Q&A with Derek Long on the history of film distribution in Hollywood

Q&A with Playing the Percentages author Derek Long

Though much has been written about early Hollywood and the studio system, few studies have focused on the distribution practices that directly preceded that system. Told not as a “golden age” narrative of films, stars, or individual studios but as an economic history of the industry’s film distribution practices, Derek Long’s Playing the Percentages is the story of how Hollywood’s vertically integrated studio system came to be. Studying the history of distribution during the growth of Hollywood, Long makes a case for the domination of the studio system as the result of struggles over distribution practices.

Long uncovers a complex and ever-shifting system of wrangling between distributors and exhibitors through archival research, economic analysis, and surveys of the film industry trade press. Challenging the overemphasis within scholarship on “block booking” as a monolithic distribution mode, and attending to distribution practices beyond simple circulation, Long highlights the crucial changes in film distribution brought about by live theater, the rise of features, and the transition to sound.

In this Q&A, Long discusses the ramifications of early film distribution practices on today’s streaming landscape, how an economic perspective differs from other studies like his, and recommends other works for readers interested in learning more about this period of filmmaking! Playing the Percentages comes out on April 16, and is available for preorder now!

Why, up to this point, do you think distribution has remained largely unexamined in scholarship about the history of film?

Distribution has remained underexamined because it presents both practical and conceptual problems for media historians. Distribution-related material in archives isn’t especially rare, but it is scattered across many different collections. Distribution itself also isn’t an obviously sexy subject for media scholars. It can seem more closely connected to histories of business and capitalism than those of media or culture, so when media scholars look at distribution, we tend to be led away from its specifics and toward everything else we are interested in: production, consumption, aesthetics, culture, fandom, etc.

I think this has happened because of a broader conceptual barrier. Scholars tend to think about distribution first and foremost as a kind of “conduit” or “circuit” for connecting the making of cultural products with their consumption. For someone asking cultural questions about the availability or influence of specific media texts, or the patterning of exhibition, that circulatory model might work just fine. But thinking of distribution as essentially synonymous with media circulation can also lead us to think of it as a static structure, a conduit that is “traveled through” by our “real” subjects of interest. We might then downplay industries’ active role in setting up those structures, or in using them to exert power over consumers, producers, and regulators.

What I’ve tried to do in Playing the Percentages is examine the specific practices that governed not only film circulation, but also its pricing, packaging, and booking. By looking at these, we can better understand distribution as not just a structure for media circulation but also an active site of industrial and cultural negotiation between everyone who had a financial stake in that structure—distributors, producers, theater owners, etc. We can also see these practices at work in a specific medium and historical context, developing out of precursors in other entertainment forms like live theater and shifting dynamically in response to technological changes like sound.

The studio system is long gone, and the media distribution landscape is very different today, especially with the advent of streaming. But are there lessons that the present-day distribution system can learn from these earlier methods you describe?

The studio system may be long gone, but the goals and basic methods of industrial media distribution that it helped establish remain very much the same. The structure that studios built in the 1910s is still with us—heavily modified and rickety as it might be—in the contemporary system of theatrical release windows working across different platforms (including linear TV, physical home video, and streaming). Industrial media distribution systems have traditionally been about controlling the availability—and crucially, the unavailability—of media texts in ways that maximize profit. It’s really unavailability across time that gives individual films and television shows their economic value, at least across a period short enough to be measured on a quarterly earnings report.

Streaming initially seemed to “disrupt” this model, since people wrongly assumed that it would mean the end of media unavailability. The studios attempted to capitalize on that by selling subscriptions to tech platforms—their streaming services—rather than marketing individual films or TV shows. And there’s always been this tension in media distribution between what I call idiosyncratic and programmatic distribution models—do you market your products individually, or as a group? With streaming services, the industry kind of bet on the latter. Now that streamers seem to be turning toward an ad-supported model that looks a lot like traditional linear television, the industry pendulum may be swinging back toward an interest in capitalizing on individual hits. There’s at least an increasing recognition that these traditional models—linear television and theatrical release windows—can still make a lot more money with individual hits like Barbie or Oppenheimer than streaming can.

Today’s industry is in some ways learning the same lesson that Hollywood did in the 1920s, which I cover in the book. Around 1918, there was a shift away from selling films as part of yearlong programs and toward selling them individually. All sorts of problems resulted, and distributors’ profits took a hit. The studios responded by instituting block booking, which for them was a kind of hybrid ideal that allowed them to market and price films individually while selling them wholesale. That system, working in concert with direct ownership of the most profitable theaters, cemented the massive market power of the major studios for the next twenty-five years. So I think that present-day distributors are certainly thinking about how to achieve that kind of ideal balance between how much they emphasize individual works vs. groups of “content” on streaming platforms.

What does an economic perspective provide and reveal about the start of the Golden Age of films that other social histories might lack?

I think it helps to show some of the historical continuities in distribution I’ve already mentioned, but also some of the more granular, small-scale influences on the media industries in the early days of Hollywood that would later become solidified in the studio system. There are canonical “events” in the history of Hollywood—the transition to sound, the Paramount decision of 1948—whose history we understand to be important economically, but actual macroeconomic events like the recession and inflationary period after WWI also did a lot to guide the development of Hollywood’s economic structure. Additionally, I think that the economic story about this general period in American film history, between the rise of features and the transition to sound, has tended to be reduced to a linear and largely anticipatory narrative about vertical integration and Hollywood’s march toward oligopoly. Media made as an industrial product under capitalism has always been shaped by a fascinating interplay between economic constraints, artistic creation, and sociocultural structures. If media scholars attend to economic context, I think that boosts the entire field, and our social and cultural histories can be even richer. That was really my goal with Playing the Percentages.

What recommendations do you have for other media about the movie industry—either in the early twentieth century or later—for readers who want to continue to learn about it beyond Playing the Percentages?

So much great work focused on Hollywood as both a historical and contemporary industry has come out in recent years: Julie Turnock’s The Empire of Effects, Kate Fortmueller’s one-two punch of Hollywood Shutdown and Below the Stars, Ross Melnick’s Hollywood’s Embassies, Luci Marzola’s Engineering Hollywood, Eric Hoyt’s Ink-Stained Hollywood, Chris Yogerst’s The Warner Brothers, and so many more…it’s hard to keep up.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a sequel of sorts to Playing the Percentages, covering a similar history from the 1930s to the rise of television, but emphasizing that distribution continued to be a dynamic site of industrial and cultural negotiation. I’m hoping to incorporate work on the practices surrounding race films and segregated exhibition, “Poverty Row” distribution, and various transmedia relationships between the movies, radio, and television.

Derek Long is an assistant professor of media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign. He is the creator and developer of Early Cinema History Online (ECHO), a filmographic database of credits for over 35,000 early American films.