Film Cycles and the Hollywood Studio System

Author: Zoe Wallin

Wallin, Zoe, 2017 Film Cycles and the Hollywood Studio System, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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The aim of this thesis is to extend the prevailing understanding of film cycles beyond the dominant focus on topicality, exploitation, and low-budget productions in post-Classical Hollywood. It contributes to the field a detailed study of cycles from the 1930s to the 1960s, the period of the studio system and its immediate aftermath, and uncovers the specific ways in which these cycles were shaped by their surrounding industrial contexts and market environments.

A film cycle is currently understood as a short-term rise in the production of a particular film type: producers seek to replicate the commercially successful features of a prior hit, which results in a cluster of imitative films. The cycle declines when the inundation of these similar films saturates the market and renders their production no longer commercially viable. To date, cycle studies have focused almost exclusively on the first half of this process, the arena of production. A cycle often takes shape in circulation, however, through the way the flow of movies through cinemas is manipulated during the process of distribution. The sudden of influx of films of a certain type is then registered by viewers as a flood.

By foregrounding patterns of distribution, spaces of exhibition, and modes of consumption as key components of the form and mechanics of cycles, this thesis explores areas that have been hitherto overlooked. In examining cycles from this perspective, this study develops a methodology for defining cycles based on an analysis of the industry and trade discourse, and built upon the immediate understanding of cycles by contemporaneous industry practitioners. The application of this framework to six case studies of different cycles builds a more inclusive conception of the form, operation, and function of film cycles. The case studies selected defy the ‘typical’ model of film cycles established in recent studies. They comprise girl reporter programmers, prestigious historical biopics, all-star wartime musicals, wide-ranging anti-prejudice pictures, and blockbuster biblical epics. The final study of the early 1960s beach party pictures considers the more familiar form of an independent, low-budget cycle from the market-centred understanding developed through the course of the thesis, and underscores the insights that can be gained through this new perspective. Each of these studies illuminates the pragmatic business policies pursued by the Hollywood industry at particular periods, and demonstrates how the study of cycles can be a useful tool for film historians.

Cycles were a useful profit-making strategy within the high output of the Hollywood studio system, where recycling and imitation were built into production practices and the reproduction of recent successes were a means to mitigate risk. The way that these films were distributed, however, gave the cycles their form. The timing of the films’ release into cinemas and the speed of their circulation through the exhibition sector could influence how quickly audiences would tire of the cycle, thereby affecting its overall lifespan. In exploring how the studios balanced the flow of film cycles to viewers, this thesis makes evident the majors’ ongoing use of distribution to regulate the market, and highlights the fundamental importance of this under-researched sector of the industry.

Keywords: Film cycle, Hollywood, studio system, film industry, film distribution, film production, film exhibition, Classical Hollywood, genre

Subject: Humanities thesis, Screen Studies thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Richard Maltby