The Concession Stand

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas!

“We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled... all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It's his birthday we are celebrating. Don't ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most... and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”

Merry Christmas from

Friday, December 22, 2017

Hollywood History: In Conclusion

Disney’s proposal to purchase Fox would have been unthinkable back in the glory days of Hollywood. However, both company’s fates would be determined by their founders, though they might not have fully anticipated. 

Whereas Louis B. Mayer’s reluctance to adapt his system or to embrace television ended up sinking the company’s future, Walt Disney’s decision to enter television, then diversify his company’s holdings by building DISNEYLAND, set the stage for his company to grow into the entertainment behemoth it is today. Mr. Disney also anticipated the future value of his film catalog; while other studios such as MGM and Paramount sold their back catalogs for relative pittances, Disney held onto his and the company was able to take full advantage of this once videocassettes were made available.

Daryl Zanuck’s decision to finance Cleopatra weakened his company, forcing it to enter television. Television ultimately allowed it to emerge from the brink of bankruptcy, though it was severely weakened. Thus the company ended up in the hands of Rupert Murdoch, who ironically focused the company on its television holdings which had been looked down on by the Zanucks. The company’s fate was sealed when it neglected to expand enough, however.

The future of the entertainment industry seems uncertain due to technological breakthroughs that its founders couldn’t have possibly imagined. The companies that are open to change should find themselves in an enviable position. Those that aren’t willing to change might find themselves ending up like RKO.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Hollywood History: The Studio System Collapses

Yesterday we took a look at how some Hollywood studios dealt with the changing entertainment landscape in the 1950’s and 1960’s. While television played a role in upending things, the collapse of the studio system also had a part in the upheaval seen in Hollywood. 

Paramount Pictures had possibly the most aggressive management of all the majors. Adolph Zukor was always open to grow the company as quickly as possible by getting into practically any and all entertainment related businesses. This actually resulted in the company declaring bankruptcy, though Zukor ironically used the situation to oust the board members who had tried to reign in his spending. Zukor had championed the company’s entry into television much earlier than anyone else, buying a stake in the DuMont Network and starting up its own network in the late 1940’s. When it was forced to divest itself from its chain of movie theaters, the spunoff company eventually became ABC. The company’s pioneering attitude towards television gave it a leg up on the competition, greatly paying off in the 1970’s when the company’s programming ruled the airwaves.

The Warner Brothers were an interesting group. While most studios financed their slates with direct loans or studio profits, the Warner Brothers revolutionized studio financing by bringing in Wall Street. Long before “securitization” was even a thing, the Warner Brothers were using it to finance most of its films. While this granted the brothers a way to fund a larger slate of pictures than they might have been able to otherwise, it brought more scrutiny to their operations. Despite being one of the major studios, it led a nomadic life, occupying various buildings and studio lots around town. (Its current home in Burbank was actually purchased by the company in the 1990’s; its historic studio lot had been sold to Gene Autry years before.) Much of the company’s problems stemmed from the inability of its namesake Brothers to get out of their own way when they needed to and to actually pay attention when it was required. While moguls like Louis B. Mayer carefully paid attention to certain important details, the Warner Brothers sometimes seemed to not fully understand what exactly their company produced. Jack Warner believed his company produced Mickey Mouse cartoons and cared so little about the company’s actual animated output that he sold the company’s famed Looney Tunes cartoons for a pittance when the company coffers were low. The rights would eventually make their way back to the company in the 1990’s. While the company only had a lukewarm embrace of television, it would be the sale of the studio to a conglomerate that specialized in operating parking lots that would prove to be its saving grace.

20th Century Fox was one of the first movie companies that went all-in on television production, establishing one of the first divisions solely devoted to television production in Hollywood. It didn’t do so because it was being visionary, however. It did so to survive. Elizabeth Taylor had flushed a ridiculous amount of the studio’s cash down the toilet during the production of the disastrous Cleopatra. At the time, movie studios directly produced and financed each film they made. This left them holding the bag if things went wrong. And many things went wrong with Cleopatra. The film’s entire initial budget was wasted after one of Taylor’s many illnesses. Ms. Taylor insisted that Chasen’s famous chili be flown to her overseas. Adjusted for inflation, the film remains the most expensive film ever made. After the film’s disastrous reception, Fox had to sell off most of its storied backlot and enter the television business. Ironically, this ended up working in its favor.

Of the major and mini-major studios, only one actually ceased to exist entirely. RKO had been one of the biggies, rivaling MGM and Paramount for Hollywood supremacy. The company sadly didn’t last long enough to blame television or the end of the studio system for its woes. While it had survived the Great Depression, the company couldn’t survive its biggest challenge- being owned by Howard Hughes.

Mr. Hughes’ infamous mental issues sunk RKO almost as soon as he took control of the company. He would later sell his interest in the company to a tire company at a hefty loss. It sadly wouldn’t last much longer.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Hollywood History: Television Arrives

In the late 1940’s, there were changes afoot in Hollywood and in the world at large. These changes- and how they were dealt with by each studio- would seal the fate of each respective organization. The biggest challenge faced by Hollywood was the rise of television. Up until then, if someone wanted to watch something, a drive out to a movie theater was the only way to accomplish that. Television threatened the stranglehold that Hollywood had on entertainment options. While television is now a part of any decent entertainment company, the major studios resisted television in its infancy. One company, however, chose to embrace television- Walt Disney Productions.

Walt Disney Productions had barely begun producing live action features at the time, becoming a larger player in theaters. Without the huge infrastructure costs of the larger studios, Disney was primed to operate under the reduced financial constraints of television without really having to worry about costs. Even more important for Walt Disney, however, was that he could reach television’s vast audience to promote his biggest, riskiest dream- DISNEYLAND. More than just the money he would directly earn from providing television programming, Mr. Disney could gain unprecedented attention for his Magic Kingdom that was sprouting up in Anaheim, California. Walt Disney’s decision to embrace television without selling his back catalog and diversify into the theme park business prepared his company to catapult into the big leagues. With the company no longer reliant on box office receipts or fickle audiences, it was poised to become the media behemoth it is today.

MGM, on the other hand, was slow to sense the changing entertainment landscape. Louis B. Mayer was loathe to get involved in television and not willing to adjust his tried and true formula of filmmaking. With television on the scene, the studios needed to reduce their output and spend more on the films they did make to get audiences off their couches and into theaters. MGM, with its expensive contracts and studio infrastructure was the least prepared to deal with this major change. Louis B. Mayer’s stubbornness and resistance to change further weakened the mighty lion. After Mayer’s death, his beloved studio was snatched up by a corporate raider who sold off just about everything that wasn’t nailed down. The film catalog was sold off, along with the famed studio, which had been reduced to a shell of its former self. The studio did diversify into low end films like Night of the Lepus and glitzy casinos. Eventually, the company would buy United Artists and try to make do with a reduced slate of films. The studio remains alive today, split off from its casino arm and a mere shell of what it used to be. Ironically, it currently boasts a successful television division that has produced the Stargate franchise, Survivor, and The Handmaid’s Tale among other shows.

Universal Pictures had never gained the prominence it probably deserved under the Laemmle Family. Both Carl senior and junior could never quite get the capital to fully realize their vision. Despite having a studio lot whose size rivaled that of MGM, it hadn’t fully developed the vast acreage. In its early years, outsiders derisively referred to the Universal studio Lot  as “The Chicken Ranch” because the Laemmles still operated part of the egg farm that had previously occupied the property. In the silent era, people were permitted to tour the lot provided they bought a dozen eggs that they could pick up on the way out. After television shook up the film industry, Universal was in dire straits and had to sell its studio lot to MCA, led by Lew Wasserman. Lew signed a deal where the beleaguered Universal would lease back the parts of the lot it actively used, while Lew’s MCA rented out the rest for television production. Wasserman quickly realized the ridiculousness of the situation; couldn’t Universal Pictures make television shows in addition to films as a way to stay afloat? Wasserman decided to force out Universal management and make a bid for the company. He then accomplished what neither Laemmle ever could; make Universal Pictures a consistently profitable enterprise. He brought Alfred Hitchcock onboard and fully embraced television. Taking advantage of the tourists attracted to Southern California by DISNEYLAND, he reopened the studio gates to the general public for the first time since the silent era, charging much more than just the cost of a dozen eggs. This mini major leapfrogged over MGM to become an industry powerhouse.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Hollywood History: The Lion Roars

There might have been five major studios during Hollywood’s Golden era, but only one stood on top- MGM. Run with an iron fist by Louis B. Mayer, MGM was the king of Hollywood. Nobody else came close to wielding the same power in Hollywood. If Louis B. Mayer wanted it, chances are he’d get it for MGM. Hollywood’s top talent flocked to MGM and it had the freedom to be choosy and select just the best and brightest.

MGM had turned the art of filmmaking into an assembly line process. Louis B. Mayer assembled the best scripts, actors, directors and artists on one lot and often pieced together something that was very special. Nobody could really touch MGM when it came to the big spectacles. MGM had the biggest and best lot, the biggest and best stars and the biggest and best scripts. When the rights to L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz came up for grabs, Walt Disney was extremely interested. Of course, the books also caught Louis B. Mayer’s eye as well. At that point, it was a foregone conclusion; there was no way that MGM wouldn’t get the rights. (Louis B. Mayer later sold the rights to Walt Disney after Wizard of Oz failed at the box office.) If MGM didn’t get it, quite possibly it was because Louis B. Mayer didn’t want it.

So how did MGM get to the very top? Louis B. Mayer’s amazing ability to arrange some of the most talented people in the world on his lot, mixed with a proven system for cranking out films quickly made the studio possibly the greatest that ever existed in the world. Sadly, these very same attributes mixed with a reluctance to adjust to the changing entertainment environment in the 1950’s led to the studio’s eventual fall from grace.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Hollywood History: The Way It Was

The recent announcement that The Walt Disney Company was planning to buy 20th Century Fox wasn’t a huge surprise to most people these days. After all, The Walt Disney Company is a behemoth when it comes to entertainment. During the golden age of Hollywood, however, such a deal wouldn’t have just been unthinkable; it would have been impossible. This week, Blind Kiyomi will look back at the Hollywood that was, how decisions made in the 1950’s affected the entertainment landscape of today and what the future might hold for the entertainment capital of the world. Today we’ll focus on the stratification of the studios in Hollywood during the golden age and the driving forces behind motion picture production at the time- the Hollywood moguls.

During Hollywood’s Golden Age, there were four types of studios competing for the public’s entertainment dollars- the majors, the mini majors, the independents and “Poverty Row”. The majors were all controlled by powerful leaders whose power and influence touched every corner of their studio empires. The five major studios were:

MGM, controlled by Louis B. Mayer

Paramount Pictures, controlled by Adolph Zukor

20th Century Fox, controlled by Daryl Zanuck

Warner Bros, run by Jack Warner

RKO, run by David O. Selznick in its heyday.

The major studios typically controlled all facets of production, including distribution and even exhibition. The king of the majors was Louis B. Mayer’s MGM, which turned film production into an assembly line process. MGM kept hundreds of actors under contract, staffed full production facilities on its sprawling studio lot and even boasted  a “security” office more powerful than the LAPD. While the other majors were no less powerful, none had the sheer top to bottom capabilities of MGM.

The “mini-majors” were rather large themselves, but had less prestige than the upper tier. These studios were:

United Artists, which was a consortium of the biggest names in early Hollywood

Universal Pictures, which was run by Carl Laemmle

Columbia Pictures, run by Harry Cohn.

The mini-majors produced some of Hollywood’s biggest films, but were not considered to be in Hollywood’s upper tier. United Artists was setup by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin at the height of their careers. The idea was to break free from relying on the Hollywood system which would give them greater creative freedom and a larger portion of the box office grosses. Its revolutionary ideas limited its power in Hollywood, thus placing it in the lower tier. Universal had an enviable studio lot and facilities, but it always seemed to have cash flow problems during this time. Columbia found itself here because it had previously existed on “Poverty Row” and dug itself out to become a major player.

The next tier of studios were the “Indies”. These operations were typically niche studios who weren’t classified as being on Poverty Row due to their popularity and the high quality of their output but did not have elaborate infrastructure. They often relied on the majors to distribute their productions. While there were a lot of these studios, three of the best known were:

Walt Disney Productions, controlled by the Disney Brothers- Walt and Roy.

British Pathé, which was the English language arm of the French film company, which mostly produced newsreels.

The Rank Organisation, which was the American arm of the British entertainment conglomerate, which mostly co-financed larger productions so that it would gain the British Distribution rights. It also distributed British productions in America.

Then there were the many “Poverty Row” studios. These studios produced low quality films and rarely ran their own studio lots. These production companies often leased unused sound stages and equipment from the majors and ran with very little overhead. Their films often ran as “B” or even “C” features and struggled to stand out. They were often located on Gower Street in Los Angeles and among the many such studios were PRC Pictures, Republic and Monogram. While the heads of these studios often mocked the majors for having bloated budgets, most of them would have had no problems moving on up and out of Poverty Row. However, only Columbia Pictures would make that leap.

Looking at the way things were might bring up a lot of questions. Why did MGM fall out of favor? How could Disney, a mere indie, get to the top of the heap? What happened to RKO? Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Star is Born! Teri Garr in DISNEYLAND

Due to its proximity to Hollywood, DISNEYLAND has often been one of the first places aspiring actors visit for a job after they arrive in Southern California. Many future legends got their start around the park, taking a job to pay the bills while they followed their Hollywood dreams.

Years before becoming an Oscar nominated actress who charmed her way onto David Letterman's show, Teri Garr was entertaining tourists from around the world in DISNEYLAND's Show Me America. This lavish production premiered in 1970 on the Tomorrowland stage, which would later become part of the Space Mountain complex. Eventually the stage would be removed and become the Magic Eye Theater, home to Captain EO.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Hooray For Hollywood! Hitchcock on the Backlot

The famous Universal Studios Backlot has not only hosted many famous and legendary productions, it has also hosted many legendary directors and producers. Numerous bungalows located on the property have been used by Hollywood legends as production offices. One of the most famous legends who called the backlot home was Alfred Hitchcock. His bungalow on the lot was number 5195.

Sir Alfred Hitchcock initially only resided on the lot as a tenant. His Hollywood contract was held by Paramount, who had balked at producing Psycho. Universal took advantage of his dissatisfaction with Paramount to snag Sir Alfred for themselves, eventually buying the rights to his past films. His films and shooting locations on the lot became huge attractions on the Universal Studios Tour. 

Tour guests often asked about Alfred Hitchcock. A facilities manager at Universal played a prank on tour guests (and Sir Alfred) by placing a cardboard cutout of Hitchcock’s famous silhouette in the window, making it appear as though he was busily working in the office. Thousands of guests doubtlessly snapped pictures of their “celebrity sighting.” Sir Alfred rather enjoyed the ruse and the attention he received from it.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Modern Times: The Digital Age

Seemingly every week, a box office record of some sort is broken. Blockbuster films now make previously impossible sums of money. Are there more theaters out there? Is it inflation? The biggest root cause is the digital revolution.

In the golden age of Hollywood, there was a limit to how many screens could show a particular film. Since individual prints had to be commissioned and shipped around the country, the number of screens a given film could play on was limited. The studios would often reserve the latest films for the biggest theaters in the biggest cities. People living in smaller cities would often have to wait months to see the biggest films. When digital projection became available, the studios saw an opportunity to reduce their costs.

As recently as ten years ago, however, most theaters retained old projection equipment. Investing in newer projection equipment was seen as being too expensive with no benefit for the theater itself. Why should they spend millions to save money for the studios? The first theaters to make the change, however, saw huge benefits. Previously, theaters would have to turn away customers when they were sold out. With new digital projectors, they could switch out films easily, replacing slow selling movies with extra capacity for the bigger hits.

“Sleeper” hits that surprised everyone would gain because theaters could shift screens to their advantage. These digital systems have contributed to the rise of mega blockbusters because theaters can instantly allocate more screens and resources to the bigger films, meaning that nobody gets turned away. With this shift, theaters without digital projection were at a huge disadvantage. Studio incentives and market forces made upgrading to digital equipment a no-brainer.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Forbidden Planet! The Girl in Gold Boots

While some B-Film producers like George Weiss had no delusions about how their films would be received by audiences, other “auteurs” often imagined that Hollywood would bow before them and audiences would be amazed and delighted by their small films. Certainly, some lesser budgeted films would occasionally outperform expectations, but most of these lower tier films would often get forgotten for decades until Mystery Science Theater 3000 or ironic hipsters would rediscover and embrace these types of films. One such film that obviously held higher hopes for blockbuster status was 1968’s Girl in Gold Boots.

Everything and everyone involved in this film appeared to be covered in a thin layer of grime. Set in a Charles Manson era Hollywood, the film seeks to warn us about Hollywood’s seedy underbelly by showing it to us. The film pretends that its goal isn’t to titillate us with countless scenes of writhing go go dancers, but rather to educate us about its pitfalls. To do this, the film depicts scantily clad women performing in a joint that appears to be the last barely legitimate job available to aspiring actresses before they were forced to resort to stripping or pornography. 

This B-Film used a well-worn filmmaking strategy that had been pioneered by films such as Reefer Madness and I Accuse My Parents; claim your film was just trying to show how terrible drugs, debauchery and recklessness were and you can show some of it in your film. Audiences that were too embarrassed to go to a stag film or titty bar would have no problems going to see one of these films. After all, how would we know how bad these things were unless someone showed them to us? Keep in mind, there were still certain restrictions on what could be shown or how much skin could be bared, but at least audiences could get a glimpse. Such films filled the role of a Hooters today- too embarrassed to be seen at the gentleman’s club? Head over to Hooters!

In this instance, however, the producers of Girl in Gold Boots had loftier goals than just producing a movie that would satisfy low grade pervs who didn’t want to be caught going to a strip club or porno Theater. They wanted to build a movie franchise. Despite the film’s bad songs, poor acting and overall sheen of sleaziness, a tie in album was produced that obviously anticipated the huge demand that never arrived. Despite spending as many dimes as they could scrape together for promotional purposes, the film and its soundtrack never became a thing.

“So here's a puzzler: who of these two is worse at their art form?”
- Mike Nelson