Hollywood Renegades Archive

The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers

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Block Booking

The Aftermath of Block Booking

Excerpt from Hollywood Renegades by J. A. Aberdeen

The SIMPP victory over block booking became the charter of freedom for all strands of independent production. The independents struggled against block booking from the early days of Hollywood until finally the Paramount decision made it illegal for a distributor to sell a film contingent upon the sale of any other film. This allowed SIMPP to achieve its primary objective that all movie sales be done on a picture-by-picture and theater-by-theater basis, so that individual merit and not distribution size determine the success of the picture.

Exhibitor Complaints

Interestingly, some of the immediate effects of the block booking ban aroused criticism from the independent theater owners. Back in May 1948, the leader of the Allied States theater organization, Abram F. Myers, who attacked SIMPP during the Unity Plans days in 1942, declared “tomorrow belongs to the independent exhibitors.” However by 1953, the exhibitors complained that the Justice Department efforts to aid the small theater owners had backfired. Many small movie houses which could not afford to compete for first-run movies found that the Hollywood studios had eliminated the kinds of programmer pictures that sustained the neighborhood theaters in the past. The independent exhibitor associations claimed that the overall shortage in the number of films since the demise of block booking had brought irreparable damage upon the theaters. Even the large circuits found it difficult to fill their screens now that the studios concentrated on fewer, higher-budgeted films. And by 1954 some of the larger theater chains like National Theatres petitioned the government to allow the exhibitors to produce their own films.

With eerie recollection, the industry remembered how the major studios always claimed that block booking was done to benefit the theater owners. Years earlier, the Big Five defended block booking by claiming that the practice provided an umbrella of bulk films that the exhibitors would not be able to afford under normal, competitive circumstances. As demonstrated by the failed Unity Plan deal between the studio and the exhibitors, which SIMPP helped derail in 1942, the exhibitors wanted block booking reform not abolition. But SIMPP pressed so ardently, and worked so closely with the government, that eventually the independent producers got their way, and the theaters were left with conditions that seemed beneficial but ultimately proved less than ideal.

Short-subjects and Animated Cartoons

Another side effect of the end of block booking which has been lamented by industry reactionaries has been the decline of the short-subject and the demise of the theatrical animated cartoon. During the studio era, all of the Big Eight distributors maintained their own in-house animation units or developed intimate ties with independent animation producers like Leon Schlesinger (Warner Bros.), Max Fleischer (Paramount), Walter Lantz (Universal), and Walt Disney (United Artists and RKO). Live-action shorts also provided a useful function by providing a test venue for fresh faces on the verge of stardom or new directors looking for a break. Before full-line forcing was disbanded by the Consent Decree of 1940, the studios would block book an entire series of shorts along with the feature packages. But even with this built-in market, the shorts were always in jeopardy of being squeezed out of the program, especially with the rise of the double feature. When the distributors were forced to tighten their belts after the Paramount decision, the short subjects took the hit. The live-action shorts were quickly phased out, while the animated cartoons held on a little longer.

The problem with the animated shorts after the Paramount case was that the studios did not immediately disband their animation divisions but had imposed cut-backs that eliminated quality and allowed the cartoons to diminish. The studios stopped creating new animated characters, and without the influx of new cartoon superstars, the market for animated shorts stagnated until the theaters removed the shorts altogether. In spite of surveys in recent decades that have indicated that theatergoers favor seeing extra shorts in addition to the regular feature, the return of cartoons to the theaters has been mostly speculative. The distributors have been unwilling to try to market new groups of shorts, and the major theater chains have been reluctant to try out a potentially lucrative cartoon series that would enhance the audience's theater-going experience.

Formula Filmmaking

Other critics of the over-commercialization of the film industry have identified another valid objection to the outlaw of block booking: after the Paramount verdict, Hollywood has concentrated not only on fewer films, but also on less variety of subject matter. It was actually quite an unexpected backlash because the independent movement had always promised to bring diversity to the formulaic studio-made films. However, block booking allowed the producer-distributors to spread out their profits and losses, making the studios more willing to sustain a diverse range of films. That is not to say that the classic Hollywood movies were all groundbreaking. On the contrary, without question, filmmaking formulas and censorship restrictions lead to an overall homogenization of film product during the studio era. Nevertheless, the old Hollywood studios had far more leeway to make an uncommercial film because even the smallest movies had a built-in market provided by block booking. This also allowed the industry of the past to sustain a number of genres which modern Hollywood no longer finds feasible to produce as it chases after the largest audience demographic.

Without block booking, the modern Hollywood distributors have had to count on each film carrying its own box office weight. Figuratively speaking, the new studios tried to score more home runs than ever before, even though they were up at bat far fewer times. More careful than ever to avoid a big-budget failure, Hollywood did not abandon the formula approach to filmmaking, it merely adjusted the formula. With so much money riding on each film, the studios have continued to make production decisions based on focus-group research and perceived market value that has inevitably lead to a copy-cat approach to filmmaking.

A studio era Hollywood movie would typically spend months in the theaters, as some films took longer than others to find an audience. The new studios have gravitated toward ready-made blockbusters, spending their promotional dollars on films that already have built-in marquee value. Under the modern Hollywood system, dark-horse blockbusters have become infrequent occurrences because the success of each release is determined by an opening weekend box office report. The buzz surrounding the movie must be good, and the film must immediately hit, or it is buried by the studio in an effort to cut its losses and make way for another release.

Distributors Increase Film Rentals

In their efforts to maximize profits on every single film, the new Hollywood distributors have been compelled to drive hard deals at each theater engagement. The percentage-based deals that were previously championed by SIMPP have become standard for every major film released by the Hollywood distributors. Competitive bidding between theaters has also escalated film rental costs. And just as in the SIMPP days, a producer and distributor can expect to receive far less for their film in a region where theaters exist with little or no competition. This situation became another point of contention for exhibitors who claimed that exorbitant individual film costs have seemed more oppressive than block booking.

Block Booking Outbreaks

Only a few years after the Supreme Court case, the exhibitors petitioned the government to lift the ban on block booking and allow the practice to continue on a modified, regulated basis. But the Department of Justice continued to uphold the anti-block booking laws in full force. Occasional block booking outbreaks have made the news over the years when distributors overstepped their bounds.

In 1978 a federal grand jury in New York City indicted Twentieth Century-Fox for allegedly block booking some of its less-desirable films with George Lucas' mega-hit Star Wars (1977). After a fine was imposed against Fox, the distributor promised to strengthen internal compliance procedures. Then in 1988, the aggressive selling methods of a Fox general manager brought additional fines to the studio for block booking several features in the mid-1980s. When Twentieth Century-Fox attempted to appeal the guilty verdict in 1990, the Supreme Court denied a hearing for the case.


MORE - Block Booking information



“Tomorrow belongs”: “Myers Says Theatre Empires Doomed by Court's Decision,” HR, May 5, 1948, p. 4.
Independent theaters complain since the end of block booking: “Movie Antitrust Actions Hit by Exhibitor at Inquiry,” LAT, April 1, 1953; W. R. Wilkerson, “Tradeviews,” HR, July 14, 1954, p. 1.
National Theatres petitions for permission to produce: “NT Asks Gov't Okay To Produce,” HR, September 24, 1954, p. 1; “Skouras Plans Pix Prod'n by NT,” DV, September 24, 1954, pp. 1, 4.
Big Five studio leaders claiming that block booking had previously aided exhibitors-Sidney Kent: “Kent Backs 'Right' of Block Booking,” NYT, April 7, 1939, p. 25; C. C. Pettijohn: “Neely Bill Called Threat To Public,” NYT, December 15, 1939, p. 32.
Block booking and the animated short: Over the years, while block booking has remained strictly enforced, the industry has made an exception on several occasions to permit a distributor to sell one feature with one animated cartoon as a package deal, as Buena Vista has done with the “Roger Rabbit” series of shorts from 1989 through 1993. Though technically in violation of antitrust law, the practice has been permitted to provide a boost to the near-extinct theatrical short market. Unfortunately, this new form of block booking has shown to hurt rather than help the chances for a general theatrical short revival because of the manner in which each short has been tied to the feature. With a new cartoon that is inseparably linked to a feature, the short stands or falls solely in accordance with the main attraction. This glass ceiling has kept each animated short from proving its own value, and has continued to undermine the future of the theatrical cartoon for the same reasons that SIMPP opposed block booking many years ago.
Twentieth Century-Fox guilty of block booking in later years: Will Tusher, “Fox Charged With Block Booking,” DV, October 7, 1988, pp. 1, 28; Will Tusher, “Fox Found Guilty of Block Booking,” DV, December 5, 1988, pp. 1, 19; Will Tusher, “Fox Appeal of Block-Booking Verdict Denied,” DV, January 9, 1990. The Justice Department initiated its latest investigation of block booking in April 1999, according to Boxoffice magazine, when the government requested information regarding the block booking and clearance practices of Disney, Fox, MGM, Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Warner Bros. back to 1996. No major allegations have resulted.

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