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The Big Five Movies Studios

"Acting in concert, they [the Big Five movie studios] had enough first-run theaters to provide a nationwide exhibition showcase for their films, and their combined production efforts (in association with three minor distributors) were sufficient to supply an entire year's schedule of films. Achieving near 100 percent self-sufficiency restricted the freedom of the independent producers, distributors, and exhibitors from gaining access at any one stage in the vertical chain. At the exhibition level, [in the late 1930's] the Big Five collectively operated 70 percent of the all-important first-run theaters in the ninety-two cities with a population of 100,000 or more and 60 percent in those cities with a population of between 25,000 and 100,000."—Barry R. Litman, "Motion Picture Entertainment" in The Structure of American Industry, 9th edition, edited by Walter Adams and James Brock, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995), p. 199.

How It's Used

"In the twenties, before the coming of sound, the 'Big Five' major studios and assorted minor outfits each put into place the business structures, the key personnel and the house styles and genres that would sustain them through the Depression and the Second World War. Mordden is largely concerned with style and genre, and he argues that while the 'state of play' among the studios had much to do with the types of movies each made, the mogul in charge of each spun out his strategy across the lot, matching it to his taste, his players and technicians, and to his market niche."

—Bart Testa, "The Hollywood Studios House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies," The Globe and Mail, July 8, 1989, p. C18.

"The major studios in the Golden Age of Hollywood owed their position to vertical integration: they not only controlled production, but also distribution companies and the cinemas where their films were shown. They suffered under the Depression, but were hardest hit by the anti-trust legislation of the 1940s, which broke up their integrated empires; from then on the figure of the capricious and all-powerful Hollywood tycoon began to fade into legend. The 'Big Five' were:

"PARAMOUNT: Founded in 1914 and merged in 1916 with Adolph Zukor's Famous Players. Made quality silent films, but hard hit by the Depression. Its leading directors and stars included Cecil B. de Mille, Marlene Dietrich, Clara Bow, the Marx Brothers and WC Fields.

"20th CENTURY FOX: Fox Film Corporation (founded 1914) was a family business headed by William Fox which was going into decline until its merger, in 1935, with Darryl F. Zanuck's 20th Century Pictures. Its most bankable stars in the 1930s were Shirley Temple and Will Rogers, and its movies included 'The Grapes of Wrath' and 'The Gunfighter.'

"WARNER BROTHERS: A family business, founded in the 1920s by the four sons of Ben Warner (the most famous of whom was Jack). The studio early realised the importance of sound and made an agreement with General Electric to develop the system used in 'The Jazz Singer.' Specialised in efficient production of gangster movies, backstage musicals and 'social conscience' stories. Stars included James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.

"MGM: The greatest of all. Formed in 1924 by the merger of Marcus Loew's Metro Pictures with Louis B. Meyer Productions and Goldwyn Pictures (which no longer belonged to Samuel Goldwyn, an independent producer who made pictures mainly through United Artists and RKO). Producer Irving Thalberg was its golden boy in the early 1930s. Its films include many great musicals (Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain) and Gone With the Wind.

"RKO: Set up by Rockerfeller's Radio Corporation of America at the start of the sound era. Contracted with independent producers for major movies. RKO itself made many films noirs or low-budget movies, but was thought of as 'the studio without a style'."

—David Thomson, "Pipe Dreams," The Independent, June 15, 1997.

"As with most new technology, the only companies that had a stake in it were those that were not benefiting from the current system. Warner Brothers at the time was a small studio whose biggest star was Rin Tin Tin. Fox Pictures was larger and more successful than Warner Brothers, but its chief, William Fox, had designs on being the most powerful mogul of all and was searching for an angle that would enable him to do so. Both studios embarked simultaneously on plans to do movies with sound. Warner Brothers began in April 1926 with a sound-on-disc system called Vitaphone, which it licensed from Western Electric. Three months later, Fox started with a sound-on-film system called Movietone, which used an optical soundtrack like the ones used today.

"The major studios, called the Big Five, greeted these developments with bravado. After trying unsuccessfully to buy 50 percent of Vitaphone from Warner Brothers, they decided to boycott the service to hinder the renegade studio and to develop a sound system of their own under the auspices of the Radio Corporation of America, a division of General Electric. But while the Big Five dillydallied, Warner Brothers was outfitting its theaters with Vitaphone equipment and making Vitaphone films, and Fox was buying the new Roxy Theater in New York as a showcase for its Movietone system.

"By the time 'The Jazz Singer' had its premiere in October 1927, and Al Jolson uttered the legendary words 'You ain't heard nothin' yet,' the idea of sound was already well established. Largely on the strength of Vitaphone's prospects, Warner's stock skyrocketed in three years, to $132 a share from $21. At the same time, Fox was emboldened to engineer a takeover of MGM, the biggest and most successful studio."

—Neal Gabler, "Movies Meet New Technology: The Sequel to the Sequel," The New York Times, September 20, 2000.

"Hirschhorn's introduction ably recaps the studio's history. Columbia began in the '20s on Poverty Row. In the '30s it became a near peer of the Big Five (MGM, Warners, Paramount, Twentieth-Century Fox and RKO) on the strength of such mainstays as directors Frank Capra and Howard Hawks. It enjoyed security in the '40s and '50s, thanks to the company's decision early on to limit itself to picture-making. When trust-busters forced other studios to divest themselves of their distribution divisions and theater chains, Columbia sat pretty. After a rocky period in the '80s as part of the Coca-Cola empire, it has entered a smoother era under Sony."

—Dennis Drabelle, "Fabulous freaks, tales out of studio, Broadway back to front and French penmanship," The Washington Post, December 2, 2001.

"At the age of 18, Howard Robard Hughes became one of the wealthiest men in America. At 19, he moved to Hollywood. In a town famous for its excess, Hughes would become the most extravagant and egocentric movie mogul of them all. Before he was through, he would direct a box-office smash (the flying epic Hell's Angels, 1930) and produce a good few more; he would take on the censors to share Jane Russell's bust with the world; he would buy one of the big five studios, RKO, outright, turn it into his own private harem, and run it into the ground."

—Tom Charity, "A Flight of Fantasy," The Times (UK), December 18, 2004.


Beyond eAlmanac
Wikipedia article on the Studio System and the Big Five

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3 Responses to “The Big Five Movies Studios”

  1. […] was the Big 5 Hollywood Studios when I found that Wikipedia entry and between that and this page I think I can say for now that these are the ones I […]

  2. […] we are familiar with, such as MGM and Universal. These studios were part of a system that included five major studios; they established an order and exclusivity in the film industry. However, resistance to the […]

  3. […] studios, but merely marked a temporary imbalance in the media dominion. From the ashes where the “Big Five” of film and broadcast TV giants like ABC and CBS once stood arose a new empire, one dominated by […]


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