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Hollywood in the Television Age

by Samuel Goldwyn, 1949

Goldwyn's predictions for the future of television offer a look at the general attitudes of the independent producers toward television. Of his predictions for the future of TV, many were held in common by the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers, of which Goldwyn was a leading member. In this essay, Goldwyn predicts that movies would be shown on TV, that eventually movies would be made specifically for television (and replace the B-movies formerly shown in theaters), and that pay-TV would also be a reality.

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Sam Goldwyn, publicity photo #1. (Aberdeen collection). To purchase Aberdeen photos for reprint purposes click here.

 Motion pictures are entering their third major era. First there was the silent period. Then the sound era. Now we are on the threshold of the television age.

The thoroughgoing change which sound brought to picture making will be fully matched by the revolutionary effects (if the House Un-American Activities Committee will excuse the expression) of television upon motion pictures. I predict that within just a few years a great many Hollywood producers, directors, writers, and actors who are still coasting on reputations built up in the past are going to wonder what hit them.

The future of motion pictures, conditioned as it will be by the competition of television, is going to have no room for the deadwood of the present or the faded glories of the past. Once again it will be true, as it was in the early days of motion picture history, that it will take brains instead of just money to make pictures. This will be hard on a great many people who have been enjoying a free ride on the Hollywood carrousel, but it will be a fine thing for motion pictures as a whole.

Within a few years the coaxial cable will have provided a complete television network linking the entire country. Whether the expense that is involved in producing full-length feature pictures for television can possibly be borne by advertisers or will be paid for by individual charges upon the set owners, no one can say today. But we do know that with America's tremendous technological capabilities and our ability to adjust to new situations, nothing will stand in the way of full-length feature pictures in the home produced expressly for that purpose.

Even the most backward-looking of the topmost tycoons of our industry cannot now help seeing just around the corner a titanic struggle to retain audiences. The competition we feared in the past—the automobile in early movie days, the radio in the 'twenties and 'thirties, and the developing of night sports quite recently—will fade into insignificance by comparison with the fight we are going to have to keep people patronizing our theaters in preference to sitting at home and watching a program of entertainment. It is a certainty that people will be unwilling to pay to see poor pictures when they can stay home and see something which is, at least, no worse.

We are about to enter what can be the most difficult competition imaginable with a form of entertainment in which all the best features of radio, the theater, and motion pictures may be combined. Today there are fifty-six television stations on the air, with sixty-six additional stations in process of construction. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission points out that by 1951 there may be 400 stations in operation. There are now 950,000 receiving sets installed, sets are being produced at the rate of 161,000 per month and next year that rate will be doubled. Soon there will be a potential audience of fifty million people or more.

Here we have the development that will change the whole entertainment business. Fifty million Americans will be able to sit at home and take their choice of visiting the ball park, the prize-fight matches, the wrestling bouts, the legitimate theater, and the motion pictures without stirring from their own living rooms. It is going to require something truly superior to cause them not only to leave their homes to be entertained, but to pay for that entertainment.

How can the motion picture industry meet the competition of television? Most certainly the basic business tactics—if you can't lick 'em, join 'em—apply in this case. If the movies try to lick television, it's the movies that will catch the licking. But the two industries can quite naturally join forces for their own profit and the greater entertainment of the public. Instead of any talk about how to lick television, motion picture people now need to discuss how to fit movies into the new world made possible by television. Here are some of the ways in which that tailoring process can be effected:

First, the reality must be faced that if the motion picture industry is to remain a going concern—instead of turning into one that is gone—it will have to turn out pictures several times as good as pictures are, on the average, today. Such recent pictures as Joan of Arc, The Snake Pit, Portrait of Jennie, Johnny Belinda, The Search, and Miss Tatlock's Millions are proof that Hollywood has creative capacities which are utilized all too rarely. Pictures like these, far above the average today, will have to be the norm in the future.

A factor on our side is that people will always go out to be entertained because human beings are naturally gregarious. But before the moviegoer of the future arranges for a baby sitter, hurries through dinner, drives several miles, and has to find a place to park, just for the pleasure of stepping up to the box office to buy a pair of tickets, he will want to be certain that what he pays for is worth that much more than what he could be seeing at home without any inconvenience at all.

Assuming that better pictures will be made, there remains the problem of how the motion picture industry is going to receive financial returns for pictures made for television. The greatest potentialities lie in a device called phonevision.

This device is not yet known to the American public because it has not yet been placed upon the commercial market, but to motion picture producers it may well be the key to full participation in this new, exciting medium of entertainment. Reduced to its simplest terms, it is a system by which any television-set owner will be able to call his telephone operator, tell her that he wishes to see The Best Years of Our Lives (if I may be pardoned for thinking of my favorite picture), or any other picture, and then see the picture on his television set. The charge for the showing of the picture will be carried on the regular monthly telephone bill.

Phonevision is normal television with the additional feature that it can be seen on the phonevision-television combination set only when certain electric signals are fed into the set over telephone wires. No television set without the phonevision addition is capable of picking up phonevision programs, and no phonevision-television set can pick up such programs without those electrical signals supplied over the telephone wires on specific order.

The fee paid by the set owner will presumably be divided between the television transmitter, the picture producer, and the telephone company. The range of possibilities which this prospect opens to motion picture producers is almost limitless, for every television owner becomes just as much a box-office prospect inside his home as outside it.

It must be borne in mind that full-length pictures in the home are not necessarily something which will be realized in the immediate future. Despite the rapid pace at which we hurtle ahead, I am inclined to believe that the production of full-length pictures designed especially for home television will not become a practical reality for at least five to ten years more. Although phonevision seems to be ready for commercial adaptation today, it is obvious that no motion picture producer can risk the huge investment required for a full-length feature picture for television alone unless he has some reasonable assurance of recovering his costs.

In addition to producing for television, motion picture companies will undoubtedly make strenuous efforts to participate in the ownership and operation of television stations themselves. Already several of the larger companies have made extensive plans along these lines. An element which could blight the development of television would be the introduction into that field of monopolistic controls and practices similar to those which, in the motion picture industry, have hurt independent production. But this possibility should be reduced to a minimum by the fact that television-station ownership by theater companies and their affiliated interests, as well as others, will be limited by the Federal Communications Commission rule which provides, in effect, that no single interest can own more than five television licenses.

What effect will the exhibition of films over television have upon the type of films produced? First, one must hedge by saying that until we know whether the use of phonevision can supply sufficient revenue, or until advertisers can bear the cost of such full-length productions—a remote possibility,—we will all remain in the dark as to the direction to be taken by pictures produced essentially for that medium. One can venture a few predictions, however, as to the reasonable probabilities.

There is no doubt that in the future a large segment of the talents of the motion picture industry will be devoted to creating motion pictures designed explicitly for this new medium. As today's television novelty wears off, the public is not going to be satisfied to look at the flickering shadows of old films which have reposed in their producers' vaults for many years. Nor will the public be content to spend an evening looking at a series of fifteen-minute shorts such as are now being made for television. There will be a vast demand for new full-length motion picture entertainment brought directly into the home.

I believe that when feature pictures are being made especially for television, they will not differ basically from those made for showing in theaters. The differences will be chiefly variations in techniques. The craving which all of us have to lose ourselves, temporarily at least, in the adventures, romances, joys, trials, and tribulations 0£ characters created by storytellers does not change much, whether those characters are portrayed in a novel, on the stage, or on the screen—or whether that screen is in a theater or in one's own living room.

But in this new medium there will undoubtedly be a greater emphasis on story values than exists today. A person rarely walks out of a theater before he has seen the picture he came to see, regardless of whether it lives up to his expectations. A variety of reasons are behind this-the admission price he paid, the fact that he has no control over the program, the fact that if he leaves it will probably be too late to go to another theater, etc. At most, only one of those factors—the equivalent of an admission price—will be present in the home. The knowledge that the spectator will be able to move £rom one picture to another by the mere turn of the dial is bound to make those who will produce pictures primarily for television concentrate on keeping the audience vitally interested.

I believe, too, that there will be a reversion, £or a time at least, to a lustier, broader type of acting than we have seen since sound changed motion picture acting techniques. Because of the small viewing sur£ace of present-day home television screens, the subtleties of underplaying which can be observed on the large motion picture theater screen are lost to the television viewer. Unless the home screen becomes measurably larger, actors will find that the emotions which they can portray today by nuances will have to be conveyed by much broader expression.

Along the same general line, I am inclined to believe that the pacing of feature pictures designed primarily for television will be found to be more rapid than the normal tempo of motion pictures in the theater. Feature television pictures will probably not run over an hour—a reduction of from thirty to fifty per cent of the running time of present-day features. The need for compressing the essential elements of the story will inevitably result in accelerated tempo.

All of this makes for an exciting and stimulating future even though it is impossible to forecast what the specific nature of the interests of motion picture companies or individual theater owners in television stations will be. Ultimately, a pattern will evolve out of the jumbled jigsaw puzzle of experimentation.

The certainty is that in the future, whether it be five or ten or even more years distant, one segment of our industry will be producing pictures for exhibition in the theaters while another equally large section will be producing them for showing in the homes. The stimulus of this kind of competition should have nothing but good results. The people best fitted to make pictures for television will be those who combine a thorough knowledge of picture-making techniques with a real sense of entertainment values and the imagination to adapt their abilities to a new medium.

The weak sisters in our ranks will fall by the wayside. But no one in our industry who has real talent need fear the effects of television. I welcome it as opening new vistas for the exercise of creative ability, spurred on by intense competition.

I have always been basically optimistic about Hollywood and its potentialities. I see no reason to change my views now. I am convinced that television will cause Hollywood to achieve new heights and that, as time goes on, above these heights new peaks will rise.

 

SOURCES:

Hollywood Quarterly.Winter, 1949/50.

See Bibliography.

 

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