High Profit’s-’Oops… I Meant, ‘High-Concept’

Paper by Deja Zoufonoun.

As High-Concept film producer Jerry Bruckheimer said, “Dramatics are what keep you in the seats.”. In the early days of film however, censorship was used in the industry in order to attract audiences to their seats in the first place. The Production Code is a standard of censorship for film content created in 1930 by the Hollywood studios themselves. It was created due to pressures on Hollywood for federal regulation of content, or possible Hollywood boycott, due to a number of scandals that occurred in the 1920’s leading Hollywood’s morals questionable to the public. The code was loosely enforced from 1930 to 1934, and the films created during this time are often referred to as “Pre-Code Films”. A couple of notable Pre-Code Films include Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1932), and Tarzan and His Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934), which included themes of violence and sex respectably. The Production Code Administration (PCA) was formed in 1934 in order to regulate content and enforce the code. For the next 30 years, the code was strictly enforced until it’s downfall in 1968. After the Production Code was abandoned, and the Ratings System was introduced in 1968 by the MPAA, film content drastically shifted. Films released in the late 1960’s through the 90’s saw much more violence, nudity, drug use, and explicit language/ themes in general than films that were released prior. Exploitation films made from the 1960’s through the 1970’s were meant to maximize profits, at a time when film production and attendance had declined more than 50%. Following similar initiatives, High-Concept Films saturated the industry in the 80’s, garnering mass appeal and taking advantage of large-scale marketing techniques. The fall of the production code reflected societies shifting morals and standards, but most notably serves as a historical landmark of how rampant consumerism became common in America after WWII. This is evident through the analysis of film content made between 1934 and the 1950’s, examination of the rise of exploitation film and its objectives, and the eventual prominence of High-Concept films such as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982), in Hollywood today.

Strict enforcement of the Production Code reflected society’s morals and standards at the time, which is evident through the analysis of film content made between 1934 and the 1950’s. There was a great pressure placed on Hollywood studios for censorship in the early 1930’s by Catholic grassroots organizations such as the Legion of Decency. The local censorship of such organizations was, “inconsistent and unpredictable and seriously complicated the distribution process” (Lewis 120) for Hollywood studios. Hollywood filmmakers realized that the benefit of self regulating content would greatly help them in terms of public relations with American filmgoers. This is why Hollywood chose Joseph Breen to head the Production Code Administration (PCA), as he was a Catholic procencorship activist who took his job very seriously. The film ‘G’ Men (William Keighley, 1935), was backed by Warner Bros. as an attempt to counteract criticisms that the studio was putting out films which glorified gangsters, crime, and violence. The main character ‘Brick’ Davis in the film is a Lawyer in New York City, who gets inspired to pursue a career in criminal justice after his friend Eddie Buchanan gets killed by gangsters. The glorification of Crimes Against the Law was strictly prohibited by the PCA’s code, as there was a fear that it would inspire imitation or garner sympathy for criminals. However, films that depicted crime in a negative light, and law enforcement in a positive light were allowed and encouraged, so long as they weren’t too violent. The Production Code as a whole largely reflects Catholic values, as it condemned depiction of crime, evil, and sin. The fact that Hollywood was so worried about the effect Catholic Americans boycotting their films could have, gives huge insight into what the culture in America was like in the 1930’s. As an Article about the influence of Catholicism on film states, “During the middle of the 20th century, the church grappled with changes in taste and public morality and its impact on the film industry changed.” (“Catholicism Influenced Moviemaking” 2019). This shows that society’s morals did indeed change from 1934 to 1950, and the Production Code was abandoned, as many Americans strayed from classic Catholic values.

The fall of the Production Code happened in part due to the outdated ideology it presented, but more so due to Hollywood’s increased pressure to compete in the global market. There was a breakdown of the Hollywood Studio system in the 1950’s which was caused by suburban sprawl, the rise popularity of television, and the global pressure to portray realism in film. This breakdown led to a major decrease in attendance and revenue for Hollywood filmmakers, and eventually led to the demolition of the Production Code. During the 1950’s, Art Cinema became very popular in the U.S.. Art Cinema is a type of filmmaking, influenced by Italian NeoRealism, which differs greatly from Classical Hollywood film. This style aims to depict reality through film, and let filmmakers explore and express their artistic visions freely. The use of realism in film, inevitably shifts the content of films towards the more explicit side (as far as sexual and violent content). Hollywood needed to compete against adult oriented foreign film productions, as the industry was still struggling. There were more than twice the amount of foreign productions released in 1964 compared to U.S. productions. In response, a new system for content regulation was created in 1968: The Ratings System. Films are given a rating out of these four: G- for general audiences, M for mature, R for restricted (people under 16 had to be with an adult), and X (16 or older only). As stated in Cineaste Magazine, “The Supreme Court, which had once ruled that motion pictures were no more worthy of First Amendment protection than meat and poultry products, was welcoming film as a medium whose freedom of expression, no less than that of the print press, should not be abridged by state power.” (Doherty 11). The Ratings system aimed to encourage artistic freedom, which was what was needed in order to save the declining film industry in America. Films made after the Ratings systems creation were very controversial, as they were no longer forced to adhere to a strict code. Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) was considered shocking at the time it was released, due to its nude scenes, portrayal of homosexuality, and drug use. It follows the friendship between Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a sex worker, and Enriso “Ratzo” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a con man. It was the first film to be rated ‘X’, the most restricted rating, because it’s content was seen as especially bold. Nonetheless, the film was a huge box-office success, and even won an Oscar for Best Picture. Greetings (Brian De Palma, 1968), was another controversial film that received an ‘X’ rating for nudity and profanity. This film follows three young men as they attempt to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War. Despite its rating and subject matter, the film was a huge box office success which later inspired a sequel. As Hollywood studios got back on their feet in the 60’s, their audience demographic became increasingly younger. The growing youth market was caused in part by the fact that children were more visually aware of film, since they grew up with television.

The way Hollywood took advantage of the growing youth market epitomizes the rise of rampant consumerism in America, exemplified by examination of the popularization of exploitation film and its objectives. After the war ended, many young Americans began to have extra spending money, as the economy became stimulated again. It was this willingness to spend that made it easy for large corporations and media companies to push their product. Over half of U.S. filmgoers were young people (aged 16-24) by the 1960’s. As an article from The Journal of Film and Video puts it, exploitation film utilized, “[the youth audiences] fractured cultural identity and fragmented demographic composition, its conflicted ideological formation, and its contradictory relationship to the capitalist entertainment apparatus.” (Heffernan 5). Kids who grew up in the 50’s were faced with a lot of new problems that their parents hadn’t dealt with before. This left a large portion of them to feel alienated, faithless, and susceptible to being manipulated. Exploitation films were films that were made to exploit popular trends. They included colorful titles, memorable advertising, and used a saturation releasing distribution method, meaning they were screened at as many theatres as possible at once. Exploitation films were targeted towards the youth audience, many including themes of rebellion, bullying, and elements of the supernatural. Hollywood knew that they could maximize their profits by continuing to produce these films, as they were low budget, and could be written and shot quickly. The content of these films was not very deep or profound, and the filmmakers did not intend for them to be that way. The only goal of exploitation films was to reel in the youth of America. They were made to sell tickets, not inspire people.

The perpetuation of consumerist values in society are evident through the eventual prominence of High-Concept films such as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, in Hollywood today. Exploitation film was hugely successful in raking in profits in the 60’s and 70’s, and inspired a new type of film called the blockbuster. Blockbusters have stories that are more accessible, follow a character with clear goals, and have a clear resolution. Blockbusters saw the return of a simpler narrative format (reminiscent of Classical Hollywood), but used more special effects. The philosophy behind exploitation film was to market the film as extraordinary, show it in many theatres at once, and earn revenue from it before people realized the film wasn’t actually that strong. Blockbusters used this tactic in the 70’s, and High-Concept films would adopt it as well in the 80’s. High Concept films were, not only designed to have mass audience appeal, but were thought of in terms of marketability on a larger scale than Hollywood accounted for in the past.

They had well executed pre-release campaigns and saturation release platforms. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, follows a young boy named Eliott (Henry Thomas) and his alien friend E.T., who Elliott discovers after being stranded on Earth and hides in his home. E.T. begins to get sick shortly after Elliott takes him in however, prompting government intervention, and putting both he and the alien in a dangerous situation. The first indication that this film is indeed a High-Concept film is the fact that the plot can be summed up in only a couple sentences. The second is the way the film was marketed. In the beginning of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Elliott lures E.T. back to his home using the chocolate candy Reese’s Pieces. Although it might seem an arbitrary candy choice, this was actually a carefully premeditated brand deal secured by Speilberg and his team. They agreed to, “spend $1 million over a six-week period promoting ET in exchange for the rights to use the alien in ads for Reese’s Pieces” (“History of Advertising”). Commercials which saw Elliott using the Reese’s to lure in E.T. were played all over television networks, and created a huge buzz for the film. Not only did they partner with Hershey Foods Cooperation (owner of Reese’s), but also Dairy Queen, America Online, Eastman Kodak Kraft Foods, Toyota, and Toys “R” Us. The marketing team behind E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was brilliant, saturating consumer markets which were near and dear to America’s family’s. Everybody wanted to see the film that had completely taken over the media, and just seemed to keep popping up everywhere they went.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is a film centered around its engaging premise, rather than complex character development, making it easier to understand and market to mass audiences. Around the 8 minute mark of the film, Elliot’s suburban home is shown from the outside. We are introduced to Elliot, who is a ten year old boy who just wants to play baseball with his older brother and his friends. He has a single mom, a younger sister named Gertie, and a dog named Harvey. Elliott is the middle child which has left him feeling a bit alienated from his family, but overall it seems like it has shaped him to become more independent. Elliott, all things considered, is a very typical 10 year old boy. High-Concept films generally place more emphasis on plot rather than character study, as it’s easier to tackle issues that arise in the film when characters’ emotions aren’t in the way. Elliott doesn’t seem to be grappling with anything too intense in his life before E.T. comes around, and this helps the viewer to focus on the narrative instead of the character themselves. He’s a happy, witty, affectionate 10 year old boy who doesn’t seem to deal with any emotional turmoil. We see Elliot bicker with his family about him seeing a ‘goblin’ around 17 minutes into the film, his family dynamic being very cliche and predictable. High-Concept films utilize cliches in order to turn out films fast and easily. Without any avante garde takes on society, or dissection of stereotypes, there are no distractions from the issue(s) being presented in the plot. They also don’t run the risk of being controversial, in that sense, and thus have better chances of having mass audience appeal. Elliott, by all accounts, is a likeable, brave, determined young boy with devout optimism. We don’t get to know much about any of the other characters, even Gertie, with as much screen time as she has. Gertie is just a stereotypical little girl, who can be sassy and sweet, and also doesn’t deal with any serious emotional conflicts. Mary, Elliots mom, is distant and disengaged in her children’s lives. There is a mention about her husband heading to Mexico with another woman, but the film doesn’t go into much detail about what led up to that occurring. Overall, the viewer has a very superficial view of the characters day to day lives and emotions. This helps to draw attention towards E.T., and the problems which arise since he’s living on Earth. That is the novel, and highly marketable, aspect of the story.

The Production Code in Hollywood clearly became outdated as society became increasingly open to new ideologies in the rapidly changing culture. Film’s made from 1934 through the 1950’s were harshly censored, and reflected the Catholic values in society at the time. After WWII, there was a greater market of youth audiences, which was taken advantage of by film corporations. People were better off, they had more money, and were practically begging to spend it. Filmmakers saw an opportunity to maximize profits, and so they created exploitation films, blockbusters, and High-Concept films respectively, as a way to do so. These types of films all dominated the mainstream, and brought in billions to Hollywood Studios after the 1960’s. Films such as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982), set the precedent for how marketing is limitless in its forms, and can be ubiquitous. Today, blockbusters and High-Concept films still very much exist and continue to bring in huge profits. The concept of saturation releasing has become a norm, and most Hollywood films are distributed this way. Consumerist culture has only advanced in modern day, thanks to Hollywood. High-Concept and high profit are virtually synonymous at this point.

Works Cited:
Doherty, Thomas. “SEX, VIOLENCE, AND ADULT THEMES: The MPAA and the Birth of the Film Ratings System.” Cinéaste, vol. 42, no. 4, 2017, pp. 10–15. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26356782. Accessed 17 April 2021.
Heffernan, Nick. “No Parents, No Church, No Authorities in Our Films: Exploitation Movies, the Youth Audience, and Roger Corman’s Counterculture Trilogy.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 67, no. 2, 2015, pp. 3–20. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jfilmvideo.67.2.0003. Accessed 17 April 2021.
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. Norton, 2019.
Muth, Chaz. “Catholicism Influenced Moviemaking from the Early Days of Film.” Catholic Philly, 19 Dec. 2019, catholicphilly.com/2019/12/culture/catholicism-influenced-moviemaking-from-the-early-d ays-of-film/.
Staff. “History of Advertising: No 136: ET’s Reese’s Pieces.” Campaign, CampaignUK, 2 July 2015, www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/history-advertising-no-136-ets-reeses-pieces/1350620.

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