Author: Steven Madoff
Steven Madoff was an Executive Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs for Paramount Pictures Corporation from 1997-2006.
The recent announcement by the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice that it is planning to terminate the 70-year-old Paramount Consent Decrees leads to reflection on how culture, business models, the law, and technology intersect and impact one another.
The history of the motion picture business resonates with the evolution (and sometimes revolution) of technology, the industry’s adaptation of its business models to respond to these changes in technology and the impact of these changes and adaptations to cultural transitions and transformations.
Virtually from its birth in the early 20th century, the motion picture industry attracted the scrutiny of governmental regulators. As early as the 1920’s, the U.S. Justice Department started looking into the trade practices and dominant market share of the Hollywood studios.
The Studio System
In the early 1930’s, the Justice Department found that the major studios were vertically-integrated monopolies that produced the motion pictures, employed the talent (directors, writers, actors) under long-term exclusive contracts, distributed the motion pictures and also owned or controlled many of the theaters that exhibited the movies. This was sometimes called the “studio system.”
Particularly troubling were the studios’ practices of block booking and blind bidding. Block booking is the practice of licensing one feature film or group of feature films on the condition that the licensee-exhibitor will also license another feature film or group of feature films released by the same distributor. Block booking prevents customers from bidding for individual feature films on their own merits. Blind bidding or blind selling is the practice whereby a distributor licenses a feature film before the exhibitor is afforded an opportunity to view it. These practices were particularly onerous when applied against independent theater owners not owned or affiliated with the studio-distributor.
It seemed like the time had come for the government to force the studios to divest their ownership of the exhibition side of the business. But the Depression intervened and the studios convinced President Roosevelt that the country needed a strong studio system to supply movie entertainment to the populous as a relief from tough economic times. President Roosevelt therefore delayed any action requiring the studios to divest their theaters under the goals of the National Industrial Recovery Act.
The Paramount Consent Decrees
But, by 1940, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the studios alleging violations of Sherman 1 and 2—restraint of trade and monopolization. The claims were made against what were then called the Big Five Studios, all of which produced, distributed and exhibited films (MGM, Paramount, RKO, Twentieth Century-Fox and Warner Bros.) and what were called the Little Three studios, which produced and distributed films but did not exhibit them (Columbia, United Arts and Universal).
At the time, Paramount was the largest studio and exhibitor and was first-named in the lawsuit, and so in 1940 when the studios reached a settlement with the Department of Justice, the resulting arrangement became known as the Paramount Consent Decrees.
As part of the Consent Decrees, the Studios were not required to divest their ownership in theaters; however, block booking was dramatically cut back (e.g., no tying of short subjects to feature films and no “packages” in excess of five feature films) and blind bidding was prohibited. The parties agreed to a 3-year period for the Consent Decrees during which the Department of Justice would monitor compliance by the Studios.
By 1946, however, the Department of Justice had determined the Studios were not in compliance and brought the case back to the Federal District Court. After the trial, the Court ruled that the Studios could no longer engage in block booking, but did not require them to divest their ownership in theaters, which the Department of Justice had asked for. Both parties appealed the case, which eventually reached the US Supreme Court.
In a 7-1 decision, written by Justice William O. Douglas, the Court found, among other things, that block booking was a per se violation of Sherman 1 and in remanding the case to the District Court recommended that the Studios be ordered to divest their ownership in theaters. But before the District Court rendered a decision on whether the Studios should divest their theaters, one of the Big Five Studio defendants, RKO Pictures (then controlled by Howard Hughes) decided to sell its theaters. After that, another Big Five Studio defendant, Paramount, sold its theaters.