Making Hollywood Myths

January 18, 2010

he New York Times Business section had an article today about the financial difficulty MGM is having (“In Hollywood, Grappling With Studios’ Lost Clout“). While MGM seems to be the worst off, the article suggests that the situation is representative of the problems and lowered values that all film studios are having.

Reading this reminded me of one of my pet peeves, one which I have been trying to avoid encountering the past year and a half: The taken as gospel historical interpretation that film attendance rose and movies solaced us during the Depression. This hoary, supposed truism is marched out whenever financially rough times arise or are spoken about, the current recession included.

This statement has bugged me for years, possibly because I don’t like to follow accepted wisdom without vetting it first, but also because it seemed like the kind of thing that merely sounds true. Something that gets postulated once, seems to make sense, and then is repeated without further research. True, some of the financial problems MGM and others now face are related to more complicated issues of debt load, corporate structuring, and lowered credit availability, but they still aren’t actually making that much money from movies. As the article points out, MGM only released one film in 2009 and the film-making arms of other better-off studios / entertainment companies are not considered the major part of the corporate value.

So if we’re in the midst of a recession, and are being constantly told that therefore we should be attending the movies to drown our sorrows, why are the studios not more well off? Well, if you review the numbers from the first years of the Great Depression, you find a similar story when, in fact, four of the five major studios filed for bankruptcy or went into receivership. Tino Balio in The American Film Industry (pages 255-256) points out the following statistics:

Average Weekly Attendance (in Millions):
1929: 80
1932: 60
1933: 60

Studio Profits (in $Millions)

 Studio 1929  1930  1931  1932 
 Paramount 186-21

Of course the studios did recover and had become highly profitable again by the 1940s. Perhaps this end result is where the belief in the studios’ success through the Depression comes from, but the re-emergence is only half the story.

To me, this underscores the importance of archives and of promoting the actual work that archivists and preservationists do. Somewhat like a “What have you done for me lately?” attitude, there is a “Whatever has happened most lately is how things have always been” attitude towards history. Without the archival research done by Tino Balio (and the existence of that research material) we would have no argument against believing that the final state of the film industry during the Depression was its actual state during the entire period. Likewise, without documentation and stories about the work it takes to preserve, restore or even just maintain a piece of media, the fact of those necessary efforts are subsumed by the existence of a completed instantiation. “It’s on DVD so it’s all good”, besides being plain wrong, is all denouement and no rising action, none of the interesting or important part of the tale.

Hollywood is not the original dream factory. The ability to create myths or gloss over history existed first in our minds. The means of distribution are just more powerful nowadays. The wonderful thing about being an archivist is the dedication to preserving both the beauty of the myth and beauty of the underlying truth for discovery by all.

— Joshua Ranger