Has Traditional Genre Theory Misrepresented Hollywood?
Has Traditional Genre Theory Misrepresented Hollywood?
Steve Neale (2000) is concerned to examine and critique some of the critical ‘givens’ which have arisen amongst commentators and theorists regarding the relationship between Hollywood and genre. Neale has investigated a wider range of films from the perspective of genre theory than has been done previously and has compared these with some of the business models in use at various time in Hollywood. On the basis of these findings he argues for a serious revision of the dominant theoretical position held by critics of both the ‘Old’ Hollywood studio system as well as post-studio ‘New Hollywood’. Neale highlights the central importance of the way the Hollywood production system has been commonly considered as central to the creation and maintenance of generic output as a foundational aspect of its industrial strategy.
Below the key aspects of critical genre analysis to Hollywood are summarised then Neale’s commentary is reported upon in a critical fashion. This section concludes that Neale is correct to argue for deepening the analysis of the role and importance of genre within the marketing strategy of cinema. Neale’s comments upon aspects of horizontal integration within the wider media matrix such as radio are also important. It is argued here that the implications of his positions are not seen as a radical revision of the dominant positions held by critics on the role of genre within cinema. Rather it can be seen that it is impossible to consider cinema as an isolated aspect of the generic system of media production across mass media as a whole.
Traditional Accounts of the Relationship Between Hollywood and Genre
Neale has summarised traditional accounts of genre and its role within the film industry stressing the following features:
- Artistic products unlike mass products such as cars are ‘one of a kind’. Movies had to be different or nobody would return to the cinema
- Mass products usually are accompanied by a range within the product. New lines and fashions are generated to create and develop the market
- Hollywood genres offer a cost-effective equivalent to the lines and ranges marketed by other industries by producing a demand for similarities within the variety of product on offer thus degrees of difference are minimised
- Hollywood’s products are always different and diverse and genres differ from one another but within the range/genre, the films are always similar
- Genres thus perform a number of economic functions thus enabling :
- The industry to fulfil the obligations of variety and difference in the product:
- The product to be manufactured in a very cost-effective way
- The nature of the output and the demand for this output to be closely regulated to minimise financial risk and maximise profit.
‘Old’ Hollywood Studio System
Originally generic film output has been linked to what has become known as the ‘studio system’, and the output of what is seen by many as ‘classical’ cinema. Key features of the studio system were:
- It describes the period of hollywood domination by the 'majors' between mid to late 1920s up to the end of the 1940s with a little overspill into the early 1950s
- There was an oligopoly of 8 major companies. Three produced and distributed films including independent ones. The remaining 5 were ‘vertically integrated’. In other words they produced and distributed films but they also owned first-run cinemas and cinema chains
- The system of ‘block-booking’ meant that independent cinemas and cinema chains were forced to show most of their films or none at all
- This combination of industrial organisation meant that there was a relatively secure and stable marketplace. As a result the industry was able to sustain itself by making long-term employment contracts with stars, directors and technicians. The industry could plan investment on in-house facilities. This allowed for ‘factory-system’ features within the industry
- It is argued, by some, that studios tended to engage in genre specialisation which led to variation but also generic consistency and generic fixity over 30 years.
Neale doesn’t want to entirely reverse these established theories on the role of genre; Neale is concerned to use other research methodologies and research results to argue that these features have been overemphasised and that the model needs revision. Overall he ends up by suggesting that much greater research into different aspects of Hollywood cinema will generate different sorts of knowledge about the relationships between Hollywood as a centre of cultural production and wider socio-cultural features of America itself. Neale divides Hollywood output into the studio and post-studio periods and comments upon the different content strategies and business models prevalent at these times.
‘Old’ Hollywood Output as Hybrid and Cross-generic
Neale takes the output of Hollywood films in 1934 as an example. This came to over 95 feature films altogether. Neale notes that both the variety of films and the terms used to describe them were very varied: ‘Immediately striking also is the relative paucity of canonic genres and “genre films’’’ (Neale, 2000: 234). Neale suggests that, whilst terms such as ‘western’ existed, there are many broader categories such as ‘costume picture’ and ‘drama’ which rarely or never feature in genre theory. Nevertheless, these terms were among the top three categories of box-office hits according to Variety magazine (1950, 5: 18).
Neale’s comments are useful to identify gaps in genre theory. These comments in themselves don’t destabilise the key arguments of dominant critical genre theory. Neale’s evidence points to the importance of genre as a descriptor of various film products. The generic descriptors he has isolated points to the industry need to ensure that a broad audience appeal was maintained. Neale’s evidence supports the argument that even in 1950 audience was treated as a singular mass market rather than as a plural audience. At this time TV hadn’t gained a big hold on mass audience and the need to create a wider choice of content wasn’t necessary for the industry at this point.
Based upon the work of film historians Neale isolates the following points :
- Hollywood’s output was done on an annual seasonal basis
- This meant that cycles of films were emphasised. Cycles were used as units of calculation and on cyclical formulas as templates for films. (Long distance bus films are an example of these)
- Cycles were often linked to topical events such as prison breakouts
- The regular production of genre hybrids was a risk reduction strategy. These would not only appeal to fans of different picture types thus broadening the potential market
- The use of stars as a marketing tool leads Schatz to talk of ‘star-genre formulations’ and star-formula combinations’ rather than talking directly in terms of genre 
- Some stars were associated largely with specific genres such as Boris Karloff and horror. Other stars such as Katherine Hepburn weren’t associated with any particular story type
The fundamental planning and output were budgetary which overlapped with categories of distribution and exhibition. There was class A and class B output. Class A output was subdivided further:
- Superspecials: prestige pictures & big budget musicals. Often road-shown. Often produced by independents such as Selnick and Goldwyn’s Gone with the Wind (1939)
- Specials: bulk of these were class A films. Used pre-sold properties such as popular stars but lower production budgets. These usually opened on a first-run  basis in the metropolitan theatres owned by the big 5
- Programmers: These films had the lowest budgets. Typically based on original stories and minor stars often with short running times even as low as 50 minutes. Described as programmers they could fit the top or bottom of the double bills. They functioned as B films if at the bottom of a bill
- Another form of risk reduction was the creation of a series such as the Charlie Chan films.
The Post-studio Era
The vertical integration which dominated Hollywood had been declared illegal in 1948 and the big 5 production companies were forced to sell off their cinema chains. The industry as a whole underwent major restructuring adopting a different range of business strategies to remain in business. To ensure good levels of profitability, they concentrated even more on risk reduction. These strategies included:
- Making fewer more expensively produced films
- Abandoning B movies, shorts and newsreels. These migrated to become the ‘made for TV movie’
- Introduction of new technologies such as wide-screen and big-screen
- Making blockbusters to be road-shown at premium prices
- International market development
- Audience reconstruction through differentiation ( teenagers for example)
- Diversifying income streams through distribution and / or screening films on television.
These changing structures in the 1950s and 1960s led to the development of what is now described as ’New Hollywood’ which has slightly modified these fundamental approaches. ‘New Hollywood’ creates the seasonal blockbusters which are now ‘blanket released’ rather than having a staggered release. These are the ‘economic cornerstone’ (Neale: 2000) of today’s Hollywood and are produced or co-produced by the majors.
Most of the recent blockbusters have been targeted at the teen and early twenties audiences. Therefore they differ significantly from the content of the output of the 1950s & 1960s. Technologically, special effects ( FX ) and surround sound have been significant. Income generation has been from spin offs - videos, computer games T shirts etc. Distribution through cable satellite etc. has expanded the media environment and given wider marketing opportunities.
Neale is keen to point out that there are no cast-iron formulas for success because film still remains one-of -a-kind and that consumers must be ready to take a risk before consuming a film. Films are previewed by test audiences who are surveyed for their responses. Unfavourable responses mean parts of the film may be re-shot . Alternative endings are quite frequent. This has now led to a subsidiary market of ‘the director’s cut’.
Neale emphasises that the overall strategic approach of the industry is about risk reduction. With numerous differences between the generic output of ‘new’ and ‘old’ Hollywood.
Commentators have remarked that Hollywood has been marked by ‘sequelitis’ and ‘prequels’. By comparison, Neale cites evidence that there were approximately 6 times as many recycled scripts in the 1940s as in the 1970s. Critics and theorists have also suggested that ‘new’ Hollywood has been more concerned with hybridity, pastiche and illusion than the ‘old’ Hollywood often linking this with the ‘multimedia synergies’ of the present. However, Neale points to many older films which make allusions to others, which are ‘… often invisible to contemporary scholars’. He also points out that the ‘old’ Hollywood was itself marked by a plethora of media output much of which was very new such as radio and comics thus providing: ‘an extensive field of multimedia consciousness, institutional crossover, and inter-textual cross-reference...’ 
‘New’ Hollywood has often been considered as the driving force behind the reconstruction of the generic film using hybridity. Neale argues that early blockbusters such as Phantom Engine (1935) about a singing cowboy in space were more genre-hybrid than current blockbusters and suggests genre hybridity has always been present in Hollywood. Furthermore, Neale emphasises that genre as an industrial strategy is just one important element of a more complex and variegated industrial system than has previously been recognised.
Neale’s position partially corroborates the argument that blockbuster marketing strategy is less reliant upon genre and follows a multiple marketing strategy. A note of caution is needed here. Neale’s example of the Phantom Engine is not analysed in detail. Drawing conclusions without greater information about the marketing strategy of that film could lead to a wrong impression.
Much of the traditional genre theory still holds. It can be seen as a risk reduction strategy for an industry which must keep churning out product the industrially influenced analysis still seems convincing. Perhaps the critics of genre have overplayed their hands. The more sophisticated an audience the more likely they are to be dissatisfied with purely generic output. Marketing now has more complex ways to try and ensure commercial success.
1 Neale makes much of this genre hybridity. ‘They also exemplified Hollywood and its products in ways which have barely begun to be explored ( and which genre criticism and ‘post-modern theory’ alike have served to obscure rather than illuminate’ ( Neale : 2000 : 238 ).
2 For more on this see under ‘Genre and Multiple Marketing strategies’.
3 This expression refers to the practice of releasing major films in cities and allowing them to run until the audiences started to fall away. Then the film was booked out to the next city. This helped to create a pre-existing market, reduced distribution costs, and helped maximise the market in any one place.
4 First-run cinemas were the premium film theatres located in the biggest cities and the more affluent areas. They could keep films until the audiences began to decline. Then second run minor cinemas could take the films.
5 Sassoon, Donald. 2002 points out that alternative endings have been used since the mass production of culture. Books were given different endings for the Russian market. Sassoon suggests Hollywood based itself upon this model. The onset of digital cinema will make this much cheaper, easier and give the potential for greater differences within the ‘same’ film.
6  Neale, 2000 : 249 .