<img src = "https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/hollyTOP-800×533.jpg" alt = "Olivia de Havilland – pictured here as Melanie Hamliton in the Oscar winner from 1939 Blown by the wind– successfully sued Warner Bros. in 1943 to get rid of her studio contract. The groundbreaking lawsuit contributed to the collapse of the Hollywood studio system. "/>
Enlarge /. Olivia de Havilland – pictured here as Melanie Hamliton in the 1939 Oscar-winning film Gone with the Wind – successfully sued Warner Bros. in 1943 to free herself from her studio contract. The groundbreaking lawsuit contributed to the collapse of the Hollywood studio system.
YouTube / MGM
The so-called Golden Age of Hollywood produced some of the most memorable films ever made, from The Jazz Singer (1927) to Gone With the Wind (1939) and Citizen Kane (1941). According to a recent article in PLOS One that analyzed data from a century and came to the conclusion that the rise of the notorious studio system led to strong gender inequality, this wasn't as golden for women in the film industry. Representation of women increased again in the 1950s after two crucial legal disputes effectively broke the studio's stranglehold on the industry.
The main author Luis Amaral from Northwestern University is a trained physicist and specializes in the study of complex systems. This latest work builds on a study he co-authored in 2015, in which correlations between production budget, gross box office earnings and total number of user votes for films are examined in the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). This study concluded that the total number of IMDB votes is a strong indicator of the popularity of a particular film.
Three years ago, co-author Murielle Dunande, then a student who was spending her summer break in Amaral's laboratory, proposed a study on the portrayal of women in the films. Initially, she focused on films in the 1960s, but Amaral found it interesting to go back to the birth of the film industry to better understand the historical origins of gender differences.
Amaral et al. used data from IMDB and focused on US films. The IMDB data proved to be good, if not better, than the data collected in the American Film Institute Archive, which was generally considered the gold standard for such recordings. In total, they analyzed 26,000 films that were produced in all genres (Western, Musicals, Comedy, Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Action / Adventure, Romance, etc.) between 1910 and 2010, measuring exactly how many women in four functions worked: as actors, directors, screenwriters or producers.
Enlarge /. Historical gender imbalance trends in the US film industry.
Amaral et al., PLOS ONE 2020 (CC BY)
The resulting graphics show a sharp U-shaped pattern, with roles for women increasing in the first ten years of the 100-year period and falling sharply after 1920. From 1910 to 1920 women made up 40 percent of the cast, wrote 20 percent of the films and produced and directed 5 percent. By 1930, in just ten years, women in castings had dropped by half and the number of women who produced and directed was almost zero.
The representation of women only increased in 1950 and increased steadily until 2010. "This is amazing," said Amaral. "These things don't happen by chance. They happen because someone chooses to do things that way."
The researchers also considered as many other variables as they could imagine that could have influenced these trends: the representation of women in the workforce, the growth of the industry, GDP growth, the popularity of certain genres, and so on. "None of them had an impact," said Amaral. "The things that affected what we saw changed the concentration in the industry and whether the producers and directors were male or female."
The pattern they found in the data reminded Amaral of what had happened in the software industry, where women were far more common in the early 1980s before the industry consolidated and was dominated by only a few players, especially Microsoft and Apple. In fact, women have a long history as wartime code breakers and computer scientists – including Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton – who probably date back to Ada Lovelace.
"It drives me crazy," said Amaral to Ars, "so many people have a very poor knowledge of history, so they make statements like," Oh, all great computer scientists are men. "No, that they're not. There used to be a lot of women. How can you say that? Are you ignorant or dishonest? But this argument never seems to go away. "
Enlarge /. A Colossus Mark 2 computer operated by Dorothy Du Boisson (left) and Elsie Booker in 1943.
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Amaral had long considered the possibility of examining gender imbalance in an area where arguments about innate ability or natural interest based on long-standing cultural stereotypes would be (or at least should be) irrelevant. The film industry seemed to be a good candidate since women are generally considered to be interested in art, drama, singing, dance and the like. "If there is an interest rate deficit, it is on the men's side," said Amaral. There is no shortage of talent either; It is easy to point out highly qualified and prominent women in the film. So one would expect gender equality to exist, and yet there is none.
According to Amaral, the US film industry experienced a boom after World War I because there was not much competition from Europe anymore. Those with deeper pockets and / or better access to capital started buying other studios, not to mention distributors and cinemas, which led to vertical integration where the big studios controlled every aspect of the business. "You made the films, you distributed the films, you owned the theaters in which the films were shown," said Amaral. "So if you wanted to kick out competitors, it was very easy. They simply refused to distribute or show their films."
After power was concentrated in some studios, the female representation fell sharply, according to Amaral. "As the studio system lasted, fewer and fewer players were producing films, and these fewer players had more control over everything," he said. Women got fewer jobs because male producers hired male directors and male writers.
"There is a connection between increased concentration of power and reduced participation by women."
How exactly the studio system collapsed is a complicated question, but there is general agreement that there were two particularly important events that contributed to its demise. The first was a 1943 actress Olivia de Havilland's lawsuit against Warner Bros., which aimed to be released from her contract. Bette Davis had filed and lost a similar legal action against Warner Bros. in 1937. But de Havilland prevailed, leading to what is still colloquially known in California as the De Havilland Act (Labor Code, section 2855). Although the revenge actress was blacklisted by the studios for a few years, her sister and fellow actress Joan Fontaine once remarked: "Hollywood owes Olivia a lot."
Just six years later, the U.S. federal government brought an antitrust lawsuit known as the Paramount case. She argued that studios should not be able to produce and distribute their films and own the theaters in which they were shown. The studios eventually lost this case when the US Supreme Court ruled against them in May 1948. And when Howard Hughes, who held a majority stake in RKO (one of the smaller studios), signed a decree of approval with the federal government to separate the studios from production, sales and exhibition facets of the RKO business, the counter-arguments of the other studios fell apart.
"When the studio systems were forced to de-integrate to a certain extent, a lot of movie stars became producers and directors, and I think that opened the door to greater diversity," said Amaral. "The legal changes have taken a handful of men out of power and given more people the power to change the industry."
He gives film 9 to 5 from 1980 as an example and argues that it would probably not have been made without Jane Fonda's impact at the time. (Fonda had recently founded her own production company.) In short: "There is a connection between increased concentration of power and reduced participation of women," said Amaral, adding that this applies hundreds of times to the racial diversity in the film industry.
DOI: PLOS One, 2020. 10.1371 / journal.pone.0229662 (About DOIs).