversial now, it only stands to reason that it has been since its inception. I was also not surprised some of the staunch criticism came from a reverend.

  14. It was interesting to read and learn about Adolph Zuker. I liked how Wu told the story of how film went from an open to a closed medium in the span of a decade.

    I first learned about Joseph Breen in a film class. We were learning about the production code that censored films from 1934 until the 1960s and Breen was the central figure behind the code. I did not know he was anti-Semitic, but was not surprised to read that he wrote in a private letter: “these Jews seem to think of nothing but money making and sexual indulgence.” (p.116)

    Breen also declared himself the one man “who could cram decent ethics down the throats of the Jews.” (p. 117)

    Ultimately, he restricted the free speech of filmmakers, who had a first amendment right to produce their work as they saw fit. Breen did not help advance the film industry. It would have been interesting to how films would have been different in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s without Breen enforcing the code.

  15. I learned from Chapter 8 of The Master Switch that America’s morals in the 1930s were much looser than I realized. I had heard the line “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” many times in pop culture, and was surprised to find out it came from a popular Mae West film, way back in the 1930s. Humor about erections? Before World War II? I think of the 1950s as a time of such strict moral codes and sexual repression, characterized best by Lucy and Desi’s separate beds, and now I understand how the entertainment industry became that way. Mae West is compared in the chapter to Samantha on Sex and the City, who was a rather groundbreaking character in her own right on a groundbreaking show known for changing societal ideas about female sexuality. However it now seems West broke that ground 70 years ago. Thanks to Daniel Lord and his Catholic cronies, America, culturally, went backwards.
    The way Lord and co. went about changing morals in the film industry was crafty. They knew how to pressure them by going around the government—a much more effective route. Wu says, “In a democracy, official censorship could never be as effective as private.” Lord knew those in the film industry would be best influenced by the possibility of losing money through boycotts or messy government intervention, and made it nearly impossible for them to produce and show films that went against the censorship standard.