Ever wonder why blockbuster movies feel so interchangeable? It’s not just a lack of creativity on the part of filmmakers—it’s part of the legacy of a now-illegal practice that once allowed film studios to completely control what audiences saw.
During Hollywood’s Golden Age, going to the movies was an experience—and audiences had plenty of films to choose from. But movie theaters didn’t, due to block booking. The practice ruled Hollywood for decades. And when it died, so did Hollywood’s most creative era.
From the 1920s through 1948, block booking was a common practice among major movie studios like Paramount Pictures, RKO, Warner Brothers, MGM and 20th Century Fox. These companies invested big money in their stars, but the real source of their wealth was licensing. They rented public performance rights—permission to screen and profit from their intellectual property—to movie theaters in exchange for a percentage of ticket sales. But it wasn’t as simple as choosing a great film and screening it. Rather, big studios forced theaters that wanted to show their movies to book movies en masse.
The concept is deceptively simple: Studios rented the exhibition rights to their films in a block. If a theater wanted to show an upcoming blockbuster, they had to pay for less promising “B movies” and short films, too—and these big movies were always part of a package deal, and usually one that covered an entire year’s worth of films. Sometimes, the slate of movies also came with a promise to show the studio’s films on a certain schedule.
To make matters worse, theaters often had no idea which movies they were getting. Some hadn’t even been made. They were rented sight unseen, and theater owners had to make buying decisions based on a simple plot summary and list of stars. This practice was called blind bidding and, along with block booking, it gave studios a bigger revenue stream and an unflinching grip on large movie theaters.
“The business of Hollywood has always been distribution,” says film historian Jonathan Kuntz, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “That’s where they make their money.”
That money was increased by studio-owned theaters, which were the only theaters exempt from the practice. For other theater owners, it was all or nothing—and those that couldn’t afford 20 or more movies at one time had to opt for nothing.
The policy “ties the exhibitor hand and foot,” complained one theater owner in Outlook magazine in 1923. “He is compelled to show three or four pictures which he cannot truthfully recommend for the sake of one good feature which he will present with no sense of apology.”
There was another, less attractive option: rent B-rate motion pictures from the independent studios known as Poverty Row. These cut-rate studios relied on brokers who rented exhibition rights to their movies in smaller, cheaper blocks for a flat fee. They made less popular movies with less popular stars, and some made movies for black, Yiddish-speaking and other specific “ethnic” audiences.
As time went on, large studios became even bolder, forcing some theaters to buy their entire line of upcoming movies. It was a shrewd practice, financing the gigantic Hollywood machine and allowing studios to make movies in rapid succession. And because they knew even their worst pictures would get some revenue, they could take creative risks.
“Movies were the dominant form of mass entertainment,” says Kuntz. “They were all sold together. Since theaters changed their programs at least every week and since people saw just about everything, even the worst film and the least popular films were guaranteed a certain minimum amount of money and exposure.”
But outside the studios, an outcry against block booking began to build. Moral purity activists argued it forced questionable material to be played in inappropriate venues. And theater owners argued that the practice was in violation of antitrust laws.
Eventually, the Supreme Court agreed. In 1948, in a case known as U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, it ruled that block booking was a price-fixing conspiracy and prohibited production companies from owning their own theaters. The outlaw on the practice spelled victory for theaters, but it was the death knell of the studio system. Stripped of this guaranteed income stream big studios fired talent and made fewer movies.
Perhaps the writing was already on the wall. “1947 was the year that broadcast television came into being,” says Kuntz. “Theatrical films began to lose audiences.” Studio actors fled to TV instead—and so did viewers. Today, the last vestige of block booking is a watered-down version used to sell television rights to foreign markets.
Blockbusters now have to pay for themselves—and focus groups and complex analytics tell studios which movies are likely to succeed. Increasingly, the tastes of the international film market dictate which movies get made, which explains studios’ investment in some movies that flop in the U.S. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any creative films on the market. The death of block booking meant that independent and foreign films had a fairer shake—which means there’s good reason to look outside of big-budget films for your next movie fix.