What’s Wrong With The Film Industry?

Photo by Mike Finklestein via Flickr

Following the ouster of Rich Ross as chairman of Disney Studios, UCLA Professor Emeritus Howard Suber posted a recent article about an influential investor who wrote a report to the Paramount Studios board entitled, “What’s Wrong With The Film Industry?”

Here are some of his main points:

-The constant turnover of the production head of the studio is disastrous.

-The conflict and turnover caused by the buying and selling of companies causes          confusion, uncertainty, and weakens morale in the production areas.

-Authority is not clearly defined.

-Overhead is indefensibly high.

-Budget estimates are not complete or accurate when shooting begins.

-Budgets are a joke, since they are exceeded with impunity.

-Shooting schedules are disregarded; scripts are not ready when shooting begins.

-The write-off on stories and contracts is enormous. Screenplay costs are excessive.

-Producers hold exorbitant contracts, and there is no relationship between a producer’s salary and the box-office success of his pictures.

The analyst concluded that it would probably be a smart move to put someone in charge as Head of Production who actually had extensive film-making experience.

The analyst was Joseph P. Kennedy, father of J.F.K., who was involved in both Pathe and RKO. The report was written in 1936.

It’s hard to know whether to be surprised, disheartened or amused that so much hasn’t changed over the last 76 years. It will be interesting  ( or gut-wrenching, depending on your mental vantage point ) to see where it all leads us.

Will the continuing tide of runaway production be Hollywood’s final undoing, or are we all on a big merry-go-round that brings us back to the same spot with a calculable regularity?

Suber writes an excellent blog entitled The Power of Film where he posts some very insightful articles. Check them out.

Plus ça change – Part II

In 1933, the novelist Christopher Isherwood went to work as a screenwriter on the British film Little Friend. He used his experiences on the film to create the story for the satirical novel Prater Violet.

Set in 1939 at the beginning of World War II, the story follows the making of a movie about a park in Vienna. The story describes the dysfunctional,  detached and often dystopic world of the film industry ( in Britain ) as it follows a young screenwriter’s first experience on a film set.  First published in 1945, many aspects of it’s 128 pages are surprisingly contemporary for a book written over 70 years ago. In many ways, it seems, not a lot has changed.

Here are some excerpts:

It will interest you as a phenomenon.You see, the film industry of today is really the palace of the 16th century. There, one sees what Shakespeare saw. The absolute power of the tyrant, the courtiers, the flatterers, the jesters, the cunningly ambitious intriguers. The are fantastically beautiful women. There are incompetent favorites. There are great men who are suddenly disgraced. There is the most insane extravagance. And unexpected parsimony over a few pence. There is enormous spendour, which is a sham: and also horrible squalour hidden behind the scenery. There are vast schemes abandoned because of some caprice. There are secrets that everybody knows and no one speaks of.”

Lawrence took great pleasure in pointing out to me the many inefficiencies of the studio. For instance, there was no proper storage room for scenery. Sets had to be broken up as soon as they were used: the waste of materials was appalling.”

The Academy and the 50% Pay Cut

The performance seen that morning may not have been the best one of the year, but it certainly was the most profitable for a select group of people.

It was Bank Day, March 8, 1933. In the wake of the bank failures at the onset of the Great Depression, Roosevelt had closed the banks in order to give the government some breathing space to restructure the financial system. For Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM Studios, it was a prime opportunity to once again lower the wage bar in the film industry.

Left, Louis B. Mayer, on the right is Irving Thalberg (Academy archives)

The talent contracted to the studio had been asked to assemble in the largest screening room on the lot (now the Cary Grant Theater). Mayer entered, red-eyed, unshaven and looking morose. He proceeded to lay out the current status of the film industry as he saw it. He told the assembly that every studio in town was on the verge of shutting down and that the industry as a whole could come to an end. Mayer said that they needed to institute a 50% pay cut for two months for those making more than $50 a week. Those making less would take a 25% cut. He said he wouldn’t be able to institute the cuts unless the assembled group would agree to it. Mayer said, “I, Louis B. Mayer, will work to see that you get back every penny when this terrible emergency is over.”

One writer stood and said he was confused at how it had come to this considering the number of successful movies the studio had recently released. The actor Lionel Barrymore chastised the man for not being a team player and lead the entire group in eagerly agreeing to the wage cuts.

All over town at the other studios, coincidently, the same scene was taking place as assembled studio employees were told the industry was on the verge of complete collapse if they, too, didn’t take a 50% pay cut. And, as at MGM, the employees were told that the pay-cuts had been recommended and approved by the Academy which gave it, they hoped, the imprimatur of the group that supposedly had the best interests of both the employees and owners.

A young story editor named Samuel Marx followed Mayer and another exec as they walked back to their offices after the meeting. Mayer seemed to not know the story editor could hear him as he turned to the other exec and asked, smiling, “How did I do?” It had been a carefully crafted performance.

The original entrance gates at MGM - Lugo Cerra collection

It had also been no coincidence that all the studios had decided on insisting on a 50% pay cut. Jack Warner would later admit that the studio execs had gotten together and decided among themselves on the pay cuts and only later claimed that it had been voted on by the entire Academy. MGM’s head of production, Irving Thalberg, argued that the cuts would hurt moral. He couldn’t have been more correct. Mayer had pointed out that the executives themselves had taken a 35% pay cut for one year. But this did not include the huge bonuses paid out to a small handful of people. 20 to 25 percent of the net profit on the studio’s pictures was divided annually among them.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had its’ beginnings on January 1927, when Mayer invited 36 of the most influential players in Hollywood to a dinner at the Ambassador Hotel where he proposed the organization.  The non-profit organization would both create standards for the industry as well as be an advocate for those in the industry, arbitrating contracts between the studios and talent.  And, it would be a good public-relations move for the studios and be a way of increasing public interest in Hollywood.

It was the role of labor-arbitrator which was the most questionable. As an organization which had been started by and heavily influenced by the studio heads, it was ridiculous to think that it could be an impartial body in labor negotiations. In actuality, the organization’s role of supposedly advocating for film industry employees, would help prevent unionization of the studios by the talent for a number of years. Mayer and the other studio heads weren’t as concerned with having to pay the talent more as much as they were concerned with losing complete creative control over their films.

The first Academy Awards banquet in 1929 - Academy archives

The Academy Awards themselves were an afterthought. Mayer himself conceived of the awards as being a way to curry favor with the talent. He later said, “I found the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”

For the studio talent, the 50% cuts the studios now asked for were galling and weren’t made easier by the Academy’s ‘approval’ of them, particularly because this was not the first time it had happened. The Academy had also ‘approved’ cuts in 1927 and 1931, and just the year before, Mayer had asked his employees to take a cut again, which the actors patently refused to do. In the economic crisis of the bank collapse, Mayer saw the opportunity to again roll back wages.

Thalberg’s warnings had been prophetic, and the grumblings about the Academy’s worthlessness as a labor arbitrator were evident to all. The screenwriter Brian Marlow turned to a friend and said, “Okay, then, the obvious conclusion to this crap is our need to have a union.” While many of the studio workers were organized under I.A.T.S.E., the creative talent had no representation. The writers, in particular worked under particularly egregious conditions. With no protections, writers could end up having to either share their credits with another person who had contributed very little to the script, or could end up getting no credit at all and finding that the script was credited to the producer’s relative.

Within a month, many screenwriters and actors decided that the Academy was not truly looking out for their interests and formed what would become the Screen Writer’s Guild, (a precursor of the Writer’s Guild of America), the Screen Actor’s Guild, and in 1937, The Society of Motion Picture Art Directors would be formed. Mayer promptly forgot his promise to return “every penny” of forfeited wages and would see record personal profits in the next few years.

It was later estimated that the cuts saved the studio nearly $800,000, much of which went to executive bonuses. The impact on Mayers’ personal finances was soon evident and he became the first man in America to make one million dollars a year. For nearly a decade he would be the highest paid man in the country.

For further reading:

  • “Lion Of Hollywood –  The life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer” by Scott Eyman
  • “The Inquisition in Hollywood -Politics in the Film Community”  by Larry Ceplair &   Steven Englund
  • “Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints” by Samuel Marx

No Dogs or “Movies” Allowed

‘[ In the early 1900’s] some citizens of Hollywood regarded the activities of the motion –  picture people with dismay, feeling as though their respectable town had been overrun by gypsies. Film people were called “movies” by Hollywood residents, who were unaware that the term referred to the product, not the personnel. The word conjured up the right sort of vision; it was vaguely suggestive of irritating insects.’

“The Parade’s Gone By” p. 37

Early motion picture personnel were at the bottom rung of the ladder as far as the locals were concerned. Apartment buildings often had signs posted declaring neither persons owning animals nor those having employment in the film industry would be rented to. The iconic  and once luxurious Garden Court Apartments, which stood on Hollywood Blvd., held out against admitting actors until 1918.

The town was flooded by young people, believing it was easy to break into the glitzy new industry as ‘extras’. Thousands arrived, particularly young women who were shocked to find that not only had thousands of others had the same idea but the studios were not centrally located and were actually many miles apart making it difficult just to visit the various casting offices in a single day.

The town soon began publishing notices around the country, trying to impress on young wanna-be actors as to the reality of the situation and discouraging them from coming to Hollywood without a contract or contacts. Hordes of youth faced starvation, poverty, and sometimes even suicide.

1920 notice published in other city newspapers by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce

By 1922 there were over 30,000 people in Hollywood seeking extras work. The oversupply naturally led to exploitation of young women and the industry soon had a PR nightmare on their hands. Some officials were calling for government regulation which is the last thing the production companies wanted. Republican Party leader Will Hays, creator of the infamous Hays Code, would try to alleviate the situation by creating Central Casting as a way to control the pandemonium which was occurring daily at the studio lots. It gave the process legitimacy but it failed to stem the flow of eager youth into the once-sleepy town.

Central Casting Office in 1929

Art Directing Bomb Targets

Remnants of “German Village” and observation bunker – HAER archives , HAER UTAH, 23 DUG, 2A-2

In the middle of the Utah desert there stands a brick three-story copy of an early 20th century German tenement building, a relic of World War II and a secret program that involved the RKO Studios Art Department.

Stories about Hollywood’s creative elite being involved with the military during World War II are part of its history and mystique. But it wasn’t until recently that I had found much information about any exploits involving Art Directors or Art Department personnel in the war effort beyond work on films contracted by the government.

Remaining structure from 1943 – U.S. Army photo

While I was doing some research for a documentary, I was looking through past articles in the German magazine Der Spiegel and my eye caught a story entitled,  Angriff Auf “German Village”. Curious as to why part of the title was in English, I scanned the article and saw the words “RKO Studios.” The story recounted a secret U.S. government program designed to test the effectiveness of firebombs by building a mock German and Japanese village in the middle of the Utah desert. The top-secret program would involve the help of a number of renowned architects and the RKO Studios Authenticity Division. What was the “Authenticity Division”? My interest was piqued.

Once the United States entered the war it became apparent that in the event that gas and biological weapons were used, there had to be a place far enough away from populated areas to test these and other weapons. Roosevelt set aside over 120,000 acres in the Utah desert as land for weapons testing near the Dugway Mountains. By mid 1942 The Dugway Proving Grounds was open for business.

The U. S. Army had made it a point early in the war to not target civilians during bombing raids but was now facing pressure from the British to do so. After being bombed continuously themselves, as far as the British were concerned, the ‘gloves were off’.

Churchill pushed Roosevelt to deliver 500,000 top-secret ‘N’ bombs, which contained anthrax. He surmised that with the munitions he could wipe out at least half the population of the 6 largest German cities in one week. Roosevelt blanched at the idea and his Secretary of War argued that the U.S. didn’t want to help perpetrate an atrocity on the level of Hitler’s own terrible acts. Roosevelt instead offered to provide a more effective firebomb to help in Churchill’s aim of destroying Berlin. Previous attempts with the weapon had been ineffective because of the predominately masonary construction of the tenement buildings in the city center.

Fire Hazard map of Hamburg produced by the British in 1944. The red areas show the areas most susceptible to fire

Fire Hazard map of Hamburg produced by the British in 1944. The red areas show the areas most susceptible to fire


Like nearly every major corporation, Standard Oil was contracted to work for the military during the war and began developing an improved incendiary bomb. In comparison to high explosive bombs, incendiaries were designed to start fires. Standard Oil had designed the M-69 bomb, which contained a jellied gasoline, making it harder to put out a fire it started.  When white phosphorous was added, it made a deadly combination of which even a pea-sized glob could burn a human limb down to the bone in moments.  The substance burned furiously even when submerged in water.

Roosevelt ordered it to be tested immediately and suggested that exact copies of German and Japanese houses be built to test them on.

HAER drawing of original village plan in 1943 – HAER UR-92 sheet 1

At some time in early 1943,  RKO Studios was approached by the Standard Oil Development Company to authenticate and design furnishings for the German Village portion of the test area. Many people have attributed RKO being sought out because the studio had produced Citizen Kane, but it would be years before Kane was considered the masterpiece it is today.

What is more likely is that  RKO was approached because someone at Standard Oil had been to the movies recently.

L.A. Times newspaper ad from the film – Feb. 24, 1943 – L.A. Times archive

On January 6 of that year, the studio had released a picture entitled, “Hitler’s Children” which was immediately a blockbuster and would become the biggest success of the studio to date. The film, based on a book, recounted the story of a young German-American girl trapped in Germany and forced to participate in the Lebenborn program, where young girls were encouraged to become pregnant out of wedlock to provide future soldiers for the Reich.  Because the film had a patriotic purpose, that of showing the horrors of life in Nazi Germany, the ethics board approved the film even though it contained such racy material as the lovely starlet Bonita Granville’s blouse being torn from her back and then whipped. It made for great box-office receipts. Made for around $200,000, the studio knew they had a winner the opening weekend. The Pantages Theater in Hollywood reported that “records for initial attendance were smashed to smithereens.” The film would end up making back nearly 13 times the original investment.

film still of young stars Tim Holt and Bonita Granville – RKO Pictures

The film’s director, Edward Dmytryk was one of my Directing instructors at the American Film Institute. While discussing the huge bonuses being handed out by the studios,  he recounted that “Hitler’s Children” was so successful the studio gave him a $5000 bonus. While paling in comparison to today’s bonuses, the sum was quite a substantial one at that time.

Because the movie dealt with domestic life in Germany and involved creating typical German interiors, the studio would have been an obvious choice for the job of recreating accurate dressing of civilian apartments. The Art Directors on the film were Albert D’Agostino, who was the Supervising Art Director for all RKO films, and Carroll Clark. It’s not known if they were the individuals actually involved in the government program.

photo of completed village in 1943 – U.S. Army

A local Utah contractor had been hired to build both villages, which were side-by-side. With a mandate of less than two months to complete the buildings, the contractor pleaded for help with getting manpower and was allowed to use inmates from the Utah prison as construction workers.

photo of completed Japanese homes 1943 – U.S. Army

The Japanese Village was designed by the Czech architect Antonin Raymond who had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. He had set up his architectural practice there and would become known as the father of modernist Japanese architecture. Intimately familiar with the typical wooden structure of Japanese houses, he provided construction drawings and suggestions for building materials.

The German Village had been designed with assistance from the famous architects Erich Mendelsohn, Konrad Wachsmann and others from the Walter Gropius group at Harvard.  The structure was designed as a duplex unit divided into 6 apartments, all having a second floor and an attic, which was the most flammable part of the building.

construction details of German tenements – U.S. Army

The structure was mostly masonry and the floors of this type of building were not only more massive, they contained a 3 1/2 inch cinder infill that made it very difficult for a fire to burn more than the upper floor and attic. Because of this the first floor was left unfurnished and only the top floor was dressed.

The list of furnishings needed to dress the buildings for the tests was staggering considering they had to all be built in a very short time. Over 760 pieces of furniture were called for as well as over 700 mattresses, pillows and drapes and over 900 tatami mats were needed for the Japanese buildings.

Every tatami mat in San Francisco and Hawaii was rounded up and sent to Utah. When these proved insufficient, others were constructed using Mexican ixtle fiber as a substitute. A shipment of lumber from Murmansk was captured and used to simulate Japanese building materials and rattan was used in place of bamboo.

German tenements after first bomb test – U.S. Army

The German Village was a block of 6 rowhouses built back-to-back to mimic the German ‘mietskaserne’ or ‘rent barracks’ which were the typical low rent living quarters in the large cities such as Berlin. Normally 5 to 6 stories high, the ones built at Dugway were only two stories plus the attic area. The attics were the only portion of the brick buildings that were mainly wood and were the target of the incendiaries.

One side was built with the western German style of slate over boards while the other side’s roof was covered with tiles over battens as was common in Berlin. Douglas Fir and Southern Pine were used to simulate the typical German Kiefer wood for the flooring, roof joists and beams. Because the tests needed to be as accurate as possible, soldiers were assigned to constantly spray the exposed inner framework with water to keep the wood’s moisture content from falling in the desert’s low humidity.

photo of existing attic in 2007 showing scorch marks from original tests. U.S. Army

The furnishings design had been contracted to a New York designer and much of the furnishings were built there. But the sheer number of pieces involved required several other entities, including the RKO prop shop, to create pieces as well with the RKO staff approving the designs and construction materials. Samples of German drapery and bed linens were tested for flammability and similar fabrics were procured.

Once the furnishings were completed and had arrived at the site on May 14, two  RKO staff members supervised the installation based on the interior layout created by the art department. The small rooms were filled to match the congested look of the average German tenement apartment with beds, sofas, cabinets, cribs, table and chairs and the furnishings were completed with the addition of cushions, bed and crib linens and window dressings.

dressed “German” apartment before tests

The black and white photographs taken of the rooms on May 16, 1943, the night before the tests began, look much like set stills that the RKO employees would have taken of hundreds of other sets before. The villages had been completed in 44 days. Bomb tests were begun the next day and were repeated for nearly four months. Each time the structures were quickly repaired and refurnished.

dressed “Japanese” house

Unfortunately there is nothing in the Standard Oil report that names personnel involved with the project.  In the acknowledgement the credit reads – “RKO Studios – Authenticity Division”. So the question is, who were the two individuals from RKO who supervised the final set dressing and who were the other members of the Authenticity Division at RKO?  Several days of research including an afternoon at the Motion Picture Academy library turned up nothing on an ‘RKO Authenticty Division’.

page 16 from Standard Oil Report

What I think most likely happened is that the technical writer who prepared the report, called the studio to find out who to attribute the work to. When he was told the “Art Department”, they most likely assumed the person at the studio was mistaken as the work involved more than artwork, and thus created the title “Authenticity Division” as this more clearly described their contribution. Who exactly those individuals were will probably never be known.

2007 photograph of interior of the existing building – HAER UTAH, 23 DUG, 2A-10

You can learn more about “German Village” at the following site:



Historical American Engineering Record – HABS/HAER

U.S. Army – Dugway Proving Grounds

Tom Vanderbilt: Survival City – Adventures among the Ruins of Atomic America, New York , Princeton Architectural Press (2002)

Standard Oil Company: Design and Construction of Typical German and Japanese Test Structures at Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah (1943)

Mike Davis: Angriff auf »German Village«, in: Der Spiegel 41/1999

Karen Weitze: HAER No. UT-35-A. und HAER No. UT-92. Historical American Engineering Record, German-Japanese Village (1995)

An article outlining the results of bombing on German cities:

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. . .

It was in the 1920’s that the Art Director first gained a prominent position within the industry. Suddenly directors were forced to consider designed sets that were made to either strongly suggest camera position or to lock one in, as with forced perspective or foreground miniatures.

Men who were trained architects and designers who had been sucked into the studio system had to deal with people who were jealous of this new intruder into the filmmaking process, and did all they could to minimize their influence.

Joseph Urban (1872-1933) was a trained Viennese architect and theatrical designer who had not only designed numerous buildings throughout Europe but was well-respected for his theatrical designs for the Ziegfield Follies. Convinced to come to Hollywood by Randolph Hearst to design a Marion Davies picture, Urban soon found he was unwanted by studio carpenters who were used to building whatever they felt like rather than working from drawings. One carpenter distrusted his designs for a Spanish house and brought in his own reference to copy. Urban had to gently point out that the man’s pictures were actually of a French chateau.

Photo of Joseph Urban

Photoplay Magazine in October of 1920 described a meeting Urban had with one director who described a Buddist Temple that he wanted constructed for a dream sequence.

“You build it right there, about three feet high”, the director told him. “I wheel it up or push it back –  she gets big or she gets small, just as I place the platform; you know what I mean?

“Yes”, murmured Urban, “I know. You want a rubber temple.”

Urban would go on to serve as Art Director, Set Designer and Set Decorator on nearly 30 pictures, as well as simultaneously having a successful architecture career on the East coast.

You can read more about him here:




He Had To Draw

The silent film director Karl Brown was just a teenager when he went to work as D.W. Griffith’s assistant in 1914. He would later write a book, “Adventures With D.W. Griffith”, about his experiences as both a participant and a witness to both the birth of feature films in the USA and the beginning of what would become the Hollywood Art Department. Before ‘Intolerance’, the sets for Griffith’s films were created by his Construction Foreman Frank ‘Huck’ Wortman from rough sketches or picture postcards. When he decided to recreate Babylon, Griffith knew he would need an actual designer to envision the huge set. He found Walter L. Hall, a British scenic designer who had come west from New York.

Walter L. Hall drawing for the Babylon set for the D.W. Griffith film 'Intolerance'.


The thing that Brown found so intriguing about Hall was not just is abilities, but his method of work.

“I had seen all kinds of theatrical sets . . . but I had never seen things during the drawing board stage. Hall combined the great gift of an imaginative creative artist with the needlepoint accuracy of a fine architect. There was no tentative fiddling around: a bold stroke here, and half an arch was on the board. Another stroke and the entire arch was there.”

Wortman, too, was amazed at the man’s ability but questioned the technical accuracy of the elevations he saw on the cardboard. His skeptical attitude was probably not helped by the fact that neither man had ever seen Hall use a scale to draw with, much less a straightedge or a T-square.

“‘You want a scale?’ Hall drew a swift straight line at the bottom of the design. He ticked off sections of his line with pencil strokes. ‘There. There’s your scale, in feet.'”

When Wortman doubted the accuracy of the marks, Hall snatched a piece of paper and drew a line and quickly drew two thin small marks across it. “‘That’s an inch. Measure it.'” Hall demanded. Wortman pulled a metal rule from his pocket and set in on the paper.

Brown would write, “It was not only an inch but it was a finer, closer inch than the one shown on the steel scale. For the scale’s markings had definite width, while Hall’s hairline marks split these widths exactly in the middle.”

“‘How did you learn all this?’ I asked him one day. ‘Learn? Learn this? Nobody can learn this. It’s something you have to do.'”

“‘It must give you a great deal of satisfaction to be able to do anything so wonderful so easily.’ I remarked enviously”

“‘Satisfaction? Chained to a drawing board hand and foot, day in and day out. . . It’s a dog’s life, Brown – a dog’s life.'”

“‘Then why do you do it?'”

“‘Because I must, can’t you see that? Because I must!'”

“‘Don’t you like drawing?'”

“‘I hate it.’ He said vehemently. ‘It’s the most demanding, the most merciless work a man can do.'”

The finished Babylon set from 'Intolerance'