"The Root of All Evil in the Motion Picture Industry"
by J. A. Aberdeen
In 1942 when the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers began its
attack on the Hollywood studio system, the group of filmmakers singled out one
old-time studio practice to focus its opposition. That controversial practice
was known as block booking.
Block booking meant that a studio would sell its films in packages on an
all-or-nothing basis—usually requiring theaters to buy several mediocre
pictures for every desirable one. Because the studios made mass-produced films,
they also sold them in bulk.
Block booking was unacceptable to the independent producers for a number of
reasons. Block booking made it difficult for the independents to get their own
movies into theaters when exhibitors had already purchased a block of films that
would provide the theater with plenty of movies. But even worse, since the
independent released their films through the studio-owned exchanges, the
independents found that their films were being used by the Hollywood
distributors to pawn off low-budget studio B-pictures. The producers believed
that block booking encouraged slack filmmaking by forcing inferior films on the
theaters and the moviegoers. In an open letter from 1942, the Society of
Independent Motion Picture Producers called the practice "the root of all
evil in the motion picture industry." The SIMPP members brought this
obscure practice to the fore until the courts finally abolished block
booking—which has remained illegal to this day.
Zukor founder of Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount). Photo 1922.
The Origins of Block Booking
Adolph Zukor, the studio pioneer who transformed Paramount into Hollywood's
first vertically-integrated movie company, has also been credited with
originating block booking—the signature practice of the studio era. He
realized that by selling his films in packages, a movie theater that wanted one
of his A-pictures could be forced to buy several inferior B-pictures. This
created a guaranteed market for even the most mediocre studio films, as theaters
were compelled to buy the films sight-unseen. The practice evolved over many
years and became the rallying-point for SIMPP producers who denounced block
booking as a discriminatory, oppressive distribution method that was used to
Allegedly Adolph Zukor originated block booking in reaction to the enormous
popularity of the films featuring his contract star Mary
Pickford. Zukor may
have also been inspired by industry reports in 1915 that Essanay was having such
unprecedented success with Charlie Chaplin comedies that his two-reel shorts
were frequently carrying the sale of the accompanying Essanay feature.
photocard c.1915: "Mary Pickford, Appearing Exclusively in Famous
Players Film Co. Productions."
Zukor decided to sell each Pickford movie in a package of Famous Players-Lasky films,
so that her famous golden curls could be used to foist unwelcome block booking
baggage on the theaters. Soon all Paramount films were sold in blocks, and block
booking rapidly spread throughout the other Hollywood studios. The
independent-minded Pickford threatened to leave Famous Players-Lasky until an
anti-block booking provision was written into her contract. She remained one of
the most outspoken critics of block booking, and later became a founder of the
SIMPP movement. She spent decades trying to eliminate the oppressive practice
that was spawned by her immense popularity.
Block Booking in the Studio Era
The controversy surrounding block booking began long before SIMPP protested
in the early 1940s. Many industry groups decried the arbitrary manner that the
major distributors forced the sale of unwanted pictures. Over time the practice
became more sophisticated, as each studio had their own manner of block booking.
Eventually the blocks included not just features but a full range of short
subject cartoons and newsreels. This mature form of block booking, called
"full-line forcing," gave the studios a pre-sold market for all of
their pictures, and kept their various production departments working at
capacity. Since the films were usually blocked before they were produced,
theaters had to make their booking decisions with the barest of information
provided by the distributor. This practice known as "blind bidding"
forced exhibitors to purchase films sometimes knowing little more than the title
of the movie, the cast, and perhaps a brief story tag-line.
Most film blocks contained about 20 or more features, but some theaters
complained that in the most extreme cases one block had predetermined the
playbill for an entire year—with movies they were forced to buy left unshown.
The practice was devastating to the small theater owner who had to compete with
the studio-owned theater chains that were exempt from block booking. Gentlemen's
agreements between studios meant that the first-run theaters could pick the best
films from each other without being forced to buy the accompanying range of
Block booking was also particularly frustrating to the independent producers
who distinguished their films by quality rather than volume, only to watch in
disgust as their highly-individual A-pictures became the selling feature of a
block of studio programmer pictures. Independents complained that their films
were being fettered by the pre-packaged studio deadweight. But in an industry
dominated by vertically-integrated companies, the producers were in a hopelessly
disadvantageous bargaining position.
The Block Booking Controversy
W. Hodkinson - movie industry pioneer, founder of Paramount
Pictures - portrait from around 1920, while he was operating the W. W.
Hodkinson Corporation as a producer-distributor.
As with any controversy, block booking was a two-sided issue. The Hollywood
studios affirmed that block booking was comparable to the concept of wholesaling
and bulk-buying that was a staple of American free enterprise. To Adolph Zukor,
a survivor of the haphazard film buying system of the old Patents Company, block
booking represented movie distribution in its most efficient and evolved state. W.
W. Hodkinson, always a critic of industry monopoly, called block booking a
corrupted form of the distribution system he pioneered.
The major distributors asserted that block booking actually resulted in
better films because the guaranteed cash-flow allowed the studios to take more
risks on individual movies that did not have to survive on their own legs. Of
course the opponents of block booking claimed the opposite, that block booking
impeded overall film quality and that it gave no incentive to improve each film
while they were being marketed sight-unseen. Curiously, both sides pointed to
the resulting films to support their arguments: the studios praised the
worldwide popularity of Hollywood films in general, while the independents noted
the overall scarcity of truly remarkable films.
Many civic and public interest groups who became aware of block booking
opposed it for censorship reasons. The public-advocates voiced concerns that,
under block booking, nothing prevented the self-regulated movie industry from
forcing upon the neighborhood theaters (and therefore Middle America) various
films of questionable moral value. They likened it to a potentially poisonous
food or drug that was being sold without a label. These groups threatened
Hollywood with one of its primal fears—outside censorship.
Therefore the battle for block booking had moral and artistic implications as
well the obvious economic issues. While the mass-production studio system was in
full-swing, block booking was arguably the focal point of the Hollywood studio
power-base, one which the major distributors protected at all costs, and
eventually fought to a bitter end.
MORE - Block Booking information
Block booking information is discussed in several important
published sources that prove variously concise and comprehensive, including
Conant, Antitrust in the Motion Picture Industry; Huettig, Economic
Control of the Motion Picture Industry; of particular interest is the
detailed study: Benjamin Werne, "The Neely Anti-Block Booking and Blind
Selling Bill—An Analysis," Contemporary Law Pamphlets, Series 6,
Number 1, New York University of Law, New York, 1940.
Hodkinson's views on block booking: W. W. Hodkinson, Memorandum
To Mr. George Seaton, President Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,
March 5, 1958, p. 3, AMPAS.
Early block booking involving Chaplin films at Essanay:
Conant, Antitrust in the Motion Picture Industry, p. 8. Hampton, History
of the American Film Industry, pp. 170-196. Koszarski, An Evening's
Entertainment, pp. 72-77; Pickford, Sunshine and Shadow, pp. 185-189.