Thomas Schatz's The Genius of the System

Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System provides a rich look at the institutional dynamics of film production and distribution during Hollywood’s Studio Era, from the 1920s to the 1950s. The book provides detailed case studies of the integrated majors MGM and Warner Bros, the major-minor Universal, and the independent film producer David O. Selznick. First published in 1988, at the dawn of the current era of media conglomeration, the book sheds light on an earlier period of integrated production amidst challenging economic and social circumstances, such as the Great Depression and the Hayes Codes. 

Just as importantly, Schatz explores the ephemeral nature of film style by critically assessing the artistic choices of directors and producers as the consequences of larger institutional forces shaping studio operations. In doing so, he distinguishes his investigation from the auteur studies of the 1970s, explaining, “The closer we look at Hollywood’s relations of power and authority during the studio era, at its division of labor and assembly-line production process, the less sense it makes to assess filmmaking or film style in terms of the individual director – or any individual, for that matter” (5). Schatz pays special attention to the producers who managed a large creative workforce that produced dozens of films each year, showing how the auteur theory largely overlooks their substantial contributions to the studio’s creative output and elides the peculiar blend of art and business that constituted the “genius of the system.”

Producers played an important role at all the studios Schatz examines, but in each case, the institutional mix was distinctive, influencing not only the conditions of production, but also artistic output. For example, this excerpt examines the rise of the horror film style that emerged at Universal under Carl Laemmle Jr. After making celebrated, expensive, but unprofitable A-Class features such as All’s Quiet on the Western Front (1930),  “Junior” Laemmle was forced to scale back production and focus on low-cost formula features. He zeroed in on pre-sold properties and utilized the Laemmle family’s connections to European filmmakers in order to tap fresh pools of talent at reasonable costs. By doing so, Junior was able to keep the studio afloat during the Great Depression, a time of tremendous uncertainty for many studios.  Although such films as Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) are considered aesthetic classics today, Schatz shows that studio talent sought not only to make new artistic contributions to Universal’s house style, but also to alleviate the economic strain the company then confronted.

Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Sudio Era. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

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