Adapting to the Growing Market:
How Hollywood Differentiated Film from Television
Upon its introduction to the marketplace, the television was simply seen as another form of entertainment to the American public. The convenience and affordability of television led to the widespread prevalence of the product in many American homes by the 1950's. In the advent of the television boom in America, Hollywood struggled to retain its market share in the visual media industry. In order to curb their losses, companies tried to differentiate film from television as a medium in many ways to give viewers a reason to leave the comfort of their homes and spend money in the cinema.
All of the attempts to differentiate film can be classified into two main subcategories: changes to the ways that individual firms looked at the industry, and changes to film technology. Looking at the first of these subcategories, one of the main ways that film companies reacted to the rise of television was through a tempering of the production code and producing films with an emphasis on spectacle. Due to the accessibility of television, the content on network television was often more strictly regulated than in films (Kovarik). Thus, distributors of such films often emphasized the fact that these films did not follow production codes. Distributors would then thrive on the controversy to drive ticket sales of these exploitation films. Since this type of content could not be seen on television, production companies used these films to draw some of the mass market back into theaters.
Due to the polarizing nature of exploitation films, producers could clearly see that there was a market for such films. As explained by Jon Lewis, “Exploitation distributors operated outside MPPDA/MPAA guidelines. They maintained, and at times exploited, a contentious relationship with local censorship boards and grassroots groups like the Catholic Legion of Decency” (198). Because these films were never legally banned in America, many companies set up subsidiary companies, a la MGM's Premier Films, to distribute these controversial films (Lewis 147). The exploitation formula proved to be successful at the box office and producers could charge a premium for the unregulated content to further extend profits. Since many major production companies had eventually set up similar systems to distribute these exploitation films, the production code essentially became obsolete.
Instead of trying to draw the entire mass market back to the theaters, producers began to appeal to the youth market through “teen exploitation” films. Similar to traditional exploitation films, “teen exploitation” films looked to capture the essence of teen culture to draw this new audience into theaters. Because film had been declining as a medium, companies such as American International Pictures (AIP) tried to market films towards this new teen group. As Keith M. Booker states, “Using focus groups to determine what kinds of films would appeal to these audiences, it developed a very market-oriented approach that put more emphasis on working within formulas that had proven to be marketable than on creativity or artistic merit” (22). This research was then quickly turned into a script, and the script was quickly turned into a low-budget film. Since this was the first time that consumers in the youth market could make their own purchasing choices, by marketing films to this group, film companies could look at these films as a long-term investment –– build repeat business with this new consumer group now so that when they become the “mass market” the film industry could take back some of the lost market share from television.
In an attempt to make watching movies a completely different experience from watching television, the drive-in movie theater was created. These theaters essentially operated the same way as a traditional movie theater, however, the main selling point was that customers could enjoy the movie from the comfort of their cars. At its peak, drive-in theaters accounted for roughly 25% of all the movie theaters in America (Nelson). Because these theaters gave greater privacy, these theaters were ideal for families with small children and teens with access to cars. In spite of that, at its core, drive-in theaters were a gimmick. Speaker limitations and ambient light pollution heavily hindered immersion into the worlds portrayed by films. Additionally, the dependence on good weather and soaring gas prices made going to a drive-in theater an unrewarding experience for consumers. Although the drive-in theater had a short stint of success, the novelty of the experience wore off and failed to resonate with the mass market.
Differentiation between film and television mostly came from the technological advancements brought about by the film industry. One of the first advancements intended to differentiate film was through the utilization of widescreen footage. Conceptually speaking, widescreen film would envelop the vision of a viewer, completely immersing the viewer in the scene at hand. Because televisions of the time were fixed to the standard aspect ratio, using widescreen footage would make the final product of film look vastly different from that of television as more detail could be captured in a single frame. Although attempts at widescreen footage had already been made as early as the late 1920's (Dirks), the perils of the Great Depression forced studios to cut unnecessary expenditures –– most of which were research and development costs for new film technologies (Hart).
The first of these successful widescreen systems, known as Cinerama, used three cameras mounted as one unit to create a “widescreen” effect. These three films were then played back via three separate projectors that would stitch the three films together and show a continuous image of (Hart). As with many first attempts at new technologies, the Cinerama had obvious flaws. Because the exhibition was dependent on the synchronization of the three strips, alignment issues were obvious. Therefore, damages to one of the strips essentially meant that there were damages to all of the strips. Due to the nature of the setup, Cinerama films were very costly to make and could only be played in Cinerama theaters. Despite its flaws, the Cinerama system was proof that widescreen movies could be profitable.
The second most well-known iteration of widescreen film, known as CinemaScope, paved a path for the new big-screen market. Based on a system designed by French designer, Henri Chetian, CinemaScope used an anamorphic lens to compress a widescreen image onto a film strip with a narrower aspect ratio (Dirks). A second anamorphic lens was then mounted onto the projection system that would re-stretch the compressed footage. This system was much cheaper and simpler to implement in theaters as the only new equipment needed was the new lens. CinemaScope along with other widescreen processes seemed to be a good enough selling point to draw consumers back into theaters as these optical techniques could not be reproduced on a television screen. The popularity of the format remains true as the widescreen format is seen the standard for film and television today.
Along with the rise of widescreen, the introduction of short-lived gimmicks such as three-dimensional stereoscopic film and scent-based systems helped to bolster film sales upon its introduction into the market. Three-dimensional stereoscopic film worked by superimposing images from two different perspectives onto a single film. Polarized glasses were then worn by the viewer to direct a different image into each eye. The brain would then combine these images to give an illusion of three-dimensions (“How do 3D films work?”). Smell-O-Vision, as developed by Hans Laube in 1960, was one of many “scent-based” movie gimmicks that worked by injecting “scents” that were triggered by audio cues in the movie soundtrack (Dirks). In a similar fashion as Cinerama and the drive-in theater, three-dimensional films and other scent gimmicks died out almost as quickly as they became popular. However, in terms of marketing and increasing ticket sales, these novelty innovations did their job in creating an experience different from television.
Perhaps the most recognized of these innovations was the introduction of colorized film. Though there were already techniques to colorize film, the technology to record and produce films in color were very limited. As created by Dr. Henry Kalmus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Technicolor process colorized films initially by diffracting red and green light and recording a black and white record of the two separate images. Upon further refining of the diffracting process, blue light could be diffracted to create a tri-color recording system. This system would be known as “the” Technicolor process. Each individual recording would be dyed corresponding to the color of diffracted light, superimposing each of the dye transfers to create a final, colorized product (Cunningham). Because the Technicolor process did not record color, colorized material could not be broadcasted through television networks. This innovation helped to differentiate film as the “color” medium and television and the “black and white” medium.
Despite the fact that the Technicolor process could create a beautiful end product, it was very costly and time-consuming to produce a Technicolor film. The supply of Technicolor “three-strip” cameras was very limited, thus rental of these cameras had to be booked sometimes up to years in advance before use. Additionally, the production of Technicolor films were quite costly as each strip had to be individually dyed at the Technicolor plant (Cunningham). This lead to the widespread adoption of cheaper, monopack films such as the Eastman Kodak Kodachrome film. Since these monopack films could be cheaply mass produced, colorized films quickly became cemented as a movie standard.
Advances in recording equipment, as well as advances in speaker equipment, helped to categorize film as an all-around higher quality medium than television. Better recording methods such as, such as multi-track magnetic tape could record sounds from multiple inputs. These inputs could then be mixed together in post-production to produce a high-fidelity stereophonic sound that was much more accurate than mono-track sound (Lander). Also, better amplification designs became available. With a greater frequency sensitivity, these higher-power speakers could easily reproduce audio without much distortion. Along with the stunning visuals brought by the introduction of widescreen and color film, innovations in audio technology helped to further immerse audiences into the worlds of the film.
Although the convenience of television drew crowds away from theaters, the foresight of industry moguls to respond to the threat of television helped to prevent their medium from being crowded out in the marketplace. These changes not only saved their medium but also helped to set the standards for the films of the modern day. Through the meticulous refinement of the medium, filmmakers and producers were able to create a highly-stylized product worth leaving the house to enjoy.
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